Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork returned to Foxborough on Wednesday to sign a one-day contract and retire a Patriot after a 13-year NFL career, 11 seasons in New England and two with the Houston Texans.
Team owner Robert Kraft spoke warmly about one of his favorite players before coach Bill Belichick did the same and introduced Wilfork himself.
Here are 13 stories or things we learned from Wilfork’s retirement news conference:
1. Belichick and Patriots scouts did not think Wilfork would be available when they picked 21st overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. But he slipped down the board.
“I remember at that draft in ’04 sitting near Bill and I think Vince was projected to go in the top 10 and he slipped to 21 and I remember Bill saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that kind of value was there at this point,’ Kraft said. “And I remember how excited he was that we got Vince at that point.”
Even before Wilfork’s interview with Belichick and Co. at the scouting combine, Belichick thought the interview would be pointless, thinking he wouldn’t be around that late in the first round.
“My first exposure to Vince was at the Indianapolis Combine. We sat in that hotel room and interviewed him for about 20 minutes. When he came in, the first thing I said to Scott [Pioli] and the other scouts was like, ‘This is a waste of time. There’s no way he’s going to be there when we pick.’ Just like Robert said, that was absolutely the truth,” Belichick said.
“We were able to select him with that 21st pick in 2004. That was really, I’d say in my career, one of the real surprises that I’ve ever personally been a part of with the draft that Vince was actually on the board when we selected.”
2. When Wilfork arrived at Kraft’s office before the usual first-round pick photo after the 2004 draft, he donned a gold chain with a photo of his parents, both of whom had died during Wilfork’s time at Miami. Kraft asked about it and came away touched by Wilfork’s sense of family.
When Myra Kraft, Robert’s wife, was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer in 2010, Wilfork gave Robert a similar chain and medallion, this one with a wedding photo of Robert and Myra on it. Robert wore it for 11 months after Myra died.
Here is Kraft’s retelling of the story:
“When he came into my office — Jonathan and I have had a history of having pictures with the first-round pick — and he came in with, I think it was Ben Watson at the time, the two of them. I saw this huge man come in and to be a ballet dancer, I would say freakish size. He was wearing a gold chain with a medallion on it. I asked him what that was and he had pictures of his parents and he mentioned to me that they had both passed away while he was at Miami. It just said what a sense of family, how that was important to him and that he had been privileged to meet up with Bianca at that time and continue that sense of family and how he was grounded because of that. I thought that we had something in common in that we each married strong women who helped us keep our feet on the ground. The fact that he had those kinds of family values and was respectful of his bride and children, he became one of Myra’s favorites.
“When he would come off the field, he was always the last player to come off, he would always go over and give her a kiss and then he came and gave me a kiss and left the field. That was really meaningful. When her health started to decline in 2010, he and Bianca gave me a similar medal to what he was wearing and it was a picture of my favorite wedding picture of us. I was really touched by that sentiment and the gift. I don’t wear jewelry of any kind or chains. While Myra was sick, having chemotherapy, I did wear it. She thought it was a little strange. She said, ‘Are you trying to be like Rick Ross?’ I just explained that it made me feel better. So it was something that was very meaningful and the two of them on the back had said ‘Cherish Love’ and I think that’s what Vince, in many ways, is. He’s a big man physically, but he’s a very special human being and for those of us that get a chance to see him in person, we get to know that and that’s why he was such a great member of our team, too. He was very passionate as well. When my beloved wife passed away, I wore this every day for 11 months. The first game that came after she died, it was here in August, first preseason game, and he came over and gave me a kiss on one cheek and then he kissed me on the other cheek and said, ‘This is for Momma.’ And then he looked up. It’s just really cool. And I must say, he was also dripping sweat, but that was sweat very much enjoyed sharing. He kept that up for his entire career, he would always give me a kiss for Momma.”
3. Wilfork, at first, did not like Romeo Crennel, New England’s defensive coordinator when Wilfork was a rookie. That changed.
“I didn’t like Romeo at first because Romeo was one of those old schoolers, he liked his veterans and he treated his veterans different,” he said. “I didn’t pout about it. It pissed me off, but at the same time it taught me, you have to earn your keeps at this level and that’s what I did.”
