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Hit Parade: Vontaze Burfict Is Football’s Inescapable Past and Future

The game can change only so much. The same goes for the controversial Cincinnati Bengals linebacker.

Vontaze Burfict on the sideline Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Consider Vontaze Burfict. I do, often.

Vontaze Burfict is an outside linebacker on the precipice of his sixth season in the NFL. In his professional career, he has 502 tackles and seven sacks. In 2013, he was the first Cincinnati Bengals linebacker to make the Pro Bowl in 37 years. He has also been fined more than $1 million over his career for illegal hits and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, may have cost the Bengals their best chance at a postseason victory in decades (after nearly winning it for them), and will start the season on the bench to serve a suspension for a vicious hit.

But that is Vontaze Burfict’s job, and his identity as a player. As teammate Adam Jones said last year, he’s a “hired hitman.” “There’s only a couple linebackers that play with that type of aggression,” Jones told ESPN. “Those are the great ones. Go back and look at it. I’m not saying Ray Lewis was a dirty player or anything, but him and Vontaze have the same characteristics. Exactly the same.” In short, Vontaze Burfict is often penalized for doing exactly what he is paid roughly $4.75 million a year to do. And he is very, very good at it.

Vontaze Burfict is, in his own way, symbolic of the continuous, never-ending debate over football. Not its health impacts or its financial impact on players (or cities). Nor is he a symbol of its role in our cultural lexicon, but rather the conversation about the game itself, and whether or not its violence—and it is violence; wonderful, awful violence—is laudable or unforgivable. He was suspended three games (reduced from five) to begin the new season for an illegal hit against a defenseless player on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman during a preseason game. He, more than any other professional player alive, is the story of the NFL in 2017: undeliberate, uncalibrated, uncontrollable chaos in a sport that is more controlled and more restrained than ever before. Thirty years ago, Vontaze Burfict would be remembered as a football powerhouse, Dick Butkus—a player Burfict deeply admires—but faster. Thirty years from now, Vontaze Burfict might never be permitted to get on a football field. For now, Vontaze Burfict—perhaps my favorite NFL player—is here. He is extremely talented, and extremely unpredictable. He poses innumerable questions about his sport, one that has taken him from a difficult childhood to a professional career in the most popular league in America, a sport that seems less permanent and more ephemeral than it has in decades. And for now, we don’t have answers to any of them, nor for the man at the center who just wants to play the game the way he always has—the way that got him to the NFL.

Tom Brady had to mold himself into a franchise-leading, Super Bowl–winning quarterback. But Vontaze Burfict was almost born to hit people. At a touch over 6 feet and more than 250 pounds, Burfict is perfectly built for playing outside linebacker. His edge-rushing speed is difficult to match. He can play sideline to sideline, matching up against tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs alike, and he can keep a ballcarrier in the backfield by sheer force of will. But that physical perfection comes with a reckless, unceasing violence.

As a child, Burfict survived three life-threatening incidents, including a house fire and a near-fatal case of rotavirus; as a teenager, he evaded the gangs that patrolled near his high school. His aggression didn't just win him a state championship and get him to college. His aggression may have saved his life.

In 2009, he was the most heavily recruited player to ever choose Arizona State, decommitting from USC to do so, virtually unheard of in the Pete Carroll era. As a high school senior, he had more than 150 tackles in a single season. He once launched himself at quarterback Matt Barkley’s knees during a game between Burfict’s Corona Centennial and rival Mater Dei, a decision Barkley never forgot (or forgave). As a freshman at Arizona State, he was already being compared to Ray Lewis, for both his skill and his tendency to commit penalties. And like many young players learning the game in tough environments, his aggression wasn't stymied—it was supported, even while his coaches told the media he needed to limit penalties. “I love his intensity,” his coach, Dennis Erickson, told The Arizona Republic in 2009. “I don’t want to slow his intensity down because it’s contagious for the rest of the players, for the fans and for everybody involved in the program. But he’s got to be smart.” That year in a game against Georgia, he committed an offside penalty by shoving a referee. (The penalty was rescinded immediately.) On the next play, he stuffed a fourth-and-1.

