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Wilfork enjoys taking the lead

He's passing on winning lessons

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 2, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - It has become a tradition for Vince Wilfork to invite his fellow defensive linemen into his suburban home once a week, ostensibly to watch film of the previous game and talk about ways they can improve. But that is just a convenient excuse.

For Wilfork, the get-togethers are his way of passing on the lessons taught to him by former Patriots Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest. Some are about football because that is their shared craft. But most are about life.

“I want to see how guys are as people,’’ Wilfork said yesterday as the Patriots continued preparations for the Super Bowl. “Understand, we’re all in this together. I don’t care how many years I got up under my belt, it really don’t mean nothing. It’s important for those guys to understand where I come from and what I think about.’’

For a man whose job is a series of violent collisions, the 30-year-old Wilfork has a deep sense of family and community.

He started dating his wife, Bianca, when he was at the University of Miami. The couple has three children and Bianca rarely misses a game, home or away. Wilfork counts several of his former college teammates as close friends and it is without the slightest hint of cliché that he refers to the Patriots linemen as being part of a brotherhood.

“That time I have with those guys, I think it means a lot to them. But it means more to me,’’ Wilfork said. “They get a chance to see me outside of the organization and they can see what kind of person I am. I think that goes a long way. You develop a bond. When you get that bond, guys trust one another. I think we have that.’’

Since the Patriots were last in the Super Bowl four years ago, only Wilfork remains on the defensive line. Seymour, his mentor, was traded to Oakland. Ty Warren, another close friend, is now with Denver.

In their place are an assortment of veterans such as Shaun Ellis, Mark Anderson, and Gerard Warren, and younger, still-developing players. That group includes Kyle Love, Ron Brace, and Brandon Deaderick.

All are welcome when Wilfork opens his home.

“Not too many people would do that,’’ said Brace, a Patriot for three years. “You’re there with his wife, his kids, you’re sitting on his couch and eating his food. He makes you feel like part of the family. You have to respect that. Vince leads in his own way. He doesn’t get in your face. But you don’t want to let him down. He has that respect.’’

Roster turnover is a fact of life in the NFL, and for the Patriots, the tumult affected the defense far more than the offense in the last few years. But Wilfork has stayed solid in the middle.

This season has been arguably his best. Wilfork made the Pro Bowl for the fourth time and led the linemen with 74 tackles. He also had the first touchdown and first two interceptions of his career.

Of greater importance, Wilfork was on the field for 86 percent of the defensive snaps this season - a 16 percent hike from a year ago and 27 percent more than 2009. Part of that is because the Patriots play more four-man fronts than they have in previous seasons. But another reason is Wilfork’s determination to be a leader.

“He sets the example,’’ quarterback Tom Brady said. “He’s an extremely consistent player. He plays at a very high level every week. You feed off guys like that.

“He’s been a great leader for this team since he got here. When he first got here as a young guy, he was surrounded by a lot of veteran players that brought some great leadership qualities to him, and he’s really taken that over.’’

The 325-pound Wilfork was on the field for all but three plays in the AFC Championship game. His pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco in Baltimore’s penultimate drive forced a fourth-down incompletion with 2:53 to play.

“You don’t normally see a man that size that much in a game,’’ said Pepper Johnson, the Patriots defensive line coach. “That’s desire. We couldn’t have dragged him off that field.’’

Said coach Bill Belichick, “You can talk about his appearance. He doesn’t have the classic appearance. He is a good athlete. He is in good shape, and he works really hard. He can play a lot of plays, and he plays them well, too.’’

Johnson, now in his 12th season as an assistant coach, marvels at Wilfork’s ability to lead without making a lot of noise about it. There is nothing false or contrived about his emotions.

“I still don’t see what’s done behind closed doors or when they leave the facility and stuff like that. A guy like him, he constantly talks to younger guys. That’s what this game is all about, the younger guys playing for a veteran such as himself,’’ said Johnson.

“Vince is one of those guys that the good Lord put on this earth to play football. It’s his mentality. It’s his being, physically and mentally. He wants to know everything there possibly is to know about football . . . Run or pass, it doesn’t matter, and he applies himself in that aspect. He’s a good ballplayer.’’

Against the Giants and their two-pronged running attack of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, Wilfork’s ability to stuff the run could be the difference in the game.

“Tackling Bradshaw is like tackling me,’’ Wilfork said. “It’s going to be a physical game. [The Giants] should feel like they’re the best team. They should feel like they’re the team to beat. They’re playing some good football. They’re playing the best football out there. You can’t say anything negative about what they’ve got going on. They talk the talk and they walk the walk.

“But I play. I play my heart out. I don’t give up. Being able to play in something like this is special. I’ve had the pleasure, this is my third one. I know how it feels to win and I know how it feels to lose. I know both feelings. I know which one I want.’’

There will be no film session next week. Win or lose the Super Bowl, the Patriots will break up and start fresh in the spring. But the door will never close as far as Wilfork is concerned.

“It doesn’t always have to be about football. People need to see you as a person just to be reminded,’’ he said. “Being in the locker room, everything you hear is football, football, football. But we’re normal people, too.

“This is a game but I’m trying to do the right thing on and off the field. That was a lesson taught to me, and it’s my job to teach it now. I take that seriously.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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