Vontaze Burfict has been doing thoughtful things for his mother as long as she can remember.
There were the days when Lisa Williams worked the overnight at a gas station as her second job and the junior high 'Tez would sometimes roll up on his skateboard at around midnight claiming he couldn't go to sleep. But she knew he just wanted to make sure she was OK.
"He'd help me stock the shelves and when he got tired he'd go curl up in the truck," Williams recalls. "He was my bodyguard."
But Burfict just may have saved the best for last Friday night, Lisa's birthday. When he intercepted Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, she burst into tears and couldn't stop. Even when he called a few hours later and said he had a Tim Tebow ball for her.
"We're big football fans out here," Williams is saying after her shift driving a city bus in Corona, Calif. "It's because of the time zones. The Chargers, the 49ers. We've been Broncos fans. Oh yeah. I like Tebow. Love Tebow."
There is a new shade of orange for Lisa and her family with Burfict churning out one of the NFL's feel-good stories for the Bengals. Undrafted, overhyped and disengaged, he began to turn his story around an hour after the draft when head coach Marvin Lewis reached out to him like he did back in March at Burfict's pro day at Arizona State and tried to set him straight.
When Lewis realized that Burfict had hunted down his cell number like he once stalked ball carriers, the club offered the longest of NFL shots with a free-agent rookie contract and he's playing well enough that it's not a long shot that he'll make the final 53.
Now Burfict hears Lewis each day on the field trying to coax every ounce out of the manchild body that won't turn 22 until next month. If his feet are too wide, Lewis is in his ear.
"Vontaze! Scoot your feet in."
"I take pride in that because I love Marvin Lewis. I love to have a coach get on me like that," Burfict says. "He's taking strides to do what's best for me and prove everybody wrong.
"He willed me in. He came out to see me in Tempe and for him to do that, I know he cares about me."
Lewis seems to have tapped a diamond in the rough-housing middle linebacker because Burfict has been one of Cincinnati's top players at the position since camp opened three weeks ago. With starting Mike backer Rey Maualuga shelved for Thursday's game in Atlanta (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) with a sprained knee, Burfict and Roddrick Muckelroy take their jousts for the roster spot backing up Maualuga into overtime.
"He's doing well, but it's a natural progression; he's working through things," says linebackers coach Paul Guenther. "The biggest thing with him and, really, all the other linebackers, is learning his job so they can focus on the little things around them."
There is Lewis, the man that coached another rookie middle linebacker 15 years ago into a Super Bowl MVP. A guy named Ray Lewis.
There is Guenther, East Coast gruff but 21st century practical. He's the guy that has nicknamed Burfict, "The Devil." Short for the Arizona State Sun Devils. But long on what kind of hell-and-brimstone he can lend a defense. But there is always a line. There is aggressiveness and there is Burfict's unbelievable list of personal fouls, and yet he hasn't been close to an incident.
"He knows," Guenther says. "He knows he's on a short leash and that we can't have it."
There is Mike Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator who loves only tough. There is Maualuga, Burfict's Cali soul mate known for the same physical ferocity.
There is his Uncle Darryl, Lisa's brother who taught Burfict the game and would put 'Tez and older brother DaShan through little-kiddie tacking drills without pads, even setting up a bed to cushion it all.
And there is his actual father, Vontaze Burfict, currently serving a 25-year sentence for drug-related offenses, according to ESPN The Magazine. Vontaze Junior has saved all his letters and appreciates them, but he can't match the three-pagers his father writes. He'll dash him a quick one now and then when he gets a chance, but not since the end of Arizona State's season.
But there is only one father figure.
"I think my mom has been both mom and dad at the same time. She's just a strong woman," Burfict says. "She's the reason I'm pushing right now because I've seen her struggle and I've seen her down, but she just never quit. So I can't quit."
And, as always, it was Lisa that set him straight amid the smoking carnage of the NFL scouting combine. Burfict ran a comatose five seconds in the 40-yard dash that was the slowest of all the backers. He was shocked and then defensive at how the NFL coaches peppered him about his 22 personal fouls in 37 games, curling up into a shell that turned off the league.
"She told me it was about time to grow up. I'm not a little kid anymore. I've got to take control of my actions," Burfict says. "The biggest thing she said is to not look back because what you did at the combine, it can hurt you if you keep looking back. So what I do is wake up every day and I try not to remember what happened at the combine. It's still in my mind that I messed up there, but it makes me hungry."
That makes Lisa Williams chuckle because 'Tez and DaShan are known to say grudgingly, "Mom is always right" after the dust clears on a particular issue.
She thinks she certainly did the right thing when her sons were small. She didn't want them growing up like she did in South Central Los Angeles.
"I looked down the street and I didn't want to go to any early funerals," she says. "I didn't want anyone going to jail. So I followed the Lord trying to get out of that environment."
While working all sorts of jobs that also included day care, the trail led east, finally from Pomona to Corona, a move that Burfict still exults in.
"It's a beautiful place. Not a lot of crime. My mom didn't want us growing up near the Los Angeles area," he says. "We had a curfew and we had chores and she had rules, but we could still do stuff we wanted."
There was one shocking Corona incident when 'Tez was a freshman and a gang chased down a teammate and stabbed him 13 times to death on his own porch, according to ESPN. Lisa and her mother responded by driving him to and from school.
When it came to football, DaShan, four years older, was the man as a fleet receiver. 'Tez was the little brother bigger than everyone his own age and always hanging around DaShan's practices. To help pay for registration fees and pads for their youth leagues, Lisa would pitch in and drive the team bus to some away games, as well as rustle up mountains of food that would add to her legend as a big-time cook.
"That's how we would spend our Sundays as family," she says. "I'd cook and it would be the boys and Darryl and my mother and we'd watch football. The 49ers. The Chargers. The Raiders. The Broncos. But I have to pay homage to the East Coast. They gave my baby a chance. I tell him that only Jesus himself is more blessed."
She made it work. DaShan graduated from Akron with a degree in communications and is about to start a broadcasting internship close to home and that has her dreaming.
"My dream is DaShan broadcasting a Super Bowl that Vontaze is playing in for the Bengals," she says.
But there's barely time to dream for either of them.
Burfict, who says his father gets out in 2015, plans to write him about that Tebow pick. But it can't be at training camp.
"The schedule is jam-packed," he says.
Burfict doesn't know if his father watched last Friday or if he'll watch this Thursday, but he knows he saw some of his college games because he would reference some of his big tackles in the letters.
But the son admits he hasn't been able to read the recent ones.
"He talks about how much he misses me and I'm out here without my family," he says.
Not for long. Lisa has made sure she got time off to attend the Packers game at Paul Brown Stadium a week from Thursday.
But she's in a whirlwind just like her son. She has girls 12 and 8 and in addition to driving the bus, she's starting her own beauty shop and has been busy this week with the tiling. And then there's her wedding, but she's not sure when that can be because it hinges on Tez's schedule.
With DaShan already an usher, there's only one person that can walk her down the aisle.
"It has to be Vontaze," says Lisa, who found a man to give her away.
(Note: if there is a roster made, look for an Oct. 27 bye week wedding.)