If I could choose one game to remember Vince Wilfork, it wouldn't be from either of his two Super Bowl victories. It wouldn't come from his two other Super Bowl appearances. It wouldn't be one of his seven AFC Conference Championships (and yes, I'm counting 2013 even though he didn't play in the game). It wouldn't be from the playoffs in any one of his ten trips.
It would be November 22, 2012.
I've lived in New York for the past three years and I haven't been able to make it to any Patriots games back home; I've frequented Professor Thom's and a couple other bars when Thom's was full, but I've taken to watching the game by myself, or with just two of my closest friends.
This specific game took place over my first Thanksgiving in New York where I wasn't going to make it home. It was a big step in adult life, but it was one that would have been far more difficult if one of those friends didn't invite me to watch the Patriots make the trip to New York to face the Jets.
New England won, handily, with a final score of 49-19. It was the last time Mark Sanchez played against the Patriots. It was the only game between the Patriots and Jets to be decided by more than a last second field goal attempt over the past three seasons. It put Rex Ryan on the hot seat and it was an emphatic stomp on the chest to any AFC East team with the gall to try and compete for a title.
And I was there.
New England sucked the air out of the atmosphere. The Patriots scored on an 83-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen. Steve Gregory returned a fumble 32 yards for a touchdown. Devin McCourty forced a fumble on special teams that landed perfectly into the arms of Julian Edelman, who returned it for a touchdown.
All three plays occurred in under one minute of time in the second quarter.
I remember standing in complete disbelief at what I had just witnessed, completely unwilling to accept the fact that Sanchez just ran into the rear end of his right guard, forcing the fumble, and that Gregory picked it up for a touchdown. I kept trying to convince those around me that Sanchez was down and that there was no way that the touchdown would be upheld.
But it was one of those games where the impossible could happen, and at the center of it all was Vince Wilfork.
Thanks Vince https://t.co/7Bb0oxRXgT— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) March 17, 2015
Perhaps there's no greater way to describe Wilfork than impossible. He was too large to be so nimble. He was too lazy coming out of college to become a position defining nose tackle. He was too impossibly nice, and wonderful, and selfless, and integral to the entirety of Bill Belichick's defense to be a real human being.
If Tom Brady is the key to the Patriots success of offense, then Wilfork has been the cornerstone for any and all of Belichick's defensive schemes. Vince was the case study for Planet Theory and his versatility and athleticism were essential for the franchise's success.
Vince fell in the 2004 Draft to 21st overall, where it was widely proclaimed that the rich got richer. Wilfork split time with Keith Traylor over the course of the season until the rookie was able to understand and perform to the level Belichick required. That first season ended in a Super Bowl victory.
Since that point, Wilfork has aligned at all three 3-4 defensive lineman positions, as well as both interior roles in the 4-3. Belichick's at his best when his defenses can remain multiple and the fact that his star defensive tackle could line up anywhere, at any point, allowed for creative play calling. Vince could penetrate the offensive line, he could push the pocket, he could discard linemen with a swipe of his paw, or he could use them as ammo to toss at the quarterback to force a fumble. Hell, he could even drop into coverage.
Vince was considered a War Daddy. A typical War Daddy is a monstrous defensive lineman with the ability to inflict their will upon their opponents. Hell, the Jets drafted Nick Mangold purely to counter Wilfork in their match-ups. But being a War Daddy is more than just about the position they play, it's a mentality that Vince brought to the table each and every day.
He grew into his leadership role and brought a ferocity to everything he did, whether it was on the field or at the contract negotiating table. He battled back from a torn Achilles at the age of 33 that would have, and probably should have, ended the career of any other player. But not Vince. He was always going to end his career on his own terms, so he continued to fight until he could take the field as the every down lineman he was once before.
The fans loved him, the franchise loved him, the players love him, and their families loved him. He gave his love right back. He'll always be Uncle Vince.
In my opinion, Vince is every bit deserving of discussion for the Hall of Fame when he chooses to retire. He has five Pro Bowl nods, as well as five All Pro listings on the first and second team. Vince has been the most important player for the defense of the best team in football for the past decade, book-ending his time in New England with a second championship. Even Belichick considers him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached. The fact that there's even a question shows the true value of Vince, and why he was the ultimate Patriot.
He didn't accumulate stats. He didn't rack up too many accolades. His role in the defense was to absorb blockers by any means necessary to allow the linebackers to make their plays, and I have never seen a player do it better in their career.
During that game in 2012, Vince would show up in the stat sheet with 3 tackles, 2 of them solo. That was it. That's a typical bottom line for Wilfork, even though his impact was so much more.
On the two defensive plays prior to Vereen's 83-yard touchdown, Wilfork took on a triple team on 3rd and 2 to force a stop, and then lined up and did it again, allowing Brandon Spikes to force a fumble.
For the Buttfumble, he threw right guard Brandon Moore into Sanchez, but I guess even the most forced of fumbles won't be counted.
He had a direct impact on two of those three scores in under one minute, and I'm sure his gravitational pull affected the fumble on the kick return.
Wilfork will reach the Patriots Hall of Fame on his first attempt. He will forever grace New England with his smile, his fire, and his love.
Vince, thank you so much for everything you've done for the franchise and for the New England community. Have fun in Houston. Eat up.
Oh yeah, this GIF was also from that November 22, 2012 game. I told you, it's the best.