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The people’s guide to Vince Wilfork

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“He made everyone better with his ass and his brain.”

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Photo by Eliot Schechter/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

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Topline? BIG. Vince Wilfork is big — born big, gets bigger, finishes big. Played high school football against normal humans at 308 pounds of offense-destroying tackle. There are questions: Was that unfair to his opponents? Did that result in injuries? Did it look like a highlight reel of bison trampling hapless tourists in Yellowstone?

Time to show the legendary high school tape? Yes, time to do that.

Was Florida high school champ in shotput, because Wilfork has range. Went to the U, because every mutant in a hundred-mile radius in the year 2000 did so. Wears #75. Leaves some fearsome Standard Definition highlights behind. Is generally terrifying.

In January 2001 as a 355-pound 19-year-old, lines up at cornerback in Sugar Bowl practice for fun — then covers his relatively small man for 20 yards and swats away Ken Dorsey’s pass. Wilfork says at the time, “A lot of people are ashamed of their weight. I’m not. Dudes line up across from me, think I’m sorry, that I’m a big load. Right off the bat, they’re thinking I’m slow. But I fool them.”

”I had offensive linemen come up to me in December and say, ‘Coach, I can’t block that guy,’” head coach Larry Coker says of the new enrollee.

In 2002, leads an NFL-quality depth chart in sacks despite playing defensive tackle, a position where sacks aren’t usually the job. Then has 64 tackles, 20 quarterback hurries, 11.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks as a junior in 2003.

Miami Athletics

Declares for the 2004 NFL Draft after his junior year and will be drafted with the 21st pick by the surprised Patriots. Bill Belichick:

My first exposure to Vince was at the Indianapolis Combine. We sat in that hotel room and interviewed him for about 20 minutes. When he came in, the first thing I said to Scott [Pioli] and the other scouts was like, ‘This is a waste of time. There’s no way he’s going to be there when we pick.’ [...]

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.

Wilfork would then make five Pro Bowls, win two Super Bowls, and anchor a defense that would make the playoffs nine years in a row. Would also dance to Lil’ Troy while cooking ribs, pull a lady out of a car crash, and go to the Texans. Would buy some overalls, dominate Hard Knocks.

Will wear less than overalls for ESPN’s Body Issue, praising his own godlike calf muscles. Will retire and get a real solid endorsement gig with a charcoal company, become slightly less big than he was as a football player (but still very large), and fish a lot.

Other personal notes

Weight actually climbed to 380 pounds in high school when his father was dying of kidney failure and high school prospect Wilfork was struggling to qualify for the University of Miami.

Loses his father to kidney failure in June of 2002. Turns 21 on November 4, 2002. Loses his mother to complications from a stroke on December 16, 2002. Fifteen years later at his retirement ceremony, will say this about the loss of both parents in a year: “It hurt by the hour.”

In other words, while Wilfork is just entering the national consciousness as a force on the Miami Hurricanes defensive line, learning to play the game, attracting attention from agents and NFL teams and who knows else, and trying to stay eligible as a student-athlete, he has to cope with the death of both parents and play in a national title game against Ohio State two weeks after the death of his mother.

It hurts by the hour, even when he’s also being double-teamed at the line by 300-pound offensive linemen. Sometimes a college player really is having the best time of their lives, and sometimes the story is Wilfork’s.

“Football is my release,” he says.

Environment/context

During his college career, is well-known, but not a huge name. For a few reasons:

  • Plays defensive tackle, an unglamorous position.
  • Plays an unglamorous position on a disgustingly talented team producing a record six first-round NFL draft picks.
  • These include safety Sean Taylor, mentioned here because watching all this film of 2003 Miami means realizing a quarterback has to dodge Wilfork at close range and avoid throwing the ball to Taylor at long range.
  • Talent distribution in college football is not fair and never has been.
  • These bullet points are no longer just about Wilfork, but they still feel important to his context as a college football player.
  • Plays his biggest season on a 2003 team that loses a 31-7 clanker on the road at Virginia Tech and suffers a devastating, 10-6 loss to Tennessee at home in the Orange Bowl. The Miami offense in the two losses turns the ball over a total of seven times.

General type

A Vince Wilfork, mostly? Wilfork can be hard to box into one category — it’s always hard to contain anything this large — because Wilfork is a lot of successful things happening simultaneously. Some of these seem contradictory.

