- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The truth can now be told.
It was the media's fault. It was an undersized receiver's fault. It was the officials' fault. And, of course, it was the Arizona State coaches' fault that linebacker Vontaze Burfict had a bad junior season before opting to enter the NFL draft, according to a report from the Arizona Republic at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Burfict talked to reporters for six minutes Sunday, and it was the first significant interview he's conducted in months. Here's why, according to Burfict:
For Burfict, however, it was one of the longer group interviews he's done in at least two years. He avoided interviews in college, he said, because "sometimes I did a written interview and the things I said didn't really come out as I said it. I just thought it was best for me not to do any interviews because people were putting words in my mouth and putting me as a bad guy."
I had one extended, sit-down with Burfict. I thought it went fairly well. In that interview, which he did with buddy and fellow Sun Devils linebacker Brandon Magee, Burfict called a Pac-12 quarterback a name that I can't type here, at which point Magee interrupted with an impressive filibuster to distract me (see if you can figure out which colorful Magee quote in that linked story is said filibuster). I chose not to use the insult. I also know other reporters who talked with Burfict tried to "work with him" in terms of giving him the benefit of the doubt when he said things that would make him look bad.
My point: Burfict's perception -- or spin -- here is inaccurate. I'd be eager to see if Burfict or his representatives can actually produce any interview where "people were putting words in my mouth and putting me as a bad guy." Just one.
What about all those inopportune personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties?
On Sunday, Burfict blamed that on officials and his aggressiveness.
"I just love to hit," he said. "I hate to lose."
And what about the way he played this year, going from sure-thing All-American to not even earning honorable mention All-Pac-12? Well, it was the coaches fault.
The decisions of coaches also played a role in the lack of production, he said.
"I played average," he said. "I could've played better. That's what hurt me at times. The coaches kind of messed me up. I didn't know if I would start a game or be benched. It hurt me, but I tried to fight through it."
Then there was Burfict's preseason fight in the locker room with a teammate:
He did accept blame, sort of, for punching a teammate in the locker room, an incident that carried over from the practice field, he said.
"It started in seven-on-seven and he ran a route and hit me, and we're not supposed to hit each other in seven-on-seven," he said. "We had an argument, and we brought it into the locker room. We started chattering about it, he started rough-housing me. He pushed me, and my first instinct was to swing, and everyone thinks I'm the bad guy because my first instinct was to swing on the guy."
Burfict belted receiver Kevin Ozier. Burfict is 6-foot-3, 252 (though he admits he played at 260 pounds last season) and a superstar. Ozier is 6-foot, 200. He's a former walk-on. And Burfict's initial point of contention is getting bumped by a 200 pounder during a drill?
Yes, Vontaze, you seemed like a bad guy in that instance. And it didn't help that you didn't show up the next day and tell reporters, "Look, I let my temper get the best of me. It was a terrible mistake on my part. I'm supposed to be a leader in this locker room. I've already apologized to Kevin, who's just a hard-working guy trying to make his mark on this team. I'm apologizing now to him and my teammates and my coachces again, and I want to let all Sun Devils fans know this won't happen again."
Heck, I could have told Burfict how to best handle his combine interview in a quick telephone chat.
Q: Why didn't you do interviews in college?
A: I'm a football player who's never been comfortable talking to people. I get nervous, and sometimes I say stuff that embarrasses me and those I care about. I think my swagger helps me play linebacker. But it also makes it hard to filter my thoughts. I'm still learning. And I know it's something I need to get better at.
Q: Has the media been fair to you?
A: That's hard to answer. Probably. But it's hard to read bad stuff about yourself. Sometimes I thought stuff was unfair. There's an image out there of me in the media, and I don't think that's who I am. But I do know I am responsible for my image. I also know that blaming the media does me no good. I need to focus on what I need to do to get better in all areas of my life, and I know that working with the media is part of being an NFL player.
Q: Why did you get so many personal foul penalties and late flags?
A: Sometimes I let my emotions get the best of me. Sometimes I was just playing football and those things happen. And then you get a few for your reputation. But I realize the bottom line is not hurting my team. Again, I know this is something I need to get better with, and I want any team that drafts me to know that I will.
Q: Why did you take a step back this season?
A: I've thought about that a lot. For one, I was too big -- 260 pounds. I need to be leaner in the NFL so I can play fast. I think I might have been distracted, thinking about the NFL. I tried not to be, but I have to say it was a problem. There were a lot of things. It takes 100 percent focus to be a great football player, and I didn't have that this past season. But college is different. There's a lot of stuff going on there that's not about football. The NFL is my dream. Wherever I end up, that team will have a linebacker who is 100 percent focused on being the best player he can be -- in every practice, in the locker room and every Sunday.
I know: This is not Burfict's voice. But you'd give him talking points for all the obvious questions and let him learn how to express a satisfactory response in his own words.
And most of all: He'd take responsibility and not blame others. In. Every. Instance. Period.
Football is not a game of excuses. You either do or you don't. And that's doubly true in the Not For Long league, where you get good or get gone.
I love watching Burfict at his best. He's a powerhouse with great speed and instincts. If his everyday attitude becomes "What do I need to do to get better?" then he will become an All-Pro.
But I've chatted with a lot of people who know Burfict well. Let's just say if Burfict is fueled by doubters, he won't be running on empty his rookie season.