As I continue to get older, I have started to realize that life consists largely of certain milestones in which a whole lot seems to happen at once. I realized, looking back now, that from about 17 on certain events happened in which I just received wave after wave of big news that either affected me directly or had a large impact on those closest to me. I'm guessing it's the same for everybody, and I imagine the first of these milestones happen in high school; first, one of your friends gets accepted early into college, and then all of a sudden the dominoes start falling and there's a new acceptance letter coming in every day. Then it's off to university, where in a few short years people start landing jobs and getting started on that horrible bill of goods we are all sold called "real life." And then, before long, it's wedding season, and friend after friend takes the plunge in such rapid succession that you barely even have time to get your suit dry cleaned before the next one hits. Just as wedding season winds down, there are the "guess who's pregnant!" notes that seem to take place just before the second wave of weddings, those who either waited until their 30s or didn't wait at all and are now getting married again, sends you back up to the bar and back up on the dance floor. Before you know it, it's going to be time to start hitting funeral after funeral as you wonder where the hell your life just went. What a crazy ride.
And somewhere in between all of these only slightly more significant life moments is the period we are all experiencing right now, where we have spent the last few years bidding a fond farewell to some of the all-time great Patriots players who have either left to finish their career elsewhere or finally decided to walk away from the game for good. It was ultimately inevitable, but it's still a harsh reality to face; the Ty Laws and the Lawyer Milloys have been out of the league for some time now, whereas the Kevin Faulks and Troy Browns are more recently departed. Tedy Bruschi just got his red jacket, and even Wes Welker seems to be coming to the end of the road. No matter how you look at it, it would appear that it's almost time to close the book on the guys who ushered in an era of Patriots dominance we're likely to never experience again. And with Vince Wilfork officially leaving New England to play out his final years with the Patriots South down in Texas, it's time to once again say goodbye to another legend.
Up until today, there was still a chance that Big Vince was coming back to the team at a reduced salary, but with Houston seeing his value and officially offering him a two year deal, we can all officially close the book on the Wilfork Era in New England. And what an era it was. Vince came in and helped the team repeat as Super Bowl champs his very first year in the league; that he can leave a world champion as well is about as fitting an end as it gets. Bill Belichick called Wilfork the best defensive lineman he has ever coached, and Belichick is never one to say something just for the sake of saying it. For a man who knows defense better than anyone in the history of the league to go on record saying:
"Few players reached or will ever reach the special level of Vince Wilfork. He is a great champion and one of the classiest people I have ever been around – just a kind, genuine and giving person who was all about our team, football, winning and bringing joy to others. There may have never been anyone at his position with as much strength, toughness, intelligence, instinctiveness and athleticism. He is the best defensive linemen I ever coached, an all-time great Patriot whose place on our team will be missed but whose remarkable career as a Patriot will be remembered forever."
That certainly means something.
And it's certainly hard to disagree.
Looking back on his career, pathetically trying to put together some kind of highlight reel of his biggest moments in what has been an incredible tenure with New England, it's easy to forget that Vince Wilfork had absolutely zero business landing with the Patriots in the first place. A Top 10 draft prospect out of Miami in 2004, he was all but a guarantee to either get snatched up right away or not make it past the Jacksonville Jaguars at #9. The Pats had just moved on from Ted Washington, another mountain of a man looking for a ring on the back end of his career, and sitting at pick 21 in the first round (via a 2003 trade with the Ravens), there was absolutely no chance of getting Vince before he was off the board. But Jacksonville pulled a completely unexpected move and drafted receiver Reggie Williams with their first round pick, and suddenly all that was standing between New England and a potential steal of the draft were 10 teams whose needs lay elsewhere. Lo and behold, Wilfork was still around at 21, and New England wasted zero time in getting their selection in. All they got out of that decision was 11 years of some of the most dominant defensive play we will ever see. Granted, the big man wasn't a home run right off the bat as he struggled to adjust to a two-gap defense and learn the nuances of effectively drawing double teams to support linebacker crashes, but once he developed his on-field vision, he was a perennial Pro Bowler and an absolute anchor in every sense of the word. Team captain. Locker room leader. Pillar of the community. Solid neighbor. Second son to the Kraft family. One of the All-Time Great Patriots and the kind of person we should all try to emulate - all of us, not just up-and-coming behemoths looking to dominate an entire line of scrimmage. He's a first-ballot Patriots Hall of Famer, and he is going to make for a very interesting discussion when the time comes for him to be eligible for Canton as well.
