FOXBORO, Mass. — During his keynote address at a sports medicine symposium earlier this month, Bill Belichick highlighted a few key traits that he looks for in players. Work ethic, accountability and dedication all made the list, but, above all, he focused on a player’s passion and love of the game.
All the while, Vince Wilfork must have been on the top of Belichick’s mind.
Entering his 10th season with the Patriots, Wilfork took the practice field for organized team activities on Tuesday with the same level of excitement and anticipation as one of the team’s many rookies. His dark blue jersey was covered in sweat stains by the end of the session, but the enthusiasm in Wilfork’s voice and strewn across his face wouldn’t be washed away.
“You know when you lose that feeling it’s time to give it up,” Wilfork said. “And you know what, I’ve been having this feeling for 10 years now. It’s an exciting feeling to have, trust me. It’s awesome when you can come out here with your teammates and coaches and everyone is smiling.”
It’s that enthusiasm and will to work that has seen Wilfork develop into one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL over the past decade. His monstrous size and brute strength make him difficult to block, even for double teams, and almost impossible to contain. That sort of impact is what any defensive coordinator looks for in a player, but it’s his passion for the game that separates him from other players.
Wilfork, 31, showed off that intensity and excitement on Tuesday — just the second day of voluntary OTAs. Working out without pads or contact didn’t keep Wilfork from treating the practice in mid-May as if it were the middle of training camp. That sort of effort sets a precedent for other players, especially his new teammates along the defensive line.
Nine-year veteran Tommy Kelly and former USC and CFL star Armond Armstead headline that group of newcomers, and both are expected to play a major role along the defensive line this season. They will be relied upon even more heavily now that big-time contributors Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick have relocated to Jacksonville. Wilfork knows that might mean more work on his end, but he’s willing to cooperate if it leads to more wins.
“It’s always tough,” Wilfork said of losing teammates. “I’m dead set and focused on what I can do to get better as a teammate and a person. That’s where I’m at right now. I can’t focus on who has came and who has gone. It’s 10 years. Everyone has made a lot of changes on their rosters.”
His purpose isn’t to evaluate talent or make roster decisions. Instead, Wilfork’s job is to go out and make as big an impact as possible down in the trenches, and he prefers it that way.
“It’s a business. You have to come to work. And that’s what I do,” Wilfork said. “I come to work every day with my hard hat and work my tail off. I won’t stop doing it. I’m going to continue doing that until I’m finished.”
It’s that attitude that makes Wilfork not only one of the best players in the game, but also a leader for the Patriots both on and off the field. His focus has been contagious for players like Love, Deaderick and others in the past, and the Patriots are hoping it is yet again with a new crop of linemen this season.
To replicate Wilfork’s size and strength is a difficult task for even the most skilled lineman, but to match his passion for the game is an entirely different mission. Belichick knows that better than anyone.