FOXBOROUGH — It was a simple drill — a group of defensive players were mimicking what they’d do in pass coverage, cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer would throw a football, a player would make the interception and everyone would change direction and head the other way.
Late Thursday morning inside the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse, as cameras rolled and reporters watched, Vince Wilfork pulled in one of those interceptions, planted, and started running forward.
The sequence showed that Wilfork, a mainstay of the Patriots’ defensive line since being drafted more than a decade ago, is well on the road back after tearing his right Achilles’ Sept. 29 in Atlanta.
The injury knocked Wilfork out for the final 12 games of the season. He had missed just six games in his first nine seasons.
Though he was still very much a part of the team, mentoring younger players and traveling to road games (a rarity for injured players during the Bill Belichick era), being unable to play gave Wilfork a new appreciation for the game he loves.
“This is my 11th year and every year it’s fun [but] 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,” Wilfork said Thursday, in his first interview since suffering the injury. “Every year I’m excited but I think this year’s going to be just a little special because of what I’ve been through and how far I came along and just to be out there with the guys once again, to line up and hear the calls and go through one-on-ones and take on double-teams, do all that stuff that I know how to do, it’s going to be special for me.”
The 32-year-old, a first-round pick in 2004, said he has no limitations, though he still has some work to do before training camp next month.
“I’m very happy. Excited. It’s been a long time to be able to step out here with the guys and just to take that step is very important to me,” Wilfork said. “I still have a lot to do, but very confident in where I’m at. Continue to just get better, get stronger and stuff like that. It’s going to take time, but I’m very positive with where I’m at right now. [Former team doctor] Thomas Gill with the surgery and everything, everything went well, I healed up fine, so it’s just knocking the rust off [after] being away from football for a long time.
“Anytime you get back at doing something you love, it’s always a positive. Having fun still, still love the game, teammates . . . just happy to be back.”
Earlier this year, Wilfork agreed to a restructured contract, a somewhat complicated three-year pact that includes a good deal of incentives. There were reports that Wilfork had asked for a trade him before his contract was reworked, but that situation is behind him.
“I’m here. That’s a dead issue,” Wilfork said. “I’m here for a reason. If I didn’t believe in the things that were brought to me, I wouldn’t have signed it. I’m here. There’s a reason why I’m here.
“I’m not upset, I’m not holding no type of grudge. Business is business. Everybody handles business different ways. But in my career, I think the right thing for me was to be up here with my family and my teammates and a staff that I’ve been around for so long, an organization that I know — it was just a smart decision for me and my family to be here. It’s a positive thing that I’m here. There’s no grudges. That’s the first time I’ve talked about it, but it’s a non-issue.”
Asked if he ever doubted he’d return to New England, Wilfork said there are lots of ifs — he could have been drafted by a different team, for example — and quoted a rap lyric, saying, “If if was a fifth, we’d all be drunk, right?” and laughing along with reporters.
Where he ended up might have been in question, however briefly, but Wilfork never doubted he’d return to 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, ready to rock and roll,” he said. “I don’t know if I had to play mind games with myself or what, but it was never a question in my mind, saying that I can’t do it.
“I knew it was 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 people that had this injury or [people my size] that had this injury, so I’m going to stick with my guns. Until I prove myself wrong, that’s going to always be my motto — I’m going to stick with my guns, I’m going to be true to myself, and I know if I work hard, hard enough, if that’s not good enough, it’s time for me to call it quits.
“Until that day happens, you’re going to keep seeing my pretty face.”