In 1970, an imposing photo of Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated next to the headline “The Most Feared Man in the Game.”
Rarely has any player been so good, so tough, so mean, so short-tempered and so violent that he draws comparisons to Butkus, who once told a television reporter, “I sometimes have a dream where I hit a man so hard his head pops off and rolls downfield.”
But rare is a player like Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who just might be the most feared man in college football.
“Between the whistles,” USC Coach Lane Kiffin said, “he’s as dominant as there is in the country.”
Monte Kiffin, USC’s defensive coordinator, described Burfict this way: “He’s unbelievable. He’s big, fast, strong. He’s got great talent. He’s going to be playing on Sundays, there isn’t any doubt about that.”
USC will have to deal with Burfict on Saturday night, when the 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior hopes to celebrate his 21st birthday by terrorizing the Trojans and quarterback Matt Barkley in a Pacific 12 Conference South Division game at Tempe, Ariz.
Barkley isn’t much of a Burfict fan.
“He’s a dirty player,” the quarterback said, basing his opinion on what he suggests were efforts by the linebacker to injure him by diving at his knees during a high school game.
“His switch is always on. And it’s not a good switch.”
Even his supporters — coaches, teammates and family members — acknowledge that he navigates a fine line between rage and restraint.
“He has to put everything together physically, mentally and emotionally, and if he can do that, he can be one of the better players I’ve ever coached,” Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson said. “He hasn’t done that over a long period of time.”
What Burfict has to say about that isn’t known. Known for doing plenty of trash-talking to opponents during games, he is avoiding the media. Through Arizona State’s sports information office, he denied an interview request for this story.
It is not farfetched to suggest that Burfict is lucky to be alive today — a couple of times over.
At 4 months, Burfict had after a near-fatal bout with rotavirus, a disease common among infants that causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, and was hospitalized for a month and a half.
At 3, he was playing with a lighter and burned down the family’s one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in West Covina, a fire from which he barely escaped.
At 13, while riding in his mother’s car on the 210 Freeway in San Dimas, an 18-wheel truck sideswiped them, pushing the car over a cliff, where it tumbled two stories.
“Nobody should’ve come out of that car alive,” said Lisa Williams, his mother.
His family says he outran weapon-wielding gangs in Corona more than once, yet his journey began not there, but in a duplex in a section of Inglewood where gunshots and sirens rang out almost nightly.
Williams, who raised Burfict as a single mother after his father was incarcerated in Texas on drug-related charges, moved the family away when he was 2, eventually to a condominium across the street from Corona Centennial High.
Burfict attended his first football game at age 5, watching his uncle Darryl Jones, Lisa’s brother, play nose guard for Arcadia High. But Burfict wouldn’t play an organized game until high school.
Still, it was clear well before that how far he’d go to win.
Big and rough
During youth pickup games of basketball and football, Burfict often played too rough.
So his uncle Darryl and brother, DaShan Miller, who played wide receiver at Akron, often pulled him aside.
“Vontaze, calm down,” Jones said they’d tell him. “We’re playing with friends. You don’t have to knock them out of the game.”
Burfict argued that he wanted to win, and because he was always big for his age, bulldozing players was easy.
Then again, he had always been big — even from birth, when he weighed 10 pounds.
“I remember feeding him his bottle for the first time and he grabbed that bottle like he was 5 months old,” Williams said. “His fingers wrapped all the way around it.”
Burfict’s competitive side emerged in those pick-up games and while playing video games with Miller, whom he shadowed.
When Miller played at Centennial, Burfict became the water/towel/ball boy. And when it was finally his time to play for the Huskies, he guided the freshman team to a 9-1 record as the quarterback.
“He could’ve been a Division I quarterback at any college,” said UCLA receiver Ricky Marvray, who played with Burfict at Centennial.
As a sophomore, Burfict was moved to linebacker. His mother was scared he’d get hurt. He said not to worry.
“I love this stuff,” he told her.
Especially the hitting part.
Player to watch
Tony Dye plays safety for UCLA, but at Corona Santiago High he was a running back who had the misfortune of twice facing Centennial.
Linebacker Burfict left a lasting impression.
“He hit me harder than I’ve ever been hit in my life,” Dye said.
Centennial’s coach, Matt Logan, calls Burfict “a heat-seeking missile.”
Dan Herring, the Huskies’ defensive coordinator, says the Centennial staff first realized it had something special on a fourth-and-short play in the season opener against Compton Dominguez when Burfict was a junior, his first full season as a starter.
Burfict tore into the backfield, picked up the tailback and threw him out of bounds. Jaws dropped all around.
The problem was, Burfict was just as rough with his teammates in practice, leveling anyone not on his side of the ball.
“He’d take your head off,” Herring said.
Marvray describes Burfict as “cold, ruthless” and says teammates had to remain focused around him. If you weren’t? “Then you’ll be on the ground, looking up,” Marvray said.
Off the field, Logan says, Burfict was fun loving, but his intensity in games could be a problem.
He’d often get caught up in jawing with opponents and other teams started baiting his short fuse. It’s a strategy Burfict still faces at Arizona State, where he signed as the highest-ranked prospect in the school’s history after helping Centennial to its first state title as a senior in 2008.
Family members text and call on game days with reminders to maintain his composure, but some fear if he holds back too much, it could ruin what makes him great.
“You’ve got to manage him,” Herring said, “but you don’t want to control him.”
Is he worth the trouble?
“They don’t make too many 245-pound guys that can run like him,” Lane Kiffin said, adding, tongue firmly planted in cheek, “that’s why he should definitely leave this year and go to the NFL.”
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel is similarly complimentary, comparing Burfict to perennial All-Pro Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens.
Labor of love
Herring says another characteristic that sets Burfict apart is his football IQ.
“Some people show up and they understand math or are great writers,” Herring said. “He understands football.”
Miller says it’s because Burfict spent so much time playing video games from the vantage point of a middle linebacker, a feature added to games in recent years.
“He’s always been playing the video game as if it’s real life,” Miller said.
As for Burfict’s obvious passion for the game, his mother explains it this way:
“When you do something you really love, it’s like your home. You structure it just the way you want, and you don’t want anybody to come in there and destroy what you built and what you put your hard work and love into.”
The field, she says, is her son’s home.
Unwelcome guests beware.