Mind games

Many a sports psychology major has written his or her dissertation on the powers of chemistry. The benefits of being surrounded by the right people, whether as a linebacker or a bean counter, have positive mental effects. But in Burfict's case, it has opened the doors to a new level of on-field awareness. He's always had the ability to see plays develop and to see lanes open and close ahead of him. But now those plays have started to slow down in his mind, not unlike Magic Johnson claiming he could see the Lakers' famous fast breaks in super slow-mo or Dale Earnhardt Sr. hinting that he could "see the air" and let it lead him into the quickest line of traffic at Daytona.

"When you are put in the right environment, paired with the right people, it allows you to take ownership of your abilities. It's what I call 'The Hinge,' " explains Rob Bell, a sports psychologist who wrote a book by the same title. Citing Josh Hamilton with the Texas Rangers and Mike Tyson with Cus D'Amato, Bell likens athletes being pushed -- but in a way that fits their personalities -- to the lubrication that opens doors to new places mentally. "You give them the right challenge and then the right motivation -- say, not being drafted -- and it kicks that door open."

The clarity and restored confidence on the other side of that door is what has allowed Burfict to narrow his focus toward fine-tuning. The college hitter has become a textbook tackling machine, combining incredible spatial awareness with off-the-charts memory skill. The "attitude problem" has become a team leader, despite being among other natural leaders. The fat kid now works out by pushing cars and spends his weekdays getting acupuncture. The teenager who lacked "football smarts" is now a one-man walking film room. And the guy who once refused to speak into any microphones is now a smiling quotesmith, bracketing every comment with "Yes sir." Funny what a second chance -- and 187 solo tackles -- can do for a man.

"I hope players look at me and see that they can do this, even if they think they've blown it or even if the system seems to be working against them," the All-Pro says, hand on the Chihuahua. "And I hope maybe the people who run the system see that there are guys out there who are more than combine stats from one day or more than some stories that someone has told them about the guy without actually meeting them. They are ... what's the word?"

Football players?

"Exactly."

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