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Wednesday, 09 August 2017 23:19

Vince Wilfork 'Captain of the Captains' Leaves Lasting Impression With Press Conference For Ages With Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft

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FOXBORO -- In one of the most memorable and heartfelt press conferences in the 15-year history of Gillette Stadium, Vince Wilfork went out Wednesday on his own terms.


He wouldn't have it any other way. Wednesday inside the Optum Club Lounge behind the south end zone of Gillette Stadium, Vince Wilfork said his goodbye to the Patriots and the NFL in style.

He thanked Bill Belichick for pushing him to be the best he could be and Belichick responded in kind with a couple of hearty hugs for the biggest man in the room for 11 years of Patriots football. Owner Robert Kraft signed him to a one-day contract to retire with the Patriots, just like Rob Ninkovich had done 10 days earlier.

But the most emotional and stirring moment of the day came at the very end when Wilfork, the man who grew up in Palm Beach County, Florida and attended the University of Miami, recalled the two people who never got to witness their son fulfill his NFL dream.

"The only thing I regret in my 13 years of playing NFL football is my parents didn’t get a chance to see their son live out a dream he told them at the age of four I was going to be," Wilfork said in fighting back the tears and taking deep breaths. "Physically, it hurt every day. It hurt by the hour, daily – not a minute would go by. But, I know they have the best seat in the house. Thank you David and Barbara Wilfork. I love you. Thank you.”

In the same stadium his career ended last January, playing for the Texans in a playoff loss to the Patriots, Wilfork poked fun at his unofficial declaration on social media through his Kingsford “no more cleats, I’m moving on to smoked meats” commercial. But Wednesday, Wilfork was a 35-year-old man who acknowledged that he was mentally done with the game he gave everything to over the last two decades.

“After playing 20 years of football, 13 of those years in the NFL, I’m finally calling quits from a game that I truly, truly, truly love, a game that I was committed to, a game that I was dedicated to, a game that I gave all too," Wilfork said at the beginning of his address. "I’m calling it quits. I gave this game everything I had day-in and day-out. I was 100 percent committed and dedicated to being the best I could be."

The best he could be is exactly what the Patriots saw in him when he miraculously fell to them in the 2004 draft at 21 overall.

"My first exposure to Vince was at the Indianapolis combine and we sat in that hotel room and interviewed him for about 20 minutes," Bill Belichick noted. "When he came in the first thing I said to Scott [Pioli] and the other scouts was ‘this is a waste of time, there’s no way he’s going to be there when we pick’ just like Robert [Kraft] said, that was absolutely the truth. When we were able to select him with that 21st pick in 2004 that was really, I’d say in my career, one of the real surprises that I’ve ever personally been a part of with the draft that Vince was actually on the board when we selected."

“I remember at that draft in ’04 sitting near Bill and I think Vince was projected to go in the top 10," owner Robert Kraft recalled. "He slipped to 21 and I remember Bill saying ‘wow, I can’t believe that kind of value is there at this point’ and I remember how excited he was that we got Vince at that point. I had seen a little film on him. They had showed me film and what a great athlete he was and how quick and nimble – someone even said almost like a ballet dancer.

“When he came into my office, Jonathan [Kraft] and I have had a history of having pictures with the first round pick. He came in, I think it was Ben Watson at the time, the two of them, and I saw this huge man come in and almost – to be a ballet dancer I would say freakish size. He was wearing a gold chain with a medallion on it and I asked him what that was and he had pictures of his parents. He mentioned to me that they had both passed away while he was at [the University of] Miami. It just said what a sense of family, how that was important to him and that he had been privileged to meet up with Bianca at that time and continue that sense of family and how he was grounded because of that. I thought that we had something in common in that we each married strong women who helped us keep our feet on the ground."

Belichick and the Patriots went out and won a third Super Bowl in four years with Big Vince in the middle of their defense, making a lot of contributions as a rookie. That's something Belichick is employing more and more of today, and it was Wilfork who reinforced the concept some special rookies can learn fast. Wilfork was just grateful for that chance.

“When I was drafted, the season before the Patriots (had) won the Super Bowl," Wilfork said. "I took it as the New England Patriots just won the Super Bowl and they drafted me. I took that as a challenge. I said, ‘You know what, why would the Super Bowl champion, that’s already a good organization, already a good team, take a chance on me with the 21st pick to help their team?’ So, obviously, there was something there that they saw in me that can help this ball team be better. That challenged me my whole career. Needless to say, my rookie year I won the Super Bowl, so the monkey was off my back. But, at that moment, I was challenged.

"I’ve always tried to find small things and any little thing that can always motivate me to always make me drive and grind and take my game to another level, make my teammates’ game get to another level. I always found that. Day-in and day-out, I found little things that give me the edge, (things) that I can bring to teammates just to get them on my level if I’m thinking it’s someone that might need a pick-me-up. I found those things.    

Wilfork served as a defensive co-captain for seven consecutive seasons (2008-14) and earned five Pro Bowl selections (2007, 2009-12) and Associated Press All-Pro First team Honors in 2012 and Associated Press All-Pro Second team honors in 2007, 2010 and 2011.

