Wilfork has grown into his role
Learning self-control has turned one-time hot head into Patriots' defensive beacon
INDIANAPOLIS -- The mantle of leadership is an honor for some, a burden for others. With it comes mounting pressure, expanded responsibilities, heightened expectations.
And that is exactly why Vince Wilfork has been waiting his whole life to assume his role as the key component of the Patriots' defense.
"Either you are a leader, or you're not," said Wilfork, in a quiet moment before Super Bowl madness overtook him. "You can't fake it, can't hide from it. But you can grow into it.
"And that's what I have done."
He has been a monstrous presence, both in the spiritual and physical sense, for a Patriots defense that has prompted more questions than answers.
Yet no one doubts Wilfork's impact on this Super Bowl season. He has drawn three blockers and still penetrated offensive lines. He has been steady as well as spectacular, picking off his first two career interceptions and returning a recovered fumble for a touchdown. He was a wrecking ball in the AFC title game, snuffing out Baltimore's trap play on a critical third-and-3 late in the game, then harassing quarterback Joe Flacco into throwing the ball away in the final minutes on fourth-and-5. Wilfork was in the trenches for 67 of his defense's 70 snaps, a physical, explosive, whirling mass of destruction who lined up in multiple positions with the aim of intimidating and confusing the Ravens' offense.
"The most incredible performance I've ever seen from him," offered former teammate Troy Brown.
It was a dominant display in a breakout year for Wilfork. One of the most satisfying components, he revealed, is he hasn't been fined a single time this season by the league, a departure from the past when he was routinely flagged -- and penalized financially -- for his aggressive play.
That self-control is yet another stepping stone toward the maturity of the biggest man on the field.
"I'm not surprised by any of it," declared Richard Seymour, his close friend and former teammate in New England. "He's always been hungry to be the best lineman in the game.
"I'll put it like this: if someone gets on his bad side, he can destroy a game."
Therein lies Vince Wilfork's greatest strength -- and his greatest weakness. The intensity and energy with which he plays football has turned him into a perennial Pro Bowl talent, but also threatened to handcuff him when those emotions went awry.
Former Santaluces High School coach Ray Berger has watched with pleasure as Wilfork has grown from an oversized eighth-grader with a ferocious temper to an oversized All-Pro adult with a restrained demeanor he's worked tirelessly to manage.
"Vince was always the nicest kid in the world off the field," Berger said. "But on the field, it was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing. He was a kid who didn't know how to channel his energy.
"I can't tell you how many times I had to drag his butt into my office and have a man-to-man regarding those out of control moments."
Berger said part of the struggle for Wilfork was he already displayed an NFL body by the time he was 15 years old.
In his freshman high school season, Wilfork slugged a running back and was ejected from the game.
During his sophomore year, when Santaluces held its annual black and red scrimmage among teammates, Wilfork and his brother David, an offensive lineman, ended up on opposite sides. And, when Vince delivered a ferocious late hit to the running back, his brother David took exception. David shoved Vince, then Vince shoved back.
"Next thing you know, the two of them are rolling around on the ground near the pole vault pit," Berger recalled. "I'm thinking, 'No, Vince, not your brother!' Their dad had to come out of the stands to break them up."
Wilfork said the scrum escalated because after David hit him, a teammate on David's side tried to join the fray.
"It was a brother thing," Vince said. "It was OK for my brother to hit me, but once the guy on his team hit me too, David turned on him. Then it was the two of us [Wilforks] against him."
It was an embarrassing scene, a spirited spring scrimmage run amok. Vince heard about it from both of his parents when he returned home.
"I was always a hothead," he admitted. "I wore my passion on my sleeve. I had to learn there are certain ways you can do things to get the same outcome."
Berger tried to explain to Wilfork that it was paramount he respect opposing players and coaches, particularly since those coaches often voted for the all-star teams. Wilfork nodded in agreement, but immediately forgot those warnings once he got on the field.
"So one day we're having a full squad scrimmage," Berger said. "I said, 'We're going full tilt -- but don't hit the quarterback.'"
The quarterback was Ricky Bethel, who later played at Florida Atlantic. The moment the ball was snapped, Wilfork plowed through the offensive line and leveled him.
"I tried to stay calm," Berger said. "I didn't call Vince out. I just said, 'Remember what I said, now. No hitting the quarterback.'"
The ball was snapped a second time. Wilfork drilled the quarterback -- his quarterback -- again. Berger, increasingly agitated, warned Wilfork, "That's enough."
What Berger didn't know was Bethel had been taunting Wilfork throughout the scrimmage. He needed to be taught a lesson, and Vince figured he was the man(child) for the job.
