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Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict presents a devil of a challenge for opponents

Junior linebacker uses his 6-foot-3, 250-pound body to punish anyone in his way, but some, including USC quarterback Matt Barkley, call him a dirty player. Regardless, he might just be the most feared man in college football.

September 21, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict may not have many friends on the field, but no one questions his ability to wreak havoc on opposing teams.
Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict may not have many friends on the… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)

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.

Survivor episodes

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.

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