THE MOMENT HAS attained the status of football lore: Once upon a time, Vontaze Burfict almost beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by himself. He temporarily knocked Ben Roethlisberger out of the game on a third-quarter sack and picked off backup QB Landry Jones with the Bengals up 16-15 in the last two minutes of a 2016 AFC wild-card game.
Then Vontaze Burfict gave it all away.
With 22 seconds left, Burfict located Antonio Brown's crossing route and drifted into the middle of the field, ready to either make a play on the ball or separate Brown's body from it. Roethlisberger, back in the game with an injured right shoulder, threw the pass too high. Brown extended himself with both arms, but the ball glanced off his fingertips. Burfict was there to meet him as he landed. The two men had nearly passed each other when Burfict's shoulder pad clipped the side of Brown's head, sending the receiver down in a grotesque twirl, arms splayed and stiff like a marionette.
The resulting 15-yard, personal-foul penalty put the Steelers within range of a field goal that would win the game.
It's a neat metaphor: Burfict's violent brilliance giveth -- and taketh away. Almost too neat, not in the least because it gently elides the fact that Bengals running back Jeremy Hill had fumbled the ball back to Pittsburgh the play after Burfict's interception. Or that in the fracas that ensued after the hit on Antonio Brown, cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones was penalized another 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, turning a rangy field goal into a chip shot.
What the metaphor wants to explain is why Vontaze Burfict is a problem, in both the traditional and contemporary usage of the word; why the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-year-old star linebacker is regarded with both admiration and opprobrium -- if not outright fear -- around the NFL; why some call him a dirty player; why hate mail is sent in his name to Paul Brown Stadium; why his mentions on Twitter are full of abuse that is heinous even for that medium; and why, over the course of his six-year career, Burfict has been one of the most penalized, most suspended and most fined players in the NFL.
"HE FAKED THAT," Burfict says casually of the Brown hit before quickly trying to wave his own observation away. He knows instantly how the comment will be received, and it's easy to see he wishes he hadn't said it.
"And just the way he went down, it was just like -- I don't know man." Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, on his hit that injured Antonio Brown in a 2016 AFC wild-card game
We've settled in across from each other in a small, open sitting area with large windows and a person-sized model of the Eiffel Tower. Over in the living room, Burfict's oldest daughter, Aiyanna, is watching cartoons on mute while the babysitter combs her hair. Burfict's girlfriend since college, Brandie LaBomme, returns from running errands and brings the couple's younger daughter, Maliyah, downstairs after her nap. The family lives in Northern Kentucky, some 30 minutes outside of Cincinnati, at the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet, McMansioned development. A small crew is at work installing Christmas lights on the front lawn. On a bright day, the houses in the neighborhood stand pristine in the afternoon sun, as if they are unlived-in.
Later, Burfict returns to his account of the Brown hit, reluctantly drawn into an explanation very few will agree with: "I feel like he looked at me. The ball tipped off his hands and he kind of put his head towards my area, and I tried to fade off of him at the last second, but he initially tried to make contact because he knew he could get the flag. And just the way he went down, it was just like -- I don't know man."
This is merely one example of the way Burfict's view of his conduct diverges from how others view him.
Brown was not available at the Steelers' UPMC Rooney Sports Complex last week to respond to Burfict's version of events. But last December, Brown dismissed the idea that there was any bad blood between him and Burfict, telling ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, "I don't have no issue with any guy."
To encounter Burfict in person is to be quickly disabused of any idea that he's just some meathead with a mean streak. His intelligence is obvious, even if it doesn't necessarily manifest itself as eloquence. He has uncanny visual recall, and he's self-aware in a fashion that's common to young black men in America. That is, he knows how to watch himself being watched. Or rather, he's attuned to fact that the person he feels himself to be is not the person the world sees, and he's sensitive to that perception, no matter how much he presents a front of someone who doesn't care what others think.
He's currently in the midst of making a documentary about himself -- a crew is shooting him on a regular basis -- and he says he hopes to start writing a book about his career in the NFL and to make a second documentary about his life when he's finished playing football. "I do want people to know who I am," he admits.
Those who know him -- teammates, friends and coaches -- are eager to emphasize that Burfict is a family man who has never had any "off-the-field issues." "He's nothing like what people say," says Brandon Magee, who played linebacker with Burfict at Centennial High School in Corona, California, and then again at Arizona State University. Magee describes Burfict as a brother and is worried enough about his friend's reputation that he calls back the day after he is interviewed to ensure there's not too much focus on Burfict's controversial style of play. "I just want to make sure we stay positive," he said. "People write a lot of things about him not knowing him."
