It wasn't an easy journey for linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but he couldn't have done a better job beating the odds.
The Question: Which player has performed against all odds this season?
Interesting. We could hit on the superstars like Geno Atkins or A.J. Green; not that you need another reminder how talented and productive they are. Maybe even a Jermaine Gresham reference, for re-adjusting his career numbers. But it wouldn't address the question posed by Gillette accurately.
But I know who. So do you.
For the first six months of 2012, even during his final college season in 2011, this prospect became a punch line to a very bad joke. Personal fouls, work ethic flags, questionable character, alleged drug test failure, horrible 40-times, weight issues, it was the resume of someone that didn't give a damn. During the predraft process, NFL analysts and draft experts called him "non-draftable", despite the obvious talent that once associated him as a first-round projection.
The NFL was a long-shot. No one wanted him. If they waved their hand in his general direction, it was to address the person behind him.
Yet somehow Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis saw something in him. He does that sometimes. It might work, it might not, but he's not opposed to following an instinct. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict reflected on Lewis' visit during Arizona State's Pro Day.
"Ever since (the Arizona State Pro Day) 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."
That bond continues to strengthen beyond that of a head coach and his star pupil.
"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."
Lewis praised Burfict's character and complete focus to become a better player, extracting the red flags associated with his name prior to Cincinnati signing him as an undrafted free agent in late April 2012.
"When I watched him on tape, he had traits of a very good linebacker. I said, ‘Okay, let’s give it a shot'", said Lewis. "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," Lewis continued. "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 Archuleta, 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."
When Burfict signed with the Bengals, there wasn't much thought of him making the roster, much less becoming a monstrous full-time contributor. He bounced Roddrick Muckelroy out, starting his first game in Week Three, replacing the injured Thomas Howard.
Not only did he perform well, he became only the fifth rookie in franchise history to claim the tackles crown with 174 stops, joining names like Reggie Williams, James Francis, Takeo Spikes and Odell Thurman; Burfict is the only player among them that joined Cincinnati undrafted. Burfict also has the distinction of starting the most games in franchise history as an undrafted free agent during his rookie season.
It's a great first chapter to a promising story. Burfict's journey from a player that wasn't wanted to becoming one of the best defensive rookies of the year is truly remarkable. Or dare we say, one that beat the odds.