FOXBOROUGH — If he sounds like a proud papa, maybe it’s because he is.
Everywhere Vince Wilfork looks these days, he sees young men growing up in front of his eyes: fellow starting defensive tackle Kyle Love; the other young players stocking the Patriots defense; and even his own son, D’Aundre, who played in his first high school football game Friday night.
They may be at different spots along the way, but they’re all traveling the same path Wilfork did.
A few months shy of his 31st birthday and starting his ninth NFL season, Wilfork is the elder statesman of a very young New England defense — the youngest of Bill Belichick’s tenure.
He laughs when asked about being the “old man” of the group. He is by no means old, at least not in the world outside of football, but with 16 of the 26 defensive players on the 53-man roster having just three years of pro experience or less, Wilfork has a wealth of knowledge that the others don’t.
And he’s more than willing to share it with the youngsters.
“Vince has been a great mentor for me,” said first-round pick Chandler Jones. “I feel like without Vince taking me under his wing from the first day I’ve been here, who knows what kind of player I [might be].
“The thing that he’s taught me is to slow down. Slow down. Because, he said, even though they say the NFL is a lot faster, if you just slow down, everything slows down for you.”
A first-round pick in 2004 out of Miami, Wilfork has seen his career unfold as not many others’ do in the NFL: He has been with the same team, going from the smart rookie learning to play nose tackle in the middle of a three-man line to one of the players that everyone else looks to, a leader on and off the field who is still among the best at his job.
“Ever since I got here, Vince has been a leader on the D-line, and that’s the type of guy he is,” said Ron Brace, now in his fourth season. “His work ethic and everything, you just can’t help but see him as a leader because everything he does is an example of how a defensive tackle or a D-lineman should play here. You can’t help but to look up to him as a leader.”
A busy man
Last year, as New England tried to switch to a 4-3 base defense — a switch that was delayed after the Albert Haynesworth experiment didn’t exactly work out — Wilfork was moved all over the line.
And when the season was over, it was he — not a linebacker like Jerod Mayo or a cornerback like Devin McCourty — who had played the most snaps on the defense. He was on the field for 977 of 1,141, a very high number for a lineman.
When postseason snaps are added in, Kyle Arrington overtook Wilfork by four snaps, but it still speaks to his durability and versatility.
Maybe it’s because he was on the field so much, or maybe because he continues to get better as a player — perhaps a bit of both — but Wilfork set a career high with 3½ regular-season sacks, and added two more in the playoffs; he also got the first two interceptions of his career, and the first touchdown, when he recovered a Redskins fumble in the end zone in December.
He has missed just six of 128 regular-season games in his career, three each in 2006 and ’09, and feels as good as ever.
“Physically, never had a problem, and knock on wood,” Wilfork said. “I’ve been pretty healthy throughout my whole career — high school, college and now pros.
“I never play scared, I never play ‘what if.’ I play the game the way it needs to be played, and that’s full-speed, full-tilt, and whatever happens out of that happens. But physically, I haven’t felt any better.
“I don’t feel [age]. I don’t feel it. That’s something I never look at. Every year I know it’s a year under your belt, but when I’m playing, I don’t feel like I’m 30 or nine years in; I feel like I’m just like everybody else.
“I come to work, I work hard, I expect the same thing out of my teammates, and as long as you keep that mind-frame, you can play as long as you want to play. You have to have the passion for it.”
Perhaps one day in training camp this summer encapsulated Wilfork’s status as one of the best and displayed his still-strong love of the game. In one-on-ones against the offensive linemen, he was beaten soundly by Dan Connolly on his first turn. Not only did Wilfork take three more turns, but he dominated Dan Koppen, Donald Thomas, and Robert Gallery, using a different move each time.
With so many fresh faces on the defense, and a new wave of expectations after last year’s unit was arguably the worst of Belichick’s career, Wilfork has almost flown under the radar since camp started, but among his teammates, everyone knows where to find him, and it’s usually in the film room.
Brace credits Wilfork with teaching him how to get the most out of watching film. Jones puts his hands near his temples to illustrate that his vision when studying is narrow, then pushes his hands wider to show just how wide Wilfork’s is when he’s watching film.
Wilfork’s knowledge came in handy against Dallas last year, on a red-zone third-down play. Before the snap, Wilfork gestured to middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, and Spikes burst through the line, dropping running back Tashard Choice for a 3-yard loss and forcing Dallas to settle for a field goal. New England won the game by 4 points.
Spikes acknowledged after the game that Wilfork remembered something from film study, signaled to him what play was coming, and Spikes responded.
He has shown no signs of slowing down yet, but as he looks around the locker room these days, Wilfork sees precious few faces that were there when he was the young buck. He remembers the lessons he learned then, among the many ones he passes down now.
“Coming in as a rookie, I always had old heads tell me, ‘This don’t last forever’ and one thing I wanted to do, I wanted to come in with the same defensive line, leave with the same defensive line, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “Business always takes its course, but over the years you can see people come and go, guys you get acquainted with, guys you get real close with on and off the field, and you see them leave.
“And it hurts you, but at the same time you have to understand it’s a business. Just being around now and seeing all these guys, it’s like, nine years I’ve been here and I’ve seen a lot of faces come around, but I’m loving the group that I have in this locker room.
“So it’s a lot easier to look in this locker room and say, ‘Man, I remember this, I remember that, I remember when we did this,’ and these guys listen, because they want to know what it felt like to do something or play with somebody.
“I have those memories and I try to pass them along, but I try not to dwell on them also, because it is a new era and these are guys . . . some guys don’t even know the guys that I played with.
“But at the same time, it’s fun, because I get a chance to sit back and actually see some people grow, see their career take off, and be happy to be part of it.
“I never get complacent where I’m at, so I’m always loving it. The day I stop loving this and don’t have the passion anymore, it’s time for me to give it up, and I’m far from that.”