Vontaze Burfict didn't have that motivator. During his final season at Arizona State, the inside linebacker reportedly fought with teammates, refused a coach's demand to enter a late season game and accumulated at least 17 personal fouls. He expected everything but departed college earning nothing. According to predraft reports, he failed a drug test, ran a five-second 40 and arrived at the NFL Combine overweight. Mike Mayock, a respected analyst, called Burfict "undraftable." He was right.
Yet the Cincinnati Bengals, a team people often caricatured with outdated preconceptions, were once again the cause of confusion from analysts that couldn't understand what the Bengals were doing. Lewis didn't see the down side.
Originally signed as a long shot undrafted free agent, probable practice squad candidate, Vontaze Burfict's training camp and preseason was an impression of constant progression. Making the team over Roddrick Muckelroy, who put together an equally impressive preseason following an Achilles tendon rupture in 2011, was only the beginning. Though he didn't participate on defense against the Baltimore Ravens, Burfict started his first NFL game during the second week of the regular season. Thus far he's played every game, starting two -- Vinnie Rey started week three when the Redskins came out in a three-wide formation.
During his most recent start against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Burfict put together his best game with a team-leading eight tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, hit on the quarterback and a pass defensed. After the game Burfict told Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer that "Everything is special for me. Just being on this team is special for me. I'm cherishing every moment I’ve got."
During the postgame press conference Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was asked about picking up the linebacker and his continued progression.
“When I watched him on tape, he had traits of a very good linebacker. I said, ‘Okay, let’s give it a shot.’ We weren’t going to pick him unless he fell through and if we could sign him, we would. I’ve got to credit Vontaze for chiseling off the weight that he showed up in Indianapolis with or even in his senior season. And from the day I was there on campus at Arizona State, I guess, even though I didn’t think it did, he took some of what I said to heart. And even though I left there upset with him and others were upset with him, he took us to heart and Adam Marchaletta, a great pro…a guy who made the most of his ability, guys like that had been trying to talk to Vontaze and said, ‘This is how you’ve got to do it, man.’ It just didn’t sink in at the time, but credit him for making the change. He’s a very, very good player.”
It's clear that Lewis and Burfict are developing a bond. Dare we say the more cliched father-son connection? Burfict, before the start of the regular season, connected that hypothetical.
"He (Lewis) wants the best out of me and that's what I need at this level," Burfict says. "He's the father, I'm the son. He sees the potential I have. He's not setting any limits. Sometimes it gets under my skin, but that's what I need in order to be better than Ray Lewis, or up to his level. I just need to be pushed."
"Ever since then we've seen eye-to-eye and communicated," Burfict says. "He's the only guy that gave me a shot. I respect him for that. We exchanged numbers and I gave him a call and we just talked about football, our scheme at Arizona State. I don't know why, but something in my head told him to call him. Maybe it was the Lord or something. He wants what's best for me, to be the best I can be. He's like my father."
Now Burfict has his motivator.