It's true that Burfict's on-field persona -- domineering, explosive, mercurial -- does not appear to extend off the field. He radiates no menace whatsoever. Rather, he is easygoing, quick to laugh, a little shy yet playful, and polite, almost formally so.
But the problem is how he plays football -- with a violence that can be excessive.
"SOMETIMES IT'S LIKE driving a fast car without a seatbelt," Jones says of Burfict's playing style.
"He's the most instinctive linebacker probably in the league," says Burfict's position coach, Jim Haslett, himself a former NFL linebacker. "I think teams are nervous about him. When he hits people, they hurt. It's just the way the game used to be played. Maybe that's not the way people see it now, but he plays the way you want it to be played."
"I think teams are nervous about him. When he hits people, they hurt. It's just the way the game used to be played. Maybe that's not the way people see it now, but he plays the way you want it to be played." Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett
For all the public support Burfict has been given by Haslett, Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Geunther and head coach Marvin Lewis, the three-year contract extension Burfict signed in September indicates the organization is hedging its bets. Since his rookie season in 2012, Burfict has been called for a league-high 15 unnecessary roughness penalties, suspended the most games due to on-field incidents (six, including three games for the Brown hit) and paid the most in fines for on-field incidents ($303,637). Including forfeited game checks for games missed due to suspension, Burfict has lost more than $2 million.
So although the $38.68 million deal makes Burfict one of the best-paid linebackers in the NFL, only his $3.3 million signing bonus is guaranteed. The rest depends on his ability to stay on the field, and the Bengals can release Burfict at any time.
Bill Romanowski, a four-time Super Bowl champion and notorious tough guy who has admitted to dirty play, speaks of the Bengals star with appreciation. "God, I like the way he flies around," he says.
Romanowski is something of a relict now, but he's the kind of player who helped cultivate the NFL's fearsome mystique, its highlight reel of vicious hits soundtracked by the grunts and thuds of colliding bodies, the familiar crack of helmet-to-helmet impact. He's not quite convinced the NFL wants to, or knows how to, leave behind its hyper-violent past or distance itself from players in the lineage he shares with Burfict.
"Fans love to turn on a game and watch who he's gonna hit next, who he's gonna lay out," Romanowski says of Burfict. "Watch him fly around, the intensity, the violence. The league loves that. They just cannot promote it and talk about how much they like it."
As a player, Romanowski says, "You know that the harder you hit people, the more violent you are, the more you are revered, the more you are respected and the more you're paid."
The problem is where that cold calculus can lead.
ASKED ABOUT THE 2014 incident in which he was fined $25,000 for twisting the ankles of Carolina Panthers Cam Newton and Greg Olsen in what Burfict describes as an "alligator roll," he is unrepentant: "I don't care if they came with a bum ankle. I mean, s---, I go into games with bum stuff, too. My ankle might be swollen, my wrist might be. I don't care. That's your fault if you want to play. And if you get tackled a certain way, that's your fault. ... If my shoulder hurts and the fullback comes constantly and hits my shoulder, am I like, 'Oh he's coming after my shoulder?' Nah."
"And if you get tackled a certain way, that's your fault. ... If my shoulder hurts and the fullback comes constantly and hits my shoulder, am I like, 'Oh he's coming after my shoulder?' Nah." Vontaze Burfict
There is an internal logic to football that leads to cruelty. On defense, one's job isn't merely to stop an offense, but to "do damage to an offensive player," as AJ McCarron, the Bengals' backup quarterback and one of Burfict's closest friends on the team, puts it. The goal is to make opponents hesitate next time, make them think, react more slowly, eventually to make them want to be somewhere else.
At its most exaggerated, that cruelty can become the New Orleans Saints' Bountygate, but really, it exists in nearly every moment of the game. It's a lineman's pancaking a defender away from the ball and near the end of a play. It's Aqib Talib's contemptuous snatching of Michael Crabtree's chain -- twice. It's Anthony Barr's driving Aaron Rodgers into the turf, not to injure him, but just to leave him a message -- to encourage him to maybe rush his throw next time.