4. Belichick called Wilfork the best defensive lineman he has ever coached.
“Vince is one of the most versatile players that I have ever coached. He has a tremendous skill set. He’s quick, he’s very athletic, light on his feet, runs well, and has, obviously, tremendous strength and power at the line of scrimmage,” Belichick said. “That’s a pretty good combination. Another strength of his is his intelligence. We ask our players to not only know what they do but know what the guys beside them do, understand the overall scheme, and understand situational football, and Vince is the best defensive lineman that I’ve ever coached at that because of his ability to not only know what he was doing but control the entire line, but also understand what the situation of the game was, what they were trying to do and what our opponents are trying to do, how to adjust to it, and so forth.”
5. Belichick considered Wilfork the captain of the captains. If a player had something he wanted relayed to Belichick, but didn’t feel comfortable expressing it himself, he would go through Wilfork.
“In our captains meetings, we have usually five or six captains, depending on the year and the way it falls and so forth. All the captains always speak in those meetings. I ask every single guy certain questions about how the team is doing at their position or at their group of whatever. But as in any group, certain captains stick out above other captains,” Belichick said. “Vince was kind of the captain of the captains. He was the true leader of the team. He was kind of the voice of the team. Sometimes the captains individually might not want to bring something up to me, and I knew that they would, like, [say], ‘Vince, you gotta bring this up to coach because I’m not bringing it up. But you need to bring it up.’ And Vince would be the guy to do that and that’s how much respect they had for him. I leaned on him very heavily in terms of what the team needed, how to prepare for a game, where we were at a certain point in each week or where we were at each point in the season.”
6. At training camp in 2009, Bianca was pregnant with their second child, David. She gave birth on Aug. 5 and was back at practice two days later. That and her continued attendance earned her an Iron Man T-shirt from Belichick and the coaching staff.
“That was a hot training camp, which we’re not having now, but it that year it was hot and every day it was. She comes to training camp ready to deliver, it looked like, every single day, day after day, after day, after day. You just felt so bad for her. She came early and stayed late. It was not like, just show up in the last two seconds of practice. She was there. And then finally, on the 5th, she delivered,” Belichick said. “We’re out there at practice two days later, and she’s back out there again. I said to Vince, like, ‘This is unbelieveable. She’s made more practices than a quarter of our team has.’ So at the end of the year, when we give out the Iron Man shirts for the players that don’t miss a practice, they’re there for every practice — not half a practice with this or a that or anything — they’re there for every practice the entire training camp, an Iron Man T-shirt. It really means a lot. It really means that you’ve made it through every single day without question. We gave one to Bianca because, I gave one to Bianca because I had to. I had to. The effort was super human.”
7. The Krafts take a family trip each year. In 2012, the year after Myra died, the family decided to head to Florence, this time inviting Wilfork and his wife, Bianca.
“It was a family vote and we asked that Bianca and Vince if they would join us and be part of our family for that week. They happily did. We had a memorable time. I just think of two Vince stories on that trip,” Kraft said. “One, for any of you who know Italy, the finest artists and leatherwork is done there. We went to a little fine leather store. Most Italian men are thin, in Italy at least, thin and well-sculpted. There were leather jackets, sort of a fixed price and Vince was getting fitted for this leather jacket and I don’t think the gentleman who was the artist had ever seen anyone that size. I don’t know, did he ever make it? Yeah, I don’t think he could afford it, it was really high-grade leather and it was a fixed price.
“The other fond memory is we went to one of the nicest restaurants in Florence. I remember Vince saying that he had camp coming up and he wanted to eat healthy and just eat protein. This place was famous for pasta. They brought many pastas and meat and desserts and Vince was a full participant in every course, not wanting to make them feel bad. I checked when he came back here, he was able to pass his run, but I think he might have been a few pounds overweight and had to pay a fine, which, Bill, I really should’ve paid because I brought him there. But it was just a great memory and Bianca and Vince have been so special to us.”