So, on the third snap, Wilfork crushed Bethel for a trifecta of devastating sacks.
"He completely ignored what I told him," Berger said. "I started screaming at him. I mean, I was hot. But so was Vince. He started coming for me. Now I'm a big guy, but when I realized how angry Vince was, and remembered how big he was, I told the kids, 'Someone better hold him back.'"
The coach and the player separated and walked to opposite ends of the field. Berger was still fuming when Wilfork came up from behind and slapped his rear end.
"His version of an apology, I guess," Berger said.
Over time, and after a bushel full of penalties at the University of Miami, Wilfork began to understand his fiery approach needed to be corralled.
But it didn't happen overnight.
"It took some time," he conceded. "This was how I had always played football. I'm still learning."
Wilfork was a rookie when the Patriots last won the Super Bowl, an eager apprentice to Seymour and Willie McGinest, who he incessantly peppered with questions.
"He was constantly asking, 'What should I do on this play? How can I stop this from happening?'" Seymour said. "He came from a penetrating defense at Miami into a two-gap system, and he wanted to get it right. He was one of those young players that you knew immediately wanted to be great, not just good."
Wilfork's talent, size and mobility was obvious to everyone, including New England's opponents. They very quickly devised ways to negate the nose tackle's imposing presence.
"Vince was on the ground a lot as a young player," Seymour said. "He was knocking offensive linemen into the backfield, so to neutralize his effectiveness, as he was pushing them back, they were pulling him down.
"He used to get really ticked off when Bill [Belichick] showed him falling over in the film room.
"But you can't make tackles from the ground."
The learning curve for Wilfork was arduous. His exceptional size was equaled only by his uncommon athletic abilities, but none of that mattered when he let his temper rule his play.
He played almost every position at Santaluces High School, but later ruled out center (after he got hit in the head) and running back. "Some 5-foot-4 dude hit me so hard I dropped the ball," Wilfork said. "That was it."
He lined up at fullback in high school and went in untouched for a touchdown because nobody dared to tackle him. He played on the kick return team, and once, when the kick was short, he fielded it and lumbered down the sideline with six opposing players attached, trying to haul him down.
Seymour swears Wilfork can throw a perfectly tight spiral more than 50 yards. His current teammates claim his basketball dunks are on par with those of the great Darryl Dawkins. Wilfork also threw the discus and was a state champion (and later, an all-Big East conference) shot-putter.
He forever endeared himself to his Patriots teammates when, as a rookie, he accepted Belichick's challenge to field a punt cleanly, thereby earning the squad a night off. After making the catch, he did it again in Year 2, this time holding an extra football. In Year 3, he fielded the punt one-handed with two other footballs cradled into his left side.
"It took Bill until Year 4 to realize I wasn't going to drop any," Wilfork said.
In his fifth year, Belichick finally gave up and picked someone else.
It hasn't been easy being the anchor of a 31st ranked defense that has been shredded both on and off the field this season, but Wilfork has resisted taking those barbs personally. His versatility has enabled Belichick to experiment with different looks.
"V is a lot different than any nose I've ever seen," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "He can play a nose technique, a 3 technique, a 5 technique, he can play defensive end.
"You never get that much versatility out of a guy who is 350-plus pounds, but V can move.
"We always say we're happy he's on our team. I wouldn't want to have to line up opposite him."
Ask the Patriots' offense what it's like to be hit by Vince Wilfork, and they assure you he never delivers the crushing blows that he does to opposing offenses.
"He just kind of wraps us up and calls it a day," reported Kevin Faulk. "He knows better than to kill us."
His evolution continues, said the big man. There are still days when his adrenaline overtakes him. Wilfork's goal of making it through the season without a single penalty was lost early in the year.
He believes his guys will rise to the occasion in the Super Bowl, and promises that, as their leader, he will remain on an even keel.
"I'm not saying we're the best defense in the league," Wilfork said, "but we'll make plays."
Seymour will be watching from his home in the Bay area. He and Wilfork vacation together each year with their families. One year they went to the Kentucky Derby, another to the Bahamas. With each passing season, Seymour says, he senses Wilfork has reached yet another level of maturity.
"He just grew in wisdom," Seymour said. "He was always very smart, but nothing surprises him anymore.
"Vince has all the weapons now, especially from a mental standpoint."
Wilfork has been asked again and again about his first Super Bowl, and the last time his team played the Giants for the championship.
Those experiences, he says, are irrelevant.
"I'm a different player," he said. "Very different I would get pissed off quick, and would retaliate quick. Now I kind of laugh and smile."
That comes from the power of straddling the fine line of emotion with leadership and poise.
It comes from a big man who has grown up on the job.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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