FOXBOROUGH -- Nine years ago, destiny pushed Miami junior defensive tackle Warren Sapp down to the Buccaneers at 12th overall. Sapp went on to become the anchor of Tampa Bay's defense. Yesterday, another Hurricanes junior, Vince Wilfork, fell to New England, at No. 21. Perhaps history repeats itself, but with an added bonus: The Patriots don't have to worry about "Baby Sapp," as Wilfork is known, taking after the loud-mouthed original. "I'm not a big talker," Wilfork said at the NFL Combine. "I don't run my mouth on the field. I don't do that because I believe that when you make a tackle, you're supposed to do that. There's nothing else to say. That's what you get paid to do."
Wilfork, a husband and father of two, will get a lot of Robert Kraft's money to make tackles for the Patriots, although the 6-foot-1 1/4-inch, 323-pound pocket pusher would be looking at a bigger payday had he been drafted in the top half of the first round, as projected. But thanks in part to an early run on wide receivers, Wilfork was there for New England at 21. The Patriots got an elite player with their first pick without trading up, then used their second first-rounder, No. 32, on Georgia tight end Ben Watson.
The Patriots have taken a defensive lineman with three of their last four first-round picks (Richard Seymour in 2001, Ty Warren last year). Wilfork is an athletic two-gap player who battled double teams at Miami and fits in nicely at nose tackle in the Patriots' 3-4 front. This year, the Patriots could have a starting defensive line of Wilfork, 22, and ends Seymour, 24, and Warren, 23.
"New England loves to win, they love to play the game, and they know a lot about winning," said Wilfork, who learned a thing or two about winning as a Hurricane. "We love to win also, and we know what it's like to have good competition and things like that. So when I was announced as a New England Patriot . . . I fell in love right there."
Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel love versatility, and Wilfork brings that to the NFL. The Hurricanes played both three- and four-man fronts. "So nothing is new to know there," Wilfork said. "I'll have no problem adapting to that. Whatever role they want me to play, that's what I will play. It's all about the team, it's all about winning and getting back to a Super Bowl."
The Patriots lost a key member of their championship defense, nose tackle Ted Washington, to free agency (Oakland). Wilfork isn't as big as Washington (few humans are), but they are similar because of their surprising athleticism. Wilfork broke the Miami indoor shot put record three times during the 2001 track season. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.08 seconds and bench pressed 225 pounds 36 times at the combine.
The only major concern with Wilfork, a semifinalist for the Lombardi and Bednarik awards and a first-team All-Big East selection last year, is his weight. He dropped more than 20 pounds to get down to 323 for the combine. He said he played his final game, against Florida State in the 2004 Orange Bowl, at 330 and had "the best game of my career," with seven tackles, two for 5-yard losses.
"I never got to a point where I was obese, where I couldn't move or I had back problems or couldn't run," he said. "It never got to that, so my weight has never been a problem for me and it never [will].
"When somebody looks at a guy my size, they think of a fat slob or a guy who can't move, but right here there is none of that. If you saw my game tape down in Miami, I was everywhere on the field. I played 60 minutes. I never took a play off and always played full speed, and I think it's hard for defensive tackles my size to do that. Either they get taken out of the game for a breather or they're not in condition. I never had that problem. I was always in great condition and always had fun."
Not always. Wilfork's father, David Sr., died at 48 of kidney disease in June 2002 after a long battle with diabetes. Wilfork lost his mother, Barbara, six months later to complications from a stroke she suffered in November 2002. She was 46. Though he considered sitting out, three weeks later Wilfork played with a heavy heart in Miami's Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. In that game, he stopped Maurice Clarett for a 7-yard loss.
After having so much taken, in February 2003 Wilfork and his future wife, Bianca, received a gift: their second child, daughter Destiny. Wilfork said the past two years "forced me to mature a lot earlier than other people. A lot of kids my age are still kids. With that, losing both parents and having a daughter, I had to do something, and my wife and I turned it around, and basically that's how I became the man that I am."
Yesterday was somewhat bittersweet for Wilfork. "I woke up thinking of them because this is the day, I knew it was going to come after a while, and they knew it was going to come, especially my dad. He was a football fanatic. By them not being with me physically, that got to me a little bit, but I know in spirit they're here with me and they'll always be here with me. So right now they're looking down on me and they're proud of their son right now."