FOXBOROUGH — Surgery, months of rehab, trade rumors, and a restructured contract.
Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has been through a lot in the eight-plus months since rupturing his right Achilles tendon, but the big defensive tackle is ready to put all of it behind him. He's cleared the physical hurdle of getting back on the field, and now he is working on building the confidence that comes with continued practice.
His Patriots future was clouded in uncertainty, but Wilfork never had a doubt that he would back on the field.
"From the time they told me I did it, from the time I had the surgery, I knew that I was going to be back [and] ready to rock and roll," he said following the team's final practice of mandatory minicamp on Thursday. "I don't know if it's mind games or I had to play mind games with myself or what, but it was never a question in my mind saying that 'I can't.' I know it's going to be tough, I know how tough the injury is, but I tell myself over and over again, I'm not the average person. I just do things a little differently than most of the people that had this injury or the size of the people that had this injury, so I'm gonna stick with my guns."
Wilfork looks just about ready to rock and roll right now. He participated in all the stretches and drills throughout the three-day minicamp, and looked much more spry than he did during organized team activities.
He has done at least one thing that stood out in each of the three practices. On Tuesday, it was a drill that saw him high-stepping over bags, dropping down and grabbing a football on the ground. On Wednesday, he was taking on double-teams in the nickel package. Thursday's Wilfork highlight was an interception, in which the 325-pound defensive tackle grabbed the ball, burst to his right and ran it into the end zone.
There was no hesitation from the big man in moving laterally with quickness.
"At this level, everything I do, it's going to be [with] confidence," Wilfork said. "I don't think there's anything limiting me physically. It's just mentally, being out there, going to do it. The more I do it, the more confidence I'll gain. And with OTAs and minicamps, the time that I spent out here with the guys, the time I spent in drills, the time I spent with the training staff, everything we do is for a reason. I can't be any happier than where I'm at right now. For me, it's just continuing to build, and I'll be ready to rock and roll hopefully come training camp. That's my goal: my goal's always been there, and where I'm at now, I'm in a good spot."
Wilfork's future in New England wasn't always certain. Reports of trade requests culminated with Wilfork taking a restructured contract (three years, $23 million) to stay with the team.
There have been some ugly contractual situations in the past between Wilfork and the Patriots, but the veteran defensive tackle is ready to put it all behind him.
"That's a dead issue," Wilfork said. "I'm here for a reason, so if I didn't believe in the things that was brought to me, I wouldn't sign it. So I'm here, [there's] a reason that I'm here, I'm not upset, I'm not holding no type of grudge. Business is business. Everybody handles business a different way, but in my career, I think the right thing was for me to be up here with my family and my teammates and the staff that I've been around for so long, the organization that I know. It was just a smart decision for me and my family to be here."
Wilfork wasn't the only one who made a smart decision; the Patriots made a smart decision in re-signing him. He has been a key cog in their defensive rotation for years, playing a vast majority of the defensive snaps over the past few years before his injury.
Last year's injury was the beginning of some troubling times for the Patriots' defensive tackle rotation. Inexperienced linemen like Joe Vellano and Chris Jones were thrust into starting roles due to Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both sustaining season-ending injuries. The Patriots yielded 2,145 rushing yards in the regular season (30th in the NFL) and 4.46 yards per attempt (24th).
Wilfork appears to be on schedule to be ready for the start of the season, but one of the major storylines of Wilfork's rehab is his combination of size and age. The 32-year-old veteran doesn't sound concerned about some evidence that suggests the odds are against him returning to form.
"Everything has stat support," he said. "Everything you do in life, there's always something that says you can't do it or you should be able to do it, because of this, or whatever. For me, I know my body. I know what it takes to be at the top of my level, at the top of my game. I know how hard it's going to be, but I never shy away from a competition or a challenge. This is a big challenge for me, the first time in my career being sidelined from an injury and a major injury, so everything was new to me."
All the doubters seem to have only fueled Wilfork's hunger for football, and the big man sounds as eager as ever to be on the field with his teammates.
"I think this year is probably going to be one of the most exciting times of my career, to actually be able to put pads on and go to practice," he said. "Like I say every year, I'm excited, but I think this year's going to be a little special because of what I've been through and how far I came along. Just to be out there with the guys once again, to line up and hear the calls and go through one-on-ones, take on double teams, and do all that stuff that I know how to do, it's going to be a lot [more] special this year for me."
We will only get a true idea of Wilfork's football-readiness when those pads finally go on, which is typically a few days after the start of training camp. The Patriots' first preseason game on Aug. 7 against the Washington Redskins could be our first true glimpse into the new Wilfork.
Whenever that time comes, don't expect anything different from the old Wilfork.
"If I approach it differently, then I might as well walk away from it," he said. "I only know how to play this game one way, and that's hard and fast and tough. That's it, so that's how I expect to play. If I can't do that, then it's time for me to retire, and I don't think it's time for me to retire."