College football writer Matt Hinton told me that he compared Burfict at Arizona State not to Ray Lewis, but to Charles Jefferson, Forest Whitaker's character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who single-handedly destroys the opposing football team that totaled his car. “Except Burfict,” Hinton said, “just played that way all the time without being provoked. Like a person who was basically designed for this specific kind of violence and had such enthusiasm for it that it sometimes overwhelmed him.”

In 2010, he was named to a few different preseason All-America lists and was Arizona State's leading tackler—and still got benched that season for committing too many personal foul penalties. In a game against USC his junior year, he pointed at his old foe Barkley before the snap and later picked him off. That same year, Sporting News named him “The Meanest Man in College Football,” with one NFL scout quoted as saying that Burfict is what would happen if you “kick Ray Lewis's dog.” In 37 games at Arizona State, he had 22 personal foul penalties.

But that violence, the violence that created the legend of Vontaze Burfict, was also detrimental to Burfict's career. His NFL combine profile noted, “He is capable of being the physical inside presence for an NFL defense, but not many coaches are going to have the patience to deal with personal foul penalties like the coaches did at ASU.” And virtually no coaches did. In fact, only Marvin Lewis (who has never turned down a good reclamation project) was willing to take a chance on him as an undrafted free agent.

The complications of Vontaze Burfict are many. At a time when more attention than ever is being focused on the ramifications of football-induced head injuries, Burfict has been fined multiple times for illegal hits, the kind that make you wonder whether or not this game is such a good idea in the first place. There is a petition on asking Roger Goodell to ban him from the NFL because he “has proven time and time again that he can not be controlled by coaches or referees.” (The petition has fewer than 2,000 signatures.) His reckless abandon is both why he is an NFL powerhouse, and why he gets fined; why he was a five-star recruit, and why he went undrafted.

It is easy to love a quarterback. Quarterbacks are meant to play with precision, not malice. Quarterbacking can be beautiful, throws on third-and-11 that form perfect parabolas and seemingly drop from the sky into the arms of receivers on the opposite end of the field. Wide receivers can be adored for their agility and grace. But linebackers are derided, it seems, for doing their jobs: hitting people with the express intention of preventing those people from moving forward. And Vontaze Burfict, who is faster and stronger and hits people harder than most, is the best of his kind—and also the worst.

I remember watching Vontaze Burfict play alongside Brock Osweiler at Arizona State in 2010, perhaps the most fascinating 6-6 team I’ve ever seen. In a game against Stanford in early November, he grabbed receiver Doug Baldwin’s face mask and then complained about the face mask penalty. That gave Stanford first-and-goal from the 7-yard line. The Cardinal scored the winning touchdown two plays later. That was Burfict in college, and Burfict today. He will give defensive coordinators everything he has. Perhaps that's too much.

Burfict is one of my favorite NFL players not because he hits people. It’s because he is beyond the pretenses the sport attempts to impart. He does not play with grace. He plays with rage. He plays in the way we used to harken back to and long for on NFL Countdown or NFL Films reruns, before the players who played that way decades ago started dying in their 40s and 50s, taking their own lives with notes and text messages left behind asking someone, anyone, to explain what had gone so terribly wrong in their brains. He plays in a way, I suspect, fans wish was more common—a wish those fans don't always want to admit. If Tom Brady is the superego of football, Vontaze Burfict is its inescapable id.

Wherever football goes in 2017, or in 2027, it will be forced to contend with Vontaze Burfict, and the Vontaze Burficts still to come. And they are coming—linebackers who are faster and stronger and bigger and meaner and just as determined to punish running backs and wide receivers and quarterbacks by any means necessary. In the college ranks, there are players who will disregard the threat of targeting penalties to get the stop. In high school there are linebackers who will go after quarterbacks, and their knees. And someday, someday soon, most likely, there will be another Vontaze Burfict, and more fines and penalties, but also contract extensions and Pro Bowl invitations. Because Vontaze Burfict is football, its pleasure and terror. And Vontaze Burfict isn’t going anywhere.