The best defensive lineman Bill Belichick ever coached officially retired as a New England Patriot on Wednesday.
Belichick said as much about Vince Wilfork, who spent the first 11 seasons of a 13-year NFL career with the Patriots. Wilfork, 35, returned to Gillette Stadium to sign a one-day contract with the team that drafted him 21st overall in the 2004 NFL draft.
"Vince was kind of the captain of the captains," Belichick said, praising the way Wilfork could stand out even in a room full of leaders. "He’s the best defensive lineman I’ve ever coached. That’s player, leader, on the field, off the field, practice player."
Both Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft each said they were stunned when Wilfork, who they projected to be selected in the top 10 of his draft, fell into their laps at No. 21 overall.
Being drafted by the defending Super Bowl champions is something that pushed Wilfork for his entire career, he said. The Patriots were coming off a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII; what exactly did the New England brass see in the nose tackle from the University of Miami that could strengthen the team even more, Wilfork thought?
"I took that as a challenge," he said. "Obviously, there was something there that they saw in me that could help this ball team be better. That challenged me my whole career."
Wilfork joined a loaded New England roster his rookie season, yet found himself starting Super Bowl XXXIX vs. the Philadelphia Eagles – at defensive end. Belichick said he’s used Wilfork’s versatility as an example for rookies since then, praising him for sliding out of position for the betterment of the team.
In-depth news coverage of the Greater Boston Area.
Wilfork started all 16 regular season games eight times – seven with the Patriots – during a career which saw him named to five Pro Bowls and one Associated Press All-Pro First Team, in 2012. He recorded 16 sacks and 370 tackles, even coming up with three interceptions.
Kraft had glowing things to say about Wilfork both on and off the field, recalling his postgame routine of kissing Kraft’s late wife, Myra, on her cheek before doing the same to Kraft himself.
After Myra passed away, Wilfork changed up his routine a bit.
"The first game that came after she died, it was the first preseason game [in 2011]," Kraft said. "He [Vince] came over and gave me a kiss on one cheek, and then kissed me on the other and said ‘This is for Momma.'"
Wilfork and his wife, Bianca, vacationed with Kraft and his family in Florence, Italy, the summer after Myra’s passing.
"Bianca and Vince have been so special to us," Kraft said. "When he had to move on, it was a very sad time for all of us. As an owner, I understand the business dynamic. I think for both sides, it was probably the right thing. The good news is he’s coming back here and asked to be a Patriot for life."
Wilfork moved on from the Patriots after their victory in Super Bowl XLIX over the Seattle Seahawks, signing with the Houston Texans. Along with Tom Brady, he was one of just two players remaining on the roster for the 10-year gap between championships in New England.
Houston qualified for the postseason in each of Wilfork’s two seasons with the Texans, but couldn’t advance beyond the AFC Divisional Round.
The final game of Wilfork’s career was back in Foxboro, where it had all began on Sept. 9, 2004 in a Patriots win over the Indianapolis Colts. New England won on this occasion, too, sending Wilfork into retirement with a 34-16 playoff win over the Texans on Jan. 14.
Wilfork said that he never wanted to leave the Patriots, but like Kraft, understands the nature of the business. If there were ever any hard feelings, those have clearly dissipated.
"It never once crossed my mind where I needed to be," Wilfork said of coming back to Foxboro.
The 6-foot-2, 325 pound never made it about himself, saying if he wanted to be viewed as an individual, he could have pursued a career in track and field. Wilfork won a state championship as a high school student in Florida for his performance in the shot put and the discus.
"I’ve always prepared to be the best that I can be because of my teammates," said Wilfork, who noted he is retiring more due to the mental aspect of the game.
"It’s taken a toll on me mentally, grinding day in, day out," he said. "Physically, I could play as long as I want I believe."
The lone regret of Wilfork’s career was beyond his control, but something which weighs on him daily: his parents never got to see him live out his dream as a professional football player.
"I know they have the best seat in the house," Wilfork said.
Wilfork is one of just four players drafted by Belichick in New England to last 10 or more years with the team, along with Brady, Matt Light and Stephen Gostkowski (Matthew Slater will become the fifth in the season opener). Five of Wilfork’s University of Miami teammates were drafted ahead of him in the first round in 2004; before today, Wilfork was the last of the group still active.
What’s next for Wilfork remains unclear, but he’ll undoubtedly be taking a step back to catch his breath and live his life and let his body relax.
"For 20 years, I’ve been on a schedule," Wilfork said. "I’m going to take some time, maybe a year off, do some things I want to do."