The NFL Draft is a strange event. The months leading up to the Draft are even stranger, starting with the NFL Scouting Combine, an event recently dubbed by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk as “The Underwear Olympics.” Over the course of a few days, an athlete can run a 40-yard dash, test in the bench press, grant a few media interviews and watch his draft stock soar with the completion of each task. Of course, he can also watch his worth plummet faster than the stock market on Black Tuesday.
In the current issue of The Magazine–the Draft Preview Issue with RGIII on the cover–I profile Arizona State middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, an athlete dealing with the negative after-affects of a crummy Combine. When Burfict arrived in Indianapolis, he was considered a top-15 overall pick. Three days later, after giving a few uncomfortable interviews and clocking a 5.09 40, he was being called “undraftable.”
I first met Burfict a couple weeks before the draft, at a training facility here in LA called The Factory. Former New Orleans Saints tight end Billy Miller runs the facility and when I asked him who he was working with and would make a good story, the first name out of his mouth was Burfict. “People have it all wrong about him,” he told me. “I was worried about having him training here, after everything I’d read about him. But he’s the quietest, most soft-spoken guy. He works hard. He gets along with everyone. He’s shy, but he’s not what people think. And he has an incredible back story.”
Aside from glowing on-field comparisons to Ray Lewis his first two years at ASU, that was the most positive assessment of Burfict I’d come across. How could everyone, all this time, “have it all wrong?” That was a question I was interested in answering.
Over the next moth and a half, I spent time with Burfict and found he was nothing like the guy I’d been reading about. He was, however, exactly as Miller had described him. Shy was an understatement. I’d go so far as to say his shyness likely borders on social anxiety.
Besides Burfict, I interviewed more than 25 coaches, friends, teammates, family members, academic advisors and scouts for this story and found a vast disparity of opinion between those who know Burfict off the field and those who only watched him play football. The most commonly used words to describe him, by those who know him well, were “shy,” “quiet,” “respectful,” “loyal,” “funny,” and “a good teammate.” Not one of those words was used by a scout. And that is a problem.
For much of his time at ASU, and as he became less and reluctant to agree to interviews, Burfict, was shielded from the media. I believe the media relations folks did this believing they were protecting him. And as coach Dennis Erickson said many times over, it was not their job to teach him interview skills or force him to talk to the press. He was in Tempe to win football games.
So, absent of Burfict’s voice, the media began to use his on-field personality–violent, fierce, loud, rule-bending–to describe who he was off the field, as well. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The guy owns purse dogs, likes to bake and decorated the Tempe apartment he lives in with his longtime girlfriend Brandie. He struggles with self-confidence and nearly gave up football the day he arrived home from Indianapolis.
Working on this story made me think about how much our current culture is dominated by reality TV and the perception that celebrity equals success. Young people would just as happily check “famous” on a list of what they want to be when they grow up as “doctor” or “lawyer.” Shyness and introverted behavior are viewed as something people must “overcome,” like a sickness, instead of common personality traits. I think it was tough for anyone to understand Burfict’s reluctance to embrace the cameras begging for his attention. Who would remain silent when given the opportunity to shout from the rooftops, “Hey! You’ve got me all wrong!”? Who would shun celebrity?
So his silence was read as arrogance. And as the perception of who he is as a person stretched farther from reality, Burfict retreated even farther from the media. Those who know him best–his mom, grandma, sisters, brother, uncles, teammates and friends–knew what he was like and that was all that mattered to him. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. Until it did.
Those four days in Indianapolis and the year leading up to them likely cost Burfict millions of dollars. But he says he’s come out on the other side a different guy, one willing to let strangers into his living room and share more of himself with his fans, the media and the NFL team that drafts him this weekend. He’s predicted to go in the fifth to seventh round right now, but I think a team will take a chance on him earlier than that. And in my opinion, they’ll be getting a bargain.
As I do before posting any entry to this blog, I will first click “Save Draft.” Seems more apt this time than usual.