Much like Kevin Faulk, what made Wilfork so great doesn't really show up on any stat sheet. He was always the guy who shifted the dynamic of the entire offensive line, forcing last minute audibles and creating confusion for the quarterback. He was always the guy who drew two, sometimes three, blockers in order to allow the linebackers to run free through the middle and make the play. And he was always the guy who started every game with a kiss on the cheek from the team owner, later adding another for the woman he referred to lovingly as "mamma" before she passed away in 2011. Just ask any linebacker who had the privilege to play behind the big man how easy he made their job, and you'll get a sense of just what he meant to this team. And while his play has fallen off a bit over the last few seasons, as is always the case with players reaching the end of their careers, he just isn't a guy you can replace with one man. The hole he's leaving, not just on the field, but in the locker room, community, and our collective hearts simply can't be filled. He's a once in a lifetime player and one who fundamentally changed the way offenses approach their blocking schemes. He'll always be remembered as a Patriot, and I wish him absolutely nothing other than the best as he enters the final stage of his amazing career.
I can't list all of Wilfork's best moments; there are just too many, and as I said, most of them simply consisted of him drawing the double team that allowed someone else to be a hero. There are, of course, the obvious candidates as well for which Wilfork will always be remembered. The interception against Philip Rivers. The monster hit on Donald Jones. Blowing up Brandon Moore in order to help cause The Buttfumble. Dragging the entire Raiders team behind him after a pick against Jason Campbell. But there were so, so many more plays for which he will likely never be remembered, but were nonetheless crucial to cementing New England's legacy.
I'm going to at least give it a shot, though. Here is a woefully inadequate list of some of the more overlooked, underappreciated, and rarely talked about Wilfork plays that show just how important a player he is.
2005, Wild Card Round. Jaguars at Patriots. Early in the second quarter, Vince Wilfork crashes the line, fighting a double team as Byron Leftwich looks to throw. As he's about to make the pass, Wilfork gets an arm up in the air and directly in Leftwich's throwing lane, forcing him to bring the ball back in. Willie McGinnest, rushing in off the edge, makes the sack. Later in the game, with the Patriots up 28-3, Wilfork collapses the entire left side of the line, forcing Leftwich to roll out right and directly into McGinnest's waiting arms for another sack. McGinnest would set an NFL postseason record for sacks in a game with 4.5. Wilfork barely showed up on the stat sheet. But ask Willie about playing with Vince. See what he says.
2008, Week 14. Patriots at Seahawks. The Matt Cassel-led Patriots were clinging to a 24-21 lead late in the 4th quarter, and Seneca Wallace was driving. On 2nd and 11 at the New England 44, needing just under 10 yards to make it into field-goal range, a Brandon Meriweather safety blitz up the middle caused a strip sack and a fumble recovered by Richard Seymour to seal the victory. Who did Meriweather blitz behind? Who drew the double team and crashed left so Meriweather had a free shot? Vince Wilfork.
2011, AFC Championship. Ravens at Patriots. Up three with just under three minutes to play, the Ravens are driving successfully before stalling just out of Billy Kundiff's range on a windy Foxboro evening. Choosing to go for it on 4th and 6, Flacco came out in a 4 WR set looking for a quick out to receivers who had been lighting up New England's secondary all day. However, Wilfork got the jump on center Matt Birk right from the start, drove him directly backwards, and got a hand on Flacco's jersey in order to force a throwaway and a turnover on downs. That game would end with Wilfork posing for the picture that accompanies this article, steam coming off his head, goofy smile on his face, just loving life.
2015, Super Bowl XLIX. Patriots vs. Seahawks. It was 2nd and goal from the 1 with 27 seconds to play. Wilfork perfectly times the snap and barrels past Russell Okung to get a step into the backfield just as Russell Wilson starts to make his throw. The play was a designed quick pass from the start, so Wilfork was never able to get to Wilson, but he was in the backfield long before he should have been and was ready to completely blow up Marshawn Lynch had he gotten the ball.
I could keep going, but it would all be more of the same. Just one of the best ever at his position doing what he did best - making everyone around him better.
With the departure of Wilfork, that means that Tom Brady is the last holdover from those glory years. I'm just realizing now that, as I wrap this one up, I really have only one left of these to write before every last member of that dynasty has moved on. And I can't handle thinking about that right now, so I'm just going to stop here before I start blubbering.
Thank you, Vince. It has been an honor and a privilege to watch you play. Now go finish your career in style. Have yourself some BBQ. Enjoy it. There's going to be a very, very large red jacket waiting here for you as soon as you're ready to come home.