CINCINNATI -- Cell phones have played an integral role in Vontaze Burfict's self-described "father-son" relationship with Marvin Lewis.
If it wasn't for them, Burfict might not be with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Of all the phone conversations the football player and the football coach have had in the last two years, though, few have hit Burfict like the one Friday afternoon. It caused him to cry. None have carried the same heavy weight of validation as that particular call.
He officially was no longer the same so-called lazy, overweight, fallen college superstar that so many had considered him. He was now an all-star.
"It brought tears to my eyes when I got off the phone," Burfict said, referencing one of his latest phone conversations with the man who decided to take a gamble on him. "All that hard work that I've put in, and it's getting noticed."
Burfict has, of course, done the heaviest lifting. But you have to credit Lewis for the fact that people are now paying attention to the hard-hitting linebacker. If it wasn't for Lewis' stubbornness about getting Burfict on the field when injuries hit the linebacker corps last year, this chapter in Burfict's life may never have been written. At the very least, it would have been delayed.
Although the NFL formally named Burfict a Pro Bowl invitee during a Friday night show on NFL Network, the second-year standout originally found out he had earned the trip to Honolulu earlier in the day when Lewis called. Burfict was joined as a selection to the "unconferenced" all-star game by Bengals receiver A.J. Green, who was tabbed to the Pro Bowl for a third time in his three-year career.
Burfict and Green are joined by left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and quarterback Andy Dalton. Whitworth was named the third alternative at left tackle, and Dalton is the seventh alternate at quarterback. Pro Bowl alternates are added to the roster when replacements are needed due to injuries or for other reasons. Burfict and Green, for example, hope they'll need alternates since the Jan. 26 Pro Bowl is being played one week before the Super Bowl. Players whose teams reach the Super Bowl naturally would not be participating in the Pro Bowl.
"Everyone knows what an exceptional player A.J. continues to be, and we kind of expect him to be in the game, but it's very gratifying to see Vontaze recognized for the fine season he's had," Lewis said.
It was amazing that Burfict in the weeks leading to the selection that wasn't doing better in Pro Bowl fan voting.
Just last week he told reporters that he wasn't thinking about the Pro Bowl and that he didn't think it was a goal to aspire to, unless his whole team could go with him. The same day he made those comments, it was revealed that the league's leading tackler ranked 10th in fan voting at his position. If you consider he has led the NFL in tackles most of the season and has forced a fumble, recovered two, intercepted a pass and scored a defensive touchdown, you can better understand my bewilderment.
Whether the broader national audience has truly grasped Burfict's impact on his defense or not doesn't really matter to him. What does matter is the fact that when scouts and draft experts were shunning him last March and April, his phone was still ringing.
Marvin Lewis kept calling.
"That's the reason why I pretty much became a Bengal," Burfict said. "He was pretty much the only person who kept reaching out and who kept talking to me and who kept me motivated and telling me to keep my head up and stuff like that."
Eventually, the draft came and went and Burfict, once projected an early-round pick, wasn't claimed. Sure, there were issues in his background -- past marijuana usage, clashing with his college coach, issues with Personal Foul penalties, coming to the Combine overweight -- that contributed to teams passing on him. But he only wanted a chance.
"After the fifth round, I just wanted to at least hear my name called and see my name at the bottom [of the television screen] or get a phone call from a coach," Burfict said. "I was kind of heartbroken that day, but I'm happy that I'm here and am a Bengal. I've got people that care about me around the stadium. That's why I play so hard on Sundays."
It's that style of play that makes Burfict worthy of his first Pro Bowl honor. But if it wasn't for Lewis' insistence on building a relationship with the young linebacker, perhaps none of this would have ever happened.
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