He was truly "captain of the captains" as Bill Belichick fondly recalled Wednesday before introducing Wilfork.

Belichick's 10-minute introduction of Wilfork had the feel of a coach introducing a player in Canton when said player receives the gold jacket and enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Who knows? Maybe Wilfork will end up there someday. After all, he was the anchor of a Patriots defense that finished in the top 10 in points allowed eight times (2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014) over his 11 seasons in New England.

If you ask Belichick, Wilfork should be ready to make the same speech in Canton that he gave Wednesday.

"Vince was a very dominant player at the University of Miami. He played a one and three technique. They used a scheme where he ran up the field every play. He was very disruptive. He caused a lot of negative plays. We played more of a two-gap style, head on the blocker," Belichick explained. "Some of our scouts had a little bit of a question of how well he would be able to two-gap just because he didn’t do it at Miami. But honestly, it took about one play to understand that Vince was as good of a two-gapper as has probably ever played in this game. He proved that right off the bat. It didn’t take him long to adjust our scheme.

“Vince is one of the most versatile players that I’ve ever coached. He has a tremendous skill set. He’s quick, he’s very athletic, he’s light on his feet, runs well and obviously has tremendous strength and power at the line of scrimmage. That’s a pretty good combination. Another strength of his is his intelligence. We ask our players to not only know what they do, but know what the guys beside them do, understand the overall scheme and understand situational football. Vince is the best defensive lineman that I’ve ever coached at that because of his ability to not only know what he was doing but control the entire line but also understand what the situation in the game was, what they were trying to do, what our opponents were trying to do, how to adjust to it and so forth."

Belichick also had high, high praise for wife Bianca, recalled a steamy day in the 2009 training camp as she was ready to give birth to son, David.

"Just to Bianca, this is a great moment because I see Bianca, I see David and I think back to eight years ago and August 5th when David was born," Belichick recalled. "So that was a hot training camp, which we’re not having now, but in that year it was hot. Every day it was, you know, and she comes to training camp ready to deliver it looked like every single day – day after day after day after day after day. You just felt so bad for her. She came early and stayed late. It was not like just show up at the last two seconds of practice.

"She was there. Then finally on the fifth she delivered and we’re out there at practice two days later and she’s back out there again. I said to Vince, ‘this is unbelievable. She’s made more practices than a quarter of our team has’. So, at the end of the year, we give out the ironman shirts for the players that don’t miss a practice. They’re there for every practice, not half a practice with a this or a that or anything. They’re there for every practice the entire training camp. It’s an ironman t-shirt. It really means a lot and it really means that you’ve made it through every single day without question. We gave one to Bianca because I had to. I had to. That effort was superhuman.

“This is a great family. They’ve made a great impact on my life. They’ve made a great impact on this team and they’ve touched all the players that were with this team. Bianca and Vince would always have players over to their house and do Thanksgiving dinner and barbecues and all those kind of things. It was such a positive thing on the team. The players would talk about it and there would be a lot of feedback from the positive chemistry that came from there."

Then there was Robert Kraft. Family is everything to the Krafts. And Vince Wilfork is part of his family, as the Patriots owner explained.

“The fact that he had those kind of family values and was respectful of his bride and children, he became one of Myra’s [Kraft] favorites," Kraft said. "When he would come off the field, he was always the last player to come off, he would always go over and give her a kiss and then he came and gave me a kiss and left the field. That was really meaningful. When her health started to decline in 2010, he and Bianca gave me a similar medal to what he was wearing. It was a picture of my favorite wedding picture of us. I was really touched by that sentiment and the gift. I don’t wear jewelry of any kind or chains and while Myra was sick and having chemotherapy I did wear it and she thought it was a little strange.

She said, ‘are you trying to be like Rick Ross?’ I just explained that it made me feel better so it was something that was very meaningful. And the two of them, on the back it said ‘cherish love’ and I think that’s what in many ways what Vince is. He’s a big man physically but he’s a very special human being. For those of us that get a chance to see him in person, we get to know that and that’s why he was such a great member of our team too. He was very passionate as well. When my beloved wife passed away, I wore this every day for 11 months."

Kraft continued.

“The first game that came after she died, it was here just in August, the first preseason game, he came over and gave me a kiss on one cheek and then he kissed me on the other cheek and said ‘this is for mama’ and then he looked up which was really cool," Kraft said, himself checking his emotions as best as he could. "And I must say that he was also dripping sweat but that was sweat I very much enjoyed sharing. He kept that up for his entire career. He would always give me a kiss for mama.

“So what happened, we have a family trip that we do every year and I’m going to say something now that I don’t think anyone outside of my family knows. We decided the year after Myra died to have the family trip in Florence [Italy]. It was a family vote and we asked Bianca and Vince if they would join us and be part of our family for that week and they happily did. We had a memorable time and I just think of two Vince stories on that trip."

Big Vince will have a lot more time for travel and barbecues. He's certainly earned it.