FOXBOROUGH — Vince Wilfork was not a very good patient.
Within one week of his surgery Oct. 1 to repair a torn Achilles’ tendon, his wife/nurse, Bianca, already was laying into him, after she caught him trying to walk up the stairs in their home.
Eleven months later, he chuckles at the memory. She lets out a sigh.
“With this injury they were saying, ‘You can’t be walking, you can’t be up,’ and I was like, ‘Man, I need to go do this,’ ” Wilfork said at his locker last week. “I was never in that predicament where I had to sit down all day. She told me I couldn’t walk up the stairs by myself and she caught me one day and she chewed me out from left and right, so I said, you know, that’s the last time I’m going to do that because if I fell there was nobody there and I might have messed up the surgery, so she was right.
“I kind of took a step back and started listening a little bit. So she had four kids she had to deal with, including me, around that time. It was different for all of us.”
“I gave him the business. I cussed him out,” Bianca said. “I know how frustrating it is because I’m not the best patient, but fortunately for me I don’t have anybody else to tell me, ‘Oh, no, you’re not supposed to do this,’ because he doesn’t know what I’m supposed to do and not supposed to do, but I know, so that gave me the upper hand.
“But he got it together, and that was a trying time for all of us. And all things considered, a couple of bumps along the way, but he managed it fine.”
The Patriots drafted Wilfork out of the University of Miami in 2004, and when he took the field for a Sunday night game against the Falcons last season, it was the 142d regular-season game of his career. He had missed just six over his first nine-plus seasons, three each in 2006 and 2009.
But on the first defensive series for the Patriots, Wilfork felt something pop. He believed he’d been kicked or maybe rolled his ankle.
Bianca, sitting behind the New England bench like she does for every road game, knew it was far worse.
“I knew from the way he stepped that it was bad,” she said. “When the play takes off, all I do is watch him until the play gets past him, so I saw everything.”
Bianca cried as a team official led her back to her husband, but just before she went into the room to see Vince, she stopped.
Plans had to be made. They would need help with their three children, getting them to and from school and their various activities. Vince would be undergoing surgery shortly after they returned home.
This was no time to bury her head in her hands. So Bianca went into “take care of everything mode.”
After Wilfork came out of surgery, the couple tweeted a photo, his lower right leg bandaged, giving a thumbs-up and thanking fans for their support. Amazingly for someone who has played football for more than two decades, it was his first surgery.
Then, Wilfork hunkered down at home.
“People have different ways to deal with things, and my way was, you know what, let me stay as far away as possible, let me get healthy, let me do what I need to do to get back,” Wilfork said. “It came to a point where, all right, I’m moving around now, now I’m starting to miss my guys, then I had to talk to Bill [Belichick], can I come here, can I do the meetings, can I do this, and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and that meant a lot to me.”
“I think one of the biggest areas he had to overcome when he got hurt was the feeling of letting the team down,” Bianca said. “I think that he came to a realization that you can still be a part of it. You can still put forth what you can, and he did that, and it filled that void as much as it could.”
Wilfork became a mentor to young defensive tackles Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and Sealver Siliga, who were thrust into major roles after Wilfork’s injury, and a week later, a season-ending injury to Tommy Kelly.
“Anything I could do to help my teammates, I wanted to do it. I told Bill that, I told the coaches that, and they would pick my brain and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m here. I don’t have nothing to do but sit around and watch film all day and watch you meatheads,’ ” Wilfork said, smiling. “But they took it in stride. They learned so much last year; I was so proud of them. And even now, from where they were last year until now, it’s amazing the jump they’ve made, and I’m so excited for those guys and I’m excited to be playing with them. They grew up a lot, and it was good to see that.”
Belichick even allowed Wilfork to travel with the team, once he was able to be on the sideline. It is not a privilege the coach proffers often — over the last seven or eight years, only Wilfork, Matthew Slater, and Kevin Faulk have been allowed to do so.
“Some people might not understand what that meant for me to be with my guys at games and on the sideline and being able to travel with them, that meant the world to me,” Wilfork said. “That showed a lot of respect that he has for me and I really appreciated him doing that, and I told him that.”
When he wasn’t teaching, Wilfork was rehabbing. His goal was to be on the field on Day 1 of training camp. And on July 24, he was. No setbacks, no delay, no physically unable to perform list. As the Patriots opened camp, No. 75 strode onto the field, helmet in hand, ready to get back to what he loves.
It was easy to wonder how Wilfork’s body would respond. He was 31 at the time of his injury and weighs more than 300 pounds, necessary for a player in his position. And an Achilles’ can affect a player’s power, which is paramount when playing on the line. But he feels he’s not only back to being the player he was, he’s even better.
Through watching film, there were things he picked up that he wants to do a little bit differently, and as he rehabbed, he concentrated on his footwork, hands, leverage.
“I think I’m as strong as I’ve ever been in my career, I know it’s as strong as I’ve ever been in my career,” Wilfork said. “That was one of the main things I wanted to make sure of, too. I wanted to make sure I was at the top of my level strength-wise, that way I wouldn’t have no issues whatsoever with the Achilles’, and I don’t.
“I pushed myself as if I was back in college. Some days were tougher than others, but now I’m happy I did it because I can feel the difference in moving around and just playing in general. I’m looking at film and seeing things I can do a little bit better, but I’m pretty happy with the foundation I’ve laid, especially strength-wise.”
“He also looks quicker than he has been,” Bianca said. “I just watch him, so I notice things, and I don’t know if he sees the quickness that I see or not, but he’s coming off [the ball] fast and he’s looking good. He’s right there on every play.
“But I do agree with him, he worked really, really hard. Not that he doesn’t usually work hard, but he knew that if it was going to be successful, it had to be based off 100 percent effort. Anything and everything we can do, we’ve done. And everything else has to play itself out. But as long as we know that we did as much as we could on our end, there’s not much else for us to do.”
While the Wilforks both say they had no doubt he would be able to come back, there was no way to know how he would respond.
A contract negotiation with the Patriots got contentious, and Wilfork reportedly asked to be traded. Maybe time has healed things a bit.
“At the end of the day, I feel it was fair,” Wilfork said. “I had to deal with reality. The reality is, I didn’t know how I was going to come back from the injury because I’ve never been injured. Both sides felt that way, I felt that way.
“I think we came to an agreement where, if I can play, I’ll play. And everything worked itself out. I have nothing but total confidence, that’s an afterthought. If I can play football, I can play football. So that’s what it was all about. I think both sides came to a solution that we both can deal with. That’s why I’m here.”
On Sunday, when the Patriots open the season in Miami, Bianca will be in her customary spot, behind the team’s bench. As she prepared for the trip, she was anxious and excited to see her husband back on the field in a regular-season game.
Her husband feels the same.
“At first it was excitement because I was back playing,” Wilfork said. “And then after the first [exhibition] game down in Washington it was like, ‘OK, it’s over. I’m back to myself.’
“It’s nothing I think about. I’m back in the groove of things, I’m playing, and hopefully I have a good season, but I don’t think about it now.”