When New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork arrived in Foxborough in 2004 after playing for the University of Miami, he was accustomed to success.
“I didn’t lose many games in college. I was a national champion in college, so my first year in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl, I was like, ‘Man, this is easy. I could do this all the time,’ " Wilfork said during a press conference at the Patriots hotel in Chandler, Arizona on Wednesday. "Little did I know, here I am 11 years later, more excited now than then that I’m at this level with my teammates.”
"I was a national champion in college, so my first year in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl, I was like, ‘Man, this is easy. I could do this all the time.' "Vince Wilfork
Wilfork is one of just two players on the current Patriots roster who were also on the team in 2004, the last season New England won the Super Bowl. The other is quarterback Tom Brady. In his early years in the NFL, Wilfork says, he learned as much from the veteran Patriots players as he did from the coaches.
“Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Michael Vrabel. All we did was compete. Every day was compete," he said. "The way they practiced, the way they ran their sprints, you name it. Whatever they did, they was doin’ it at a high level.”
And today, he’s carrying on that tradition. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell is in his first season playing with Wilfork and is quick to praise him.
“Man, that’s the big dog, man," LaFell said. "When the big dog talks everybody listens. He’s a guy that carries himself well, works his butt off every day in practice and the weight room, man. And he just got a lot of knowledge for you.”
That's something you hear a lot from Wilfork's teammates. Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly, who's one of Wilfork's co-captains, says he sets an example.
“Vince is a great leader on that D-line and just on the defense in general," he said. "He’s the guy that everyone respects. He always does his job.”
The Patriots' Super Bowl opponents respect Wilfork, too. Patrick Lewis is one of the Seahawks' offensive linemen getting ready to face him on Sunday. He says at 33 years old, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound defensive tackle hasn’t lost a step. Lewis is 10 years younger than Wilfork and as a kid, followed his career.
“I remember when he was down in Miami," Lewis said. "I’ve been a fan of him for a long time, so you just got to go out there and keep your feet movin’ and hope for the best.”
"I’ve been a fan of him for a long time, so you just got to go out there and keep your feet movin’ and hope for the best.”Seattle lineman Patrick Lewis
Long-term success in the NFL usually involves in-depth study. Brady is often held up as a model of meticulous preparation. But Patriots linebackers coach Patrick Graham says Wilfork’s in the same class.
“I know Vince watches enough tape that he could challenge the coaches. It’s a remarkable thing to be around a player like that. It helps you become a better coach," he said. "Coach one of the best defensive tackles that have played in this league. It’s a great privilege.”
After the Patriots’ victory over Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game earlier this month, Wilfork and his family pulled over to help a driver stuck in an overturned Jeep in Foxborough. Wilfork waited for police to arrive, then pulled the woman out.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty says Wilfork’s part as a role model has always extended beyond the playing field.
“Vince has been like a big brother to me, as far as being able to teach me a lot about football, a lot about life,” McCourty said.
Wilfork is well-known for his devotion to his family. He and his wife, Bianca, have three children. After missing just a handful of games in his first nine seasons, Wilfork ruptured one his Achilles tendons in 2013 and missed most of the year. He needed surgery, but returned to form this season and has started every game. He says during trying times his family helps him keep his career in perspective.
“I have a bad day at work, you know, I go home and see my family and my kids. They so innocent. The only thing they want to do, they want to play, they want to tell me about school," Wilfork said. "No matter what I’m going through in life, I always can go home and have that feelin’ that I’m not a loser or I’m not this or I’m not that. That’s the luxury of having a good family. I would take family over football any day.”
Fortunately for Patriots fans Wilfork doesn’t have to make that choice. And on Sunday, Wilfork will be chasing the victory that seemed easy to him as a rookie 10 years ago.
“Everybody asks me what it feels like to be a Super Bowl champion. It’s something that you really can’t put into words," he said. "It’s just, being on that field after that game with your family, your friends, organization, the confetti coming down in your colors, and the feeling that you have after being able to win this game, it’s what you searchin’ for.”
This segment aired on January 29, 2015.