"Hell yeah, it's a physical game," Burfict answers when asked if he behaves that way on the field. "I can't talk about it now because I'm still in it. I'd be telling on myself right now."
Aside from his $10,000 fine in 2013 for striking former Packers tight end Ryan Taylor in the groin (the mention of which is the only time Burfict shows visible embarrassment), there's no infraction Burfict doesn't explain away as an accident or part and parcel of the NFL's violence.
He genuinely feels singled out by the league. He claims refs ignore what's done or said to him on the field and intervene only when he retaliates, he feels they officiate his reputation and not his play, and he thinks the plays he's punished for happen all over the league. "There's a target on my back," he says.
Ask Burfict's teammates and coaches if he's singled out by the league and they'll agree -- before mentioning that he has brought some of this on himself because of his "history." Ask them about what they mean by his "history" and they demur.
The problem is that Burfict doesn't truly see the way he plays as a problem. The problem is that at least some people -- a segment of the fan base that takes the NFL's violence for granted and delights in it -- agree with him. The problem is that many more don't.
IN PITTSBURGH, FOR example, they hate him.
Burfict is preoccupied with his AFC North rivals. He says the recent animosity between the two teams dates to when former Steeler Terence Garvin broke punter Kevin Huber's jaw with a helmet-to-chinstrap block in 2013. The Bengals are 3-9 against the Steelers since Burfict's rookie season. He often brings up the rivalry unprompted or answers general questions by referring to his interactions with the Steelers.
In November 2015, Burfict dragged down Le'Veon Bell in a sideline tackle that resulted in season-ending knee injury for the running back. Steelers players accused Burfict of celebrating the injury. Burfict claims he didn't realize Bell was hurt until he had reached the middle of the field. "Everybody celebrates after they make a tackle," he says. "I've seen his [Bell's] teammates celebrate after they make a tackle and a guy's hurt."
Afterward, Steelers linebacker Vince Williams tweeted and later deleted: "I catch Vontez on south beach im painting that boi on sight."
Burfict took it as a literal threat, though Williams said he was just using harmless slang. "I thought the NFL should have stepped in," Burfict says. "The NFL didn't say nothing, so I'm like, 'I'm fittina defend myself.'"
He tweeted back at Williams: "why wait then u kno where I'm at."
After the Bengals and the Steelers played a few weeks later, Burfict was fined for three separate plays, including one in which he was accused of diving at Roethlisberger's legs. Burfict says he lost his balance after he was pushed.
Last fall, when the Bengals went to Pittsburgh, someone hung Burfict in effigy near Heinz Field, his orange jersey and stuffed, grey sweat pants dangling by the neck from a noose in broad daylight.
"I thought that was a little bit racist, excessive, away from football," he says.
The animosity continued this October in a 29-14 loss to Pittsburgh when Burfict was fined $12,154 for kicking out at fullback Roosevelt Nix's head. "He's constantly pushing me in the back. I rolled over and the play's over, whistle blows, and he pushes me again, and I went, 'Damn bro, get off me,'" he says. "My natural instinct was to defend myself. It just so happened his facemask was right there. And everybody was like, 'Oh, he kicked him in the facemask.' And I was like, 'Really?' Really, I pushed him off me. A kick and a push with the foot is different."
Before that game, Burfict refused to shake hands with the Steelers captains at the coin toss. "They took it there," he says. "They took it to the personal level."
THE LONGER ONE is around Burfict, the less one finds a disjuncture between how he plays and who he is. The gap between how he's seen and how he sees himself feels less like a paradox or even a surprise.
Maybe he's right. Maybe the hand-wringing over his play is merely the NFL's latest exhibit of a recurring moral panic, professional football's attempt to cleanse its bad conscience. A few years ago, the panic was about Ndamukong Suh; now it's about Burfict. Tomorrow, it will be about someone else.
That's the most sympathetic reading of Burfict's conduct, that he's locked into a game whose violence and emotional intensity will habitually push some players over the edge. A less sympathetic view is that, on the field, he's an unrepentant and deliberate brute who is always one moment away from an outrage that will hurt someone. He might be both of those things.
His teammates, coaches and confidants believe he can change and adapt to the "new" NFL. They insist that he has. He wants to believe that, too. But just push him a little, ask him if he'll ever be able to fully rein in his emotions and he'll admit, "Nah. That's always gonna be there. I can say it ain't gonna be there, but once it starts, and the competitiveness kicks in, it's turned on."