Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left Miami with a college football championship behind him and then picked up a Super Bowl ring as a rookie with the New England Patriots.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is easy. I could do this all the time,’ ” Wilfork said. “And little did I know, here I am 11 years later more excited now than then that I’m at this level with my teammates. So it’s one of those things you just work so hard for.”
Now in his 11th professional season, only quarterback Tom Brady has been with the Patriots longer. And at age 33, Wilfork is still waiting for a second NFL championship. He and the Patriots returned to the Super Bowl in 2008 and 2012, losing both times to the New York Giants.
Now they’re back again, this time with the Seattle Seahawks awaiting them in Super Bowl 49 on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona.
“We all have one goal, and it’s to get to this point,” Wilfork said. “The saddest thing about this is you have to have a loser in this game. The two best teams in the game, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. So hopefully we’re on the right end of that this year.”
Even without another ring, the intervening years have been good for Wilfork. Being named to five Pro Bowls speaks to his skill. Being elected Patriots captain for seven straight seasons speaks to his leadership.
“He’s a guy that sits in the front, pays attention, sits upright and is really into the meetings,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “If I need to point to anybody in the room that I think needs to do it a certain way, I can just point to Vince and say, ‘You need to follow this guy’s example. This is how you sustain in the NFL.’ ”
Four games into the 2013 season, Wilfork went down with a torn Achilles tendon, and that’s where his season ended.
But he worked himself all the way back, starting every game this season and finishing eighth on the team with 47 tackles. He also grabbed his third career interception — the most ever by a Patriots lineman.
“One of my biggest goals was to come back and help my team win ball games, and I think we did a lot of that this year,” he said. “There were a lot of ups and downs and this team has been through a lot, forced to fight all year.”
Wilfork knows the fight isn’t over, and that another challenge awaits on Sunday. Several times this week, he has gone out of his way to stress his respect for Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
“He’s a complete back. I think you give credit where credit is due,” Wilfork said. “I think he’s the best back in the game. … With the ball in his hands, catching the ball, running the ball, blocking, yards after contact, you name it: all those areas, he leads.”
Yet, as Wilfork pointed out, only one team can win on Sunday. Either the Seahawks will win their second Super Bowl, or Wilfork will finally get his.
If it’s the former, Wilfork knows where he will turn.
“I have a bad day at work, I go home and see my family,” he said. “My kids, they’re so innocent. The only thing they want to do is play; they want to tell me about school. And it kind of puts everything in perspective when you look at it, because no matter what I’m going through in life, I can always go home and have that feeling that I’m not a loser or that I’m not this or I’m not that. And that’s the luxury of having a good family. That is one thing I cherish the most.”