Through the history of the New England Patriots franchise, players have come and gone. While the success of the franchise has depended on grit and dedication and teamwork, few players have made substantial, long-lasting impressions on the team. Over the past few months, we’ve been covering those substantial players in our New England Patriots of the Past series. Last week, David Latham covered Troy Brown. This week, we’re covering one of the greatest. A consummate professional and a Patriot in every sense of the word, this week we’re covering Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork’s college football career began and ended at Miami University. Although he didn’t officially start a football game until his sophomore year, he was the team’s definitive defensive tackle. By the start of the 2003 season, Wilfork had been named second best defensive tackle in college football. During his last season, prior to entering the 2004 NFL Draft, Wilfork recorded 64 tackles and 20 quarterback hurries. His talent was so great, he inspired comparisons to Hall of Famer Warren Sapp – another former Hurricane.
When Wilfork entered the draft, his future team first thought he’d be off the board before they could grab him. During Wilfork’s retirement press conference, team owner Robert Kraft recalled head coach Bill Belichick‘s reaction to the player’s availability, saying “I remember at that draft in ’04 sitting near Bill and I think Vince was projected to go in the top 10 and he slipped to 21 and I remember Bill saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that kind of value was there at this point…’”
The Makings of a Legend
Not many rookies can say they won the Super Bowl during their first year in the NFL. Wilfork is an exception to that rule. While splitting nose tackle duties with Keith Taylor during the 2004 season, the Patriots would go on to compete in and win Super Bowl XXXIX against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The following year, Wilfork would record a career-high 54 tackles and start in every single game that season, even though the Patriots failed to reach the championship. Ultimately, Wilfork would record 559 tackles, 16 sacks, and 3 (amazing) interceptions. Although rare for a nose tackle, he would also take one home in 2011 – his sole career touchdown – against the Washington Redskins. Wilfork is a five-time Pro-Bowler and was also a selected for the New England Patriots 50th Anniversary Team.
Oh, and let’s not forget the four Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl wins.
Wilfork’s Greatest Hits
All in all, Wilfork played in New England for 11 glorious years, giving us a laundry list of amazing defensive plays to look back on. Though two in particular stick out…
The infamous “Butt Fumble” is, perhaps, his single greatest contribution to Patriots history. During a 2012 away game against the New York Jets, a misunderstood play led by then-Jets-quarterback Mark Sanchez resulted in the quarterback running the ball…straight into the rear end of his lineman, who had been pushed back by Wilfork. The result of the play was a fumble, which was recovered by Steve Gregory and returned for a touchdown. The final score of that game was 49-19, with a definitive Patriots win. The “Butt Fumble” lives on as the Jets’ largest embarrassment.
Another one of Wilfork’s greatest plays came in yet another game against the Jets, this time in 2014. During the last seconds of a down-to-the-wire game at MetLife Stadium, Nick Folk lined up to kick a potential game-winning field goal. The Patriots were up by one point that day, 17-16, and the butts of many fans on both sides were decidedly clenched in anticipation of Folk’s kick. As the ball left the turf, its attempt to sail through the uprights was stopped short thanks to a gravity-defying vertical leap from Wilfork, resulting in another Patriots victory and a memorable new nickname: Air Wilfork.
This wouldn’t be a proper tribute piece if we left out Wilfork’s infamous ESPN Body Issue. In 2016, Wilfork bared all for the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue. We don’t have any special to say about it, we just think it’s something everyone should see because it’s beautiful.
Vince Wilfork on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue. pic.twitter.com/2m2RGJ1hJY
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) June 30, 2016
Wilfork was a hero off the field as well. After winning the 2014 AFC Championship game, Wilfork began his journey home before coming across a flipped car on the road. Being the consummate Patriot he is, Wilfork assisted an officer already on the scene in helping to remove the driver. Following the incident, Wilfork told reporters, “The last thing I wanted to do was have her panic, and that was the first thing I told her, ‘Don’t panic. We’ll get you out of here.’ We got her out, the cops came and that was about it.”
Coach Belichick seemed proud of his defensive captain, saying, “He’s got a lot of character and a lot of integrity — how generous he is with his time and personal support, and the time and interest and compassion he has for other fellow human beings, […] It doesn’t surprise me because that’s really the type of person he is.”
Retiring a Patriot
Wilfork’s time with the Patriots came to a sad end following the team’s Super Bowl XLIX victory. In 2015, Wilfork announced his departure from New England signed a two-year deal with the Houston Texans. Under former Patriot coach Bill O’Brien, Wilfork would continue to succeed, though he never thrived the way he did in New England. After two seasons with Houston, Big Vince announced his retirement from the NFL and – in a move that made many grown men tear up – signed a one-day deal with New England to retire as a Patriot.
— Vince Wilfork (@wilfork75) August 7, 2017
During the conference to announce his retirement, Wilfork shared his thoughts with the room.
“My résumé wouldn’t have been what it was without New England. The majority of my career, this is home to me. All the memories I made over the years, the guy that you guys seen and the career that I had, it wouldn’t have happened without the Patriots. I’ve always wanted to come back and be a Patriot for life. I never wanted to leave, but things happen. Business is business. It happened, but I know once I retired I knew where I needed to be and where I needed to retire at.”
For many fans who grew up in the Brady-Belichick era, Wilfork was a constant. His dedication and love for the team was no doubt a contribution to the franchise’s success. His name consistently comes up in discussions about fan favorite players, and his legacy will no doubt be one day enshrined in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
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