8. Wilfork, in fact, never missed a weigh-in or failed a conditioning test.
“Robert, I have to correct you on this, and this is maybe surprising, but it’s true,” Belichick said. “Vince never one time was fined for being overweight and never one time missed a conditioning test, ever. And the conditioning test, honestly, wasn’t even close. Vince could run. That was never an issue. There was times when he would come in for the weigh-ins and we’d say, like, ‘Man, is he going to make it today?’ But 11 years, never fined one time for being overweight. Now, I’m not saying he was never overweight. I’m not saying that. I’m saying at weigh-in, he made every weigh-in.”
When Wilfork got up to speak, he corroborated Belichick’s retelling of weigh-ins, though added a caveat.
“Yeah, I never missed a weigh-in,” he said. “But catch me 30 minutes later and it might be a different story. That’s just being honest.”
9. During offseason training activities before the 2014 season, Wilfork’s last with the Patriots, he predicted they would win Super Bowl XLIX — while sitting in a sauna.
“To all my teammates who I played with, thank you for listening. I remember sitting in the sauna — and the sauna probably looked like a meat market. It was probably like 12 of us in the sauna, and the sauna’s small. I mean, there were just so many people in there that day, and it was OTAs. I remember telling everybody in there, I said, ‘We’re gonna win Super Bowl 49.’ This was in the offseason. I said, ‘We’re gonna win it because we got chemistry. We have something that a lot of people, a lot of teams wish they had.’ We had it. And I saw that right away. We talking about OTAs,” Wilfork said. “So I saw something in our team around that time that we was going to win Super Bowl 49. No matter what happened, and no matter what people tell you, we won Super Bowl 49. We all had a job to do. We all held each other accountable. We all stepped up in our leadership roles. We never took a day off. We never complained. We never took nothing for granted that year. We grind. So thank you guys for trusting me and proving that we were champs.”
10. He said always knew he wanted to retire a Patriot.
“My résumé wouldn’t have been what it was without New England. The majority of my career, this is home to me. All the memories I made over the years, the guy that you guys seen and the career that I had, it wouldn’t have happened without the Patriots. I’ve always wanted to come back and be a Patriot for life. I never wanted to leave, but things happen. Business is business. It happened, but I know once I retired I knew where I needed to be and where I needed to retire at.”
11. Wilfork said one of his favorite memories from his career was getting to play his final game in Gillette Stadium, in from of both Patriots and Texans fans.
“Looking back at my career and playing my first career game in the NFL, I played here. I played my last game of my career, I played here. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or what, but I’m happy I went out the way I did,” he said. “I’m happy that I got a chance and end my career literally on the field that I started on. That’s something that’s going to always stick with me. I have a bunch of memories. That’s going to be a memory that’s always going to stick with me. Got a chance to play in front of two crowds that night in the playoff. You had the Houston crowd, you had the New England crowd, I’m playing for the Houston Texans and I played 11 years [for the Patriots.] So I had everybody in one place to witness my last game. That’s pretty awesome.”
12. He has no plans for retirement life and that’s the way he wants it.
“My plans is for 20 years I’ve been on a schedule. Last thing I’m going to do is jump into something right now and get back on a schedule. I’m not going to do that, so I’m going to take some time and it might be a year or so. I’m going to take off and kind of do things how I want to do it. Wake up when I want to. Fish when I want to. Grill when I want to. Golf when I want to. Do what I want to do, you know? Just live life,” he said. “Let my body relax and let my body get a feel what like without having no workouts and no schedule being here, being there, just let my body just relax and just go. I don’t know. I want it to be a year, but who knows, I might get antsy and get into something. Or if something comes up that’s, a deal come up that’s too good to pass up, I might get into something, but as of right now, I just want to relax. I just want to do something I haven’t done in 20 years.”
13. He had one regret over his NFL career.
“Lastly, only one thing I regret in my 13 years of playing NFL football is my parents didn’t get a chance to see their son live out a dream he told them at the age of 4 I was going to be. Physically, it hurt every day. It hurt by the hour. Daily. Not a minute go by. But I know they have the best seat in the house. Thank you, David and Barbara Wilfork,” he said, getting choked up. “I love you.”