What might have been? It was the kind of moment destined to be the stuff of legend. Vontaze Burfict intercepted the pass, jumped up, and ran across the field and down the tunnel. As he ran, he waved. It was a dismissal of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it was symbolic of much more. He waved a goodbye to those who didn’t believe in him and his team. It was a goodbye to the Bengals’ reputation of not being able to win a big game. Burfict had just became a hero in the annals of Cincinnati sports. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
One play. That’s all it took to undo it all. The Bengals prepared to run down the clock and end it, solidifying their first playoff win in well over two decades. However, running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball on the first play after the interception and the Steelers got the ball back. Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh down the field and the ending felt inevitable from there.
Burfict, who moments before was set up to be a hero, became the villain after getting a personal foul that helped set up the game winning field goal for the Steelers. In an instant, a legacy was changed and a career defined.
By most measurements, Burfict’s career has been a success. He went undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft before signing with Cincinnati. Number 55 quickly became a fan favorite due to an old-school physical style of play. He didn’t just hit guys. He HIT guys. Fans rallied behind him, even as he received fine after fine. And he rewarded them.
In 2013, he had his best season, leading the league in tackles while adding three sacks, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a touchdown. He made the Pro Bowl and was a second team All Pro. His star was certainly on the rise.
Injuries started to take their toll, a product of all those big hits fans celebrated. Concussions began to knock him out for quarters, halves, and games at a time. Still he made plays when available, and fans were behind him. He also began to get a reputation as a dirty player. Some of it was deserved. Some of it wasn’t. The suspensions were real enough though. Three games here. Three games there. Combined with the time missed for injury, he was off the field nearly as much as he was on it.
The luster wore off after a 2018 season where he only played in seven games, and wasn’t effective when he did play. He looked slow and his dirty play had finally worn out his welcome, even with fans. He was released after seven seasons in Cincinnati.
The question of what might have been is a fair one. With Burfict’s style of play, injuries were inevitable. He was as big a danger to himself as he was to opponents. His light burned bright, but self-destruction defined his career as a Bengal every bit as much as dirty play. That’s what he’ll be remembered for outside of Cincinnati, though. The ankle twists and head shots will be the lasting image.
What might have been? Rewind back to January of 2015. Burfict was a man on a mission. He had six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and what should have been a game winning interception that cemented his legacy. Instead, of winning the game, though, he lost it. His chance at immortality slipped through his fingers.
Could things have been different? Maybe. Maybe not. But in some alternate universe, the Bengals ran out the clock, won the game, and Burfict is hailed as a hero, with the image of him running down the tunnel etched in NFL history. Here, however, it didn’t work out. Destinies change in an instant, and here, in this universe, he’s just another dirty player. What might have been, never was.