Wilfork plays for the Attitude Era Miami Hurricanes, then will spend a long run with the polar opposite: the all-business, zero-flair New England Patriots.

He is a blazing fast presence at every level despite his considerable girth. He’s a vocal leader on both teams despite playing defensive tackle, a position known mostly for trench work and not vocal communication and in-game strategic thinking.

He does the giant bowling ball thing a defensive tackle is supposed to do. His immense size and strength eat up space on most plays and blows them up completely on others. Runs directed towards Wilfork — when teams actually called them — usually start with an offensive lineman draped on Wilfork’s shoulders.

Miami Athletics

But there is also the quickness and the speed. Wilfork’s first step off the snap is almost teleportation. He is confusingly fast, even on film, even slowed down. That’s Wilfork leaping from behind onto the running back and doing one of the things he does best: Starting a pile.

The hardest part? How smart he is, even in the trenches where most viewers just see a nine-man sumo match. Even in college, Wilfork recognizes blocking schemes, splits, tendencies.

During a blowout win his junior season, a pre-snap raised hand from Wilfork tipped off the rest of the defense to whether it was a run or a pass. Wilfork could tell by the chatter of the offensive linemen across from him.

Wilfork uses this to jump snap counts and adjust his own rush, but also reads plays so he can benefit everyone, even when Wilfork is already schemed out of the way. Wilfork eats up space like few other tackles of his era, but he also anchors champion defenses by communicating accurate information.

TL;DR: He made everyone better with his ass and his brain.

When the offense tries to use his aggression against him, he does something very few 300-pound athletes can even think of doing. He recognizes it, waits, and catches ballcarriers in space. Violently. In 2003, Pitt attempts to run a shovel pass behind Wilfork. In response, the elegant demolitions expert creates a 20-foot pit and waits for the running back to disappear into it.

Miami Athletics

There’s also the Patriots using his enormous frame as the fulcrum for a defense so confusing, it’ll sometimes call on Wilfork to drop back in pass coverage. This would seem like madness with any other 300-pound man. But with Wilfork, it could produce moments people could set to the theme from Chariots of Fire.

Just appreciate all of it: the athleticism, intellect, and feline agility required to stay in the frame and on the ball as much as even a raw Wilfork does at Miami. Defensive tackles rarely get that kind of shine, but it should be easier here. Wilfork, even while waiting for the game to slow down, burns brightly enough to be seen even through busted, old game tape.

If anyone still needs help with finding him, though, he’s the legged boulder landing on the quarterback.

Miami Athletics

Comparisons

Warren Sapp, but at least 30 pounds heavier? Ted Washington, but more nimble? Jerry Ball, but quicker, and with the ability to make weight?

Finding an exact comparison for Wilfork is nearly impossible because of what he’ll end up being in New England and how talented he is. The second is that he’s huge, but made his target weight of 330 pounds as a pro player at every weigh-in. (That feat alone, for a defensive lineman, makes him a rare specimen.)

But is he a Miami Hurricane in his heart and soul?

Yes.

What evidence can support this?

One: He does this against Florida in 2002...

Miami Athletics

...and then immediately does this in Gainesville as Miami leads by 25 points, happily drawing a 15-yard penalty.

Miami Athletics

Please submit any additional exhibits to support the case for Vince Wilfork’s overall greatness.

He not only angers rival quarterbacks to the point of violence, but appears confused by their attempts to retaliate.

Miami Athletics

Anything else?

Yes, that hit from the 2003 Florida State game from a different angle.

Miami Athletics

Lands full on the belly like an orca on the hunt.

That contrast between the literally hungry lineman and the intellectually hungry football mind is the whole difference for anyone watching him as a college football player. Wilfork would peak not because of physical ability — everyone at early-2000s Miami is astoundingly talented, right down to the third-stringers — but because he’s so smart and so clearly enjoys making everyone else around him smarter and better.

That is a common misread on all the great Hurricane teams, by the way. They were more like the Patriots than it seems. Their players weren’t just bigger/faster/stronger, but were usually smarter and better prepared than anyone else as well.

Consider: Ed Reed, Wilfork, and Jonathan Vilma are each as smart as anyone who ever played football. At one point in 2001, they all sat on the same depth chart together.

Combined, the three probably could have sent a human to Mars by now. Instead, they each decided to play American football, and honestly we’re all better for it. What will a Mars landing inspire that can’t be evoked by turn-of-the-millennium Orange Bowl highlights?