CHANDLER, Ariz. – For a 32-year-old defensive line tipping the scale at well over 300 pounds, a torn Achilles tendon could have been career-ending.
Instead, Vince Wilfork was determined to continue his NFL life. Aided by his wife, Bianca, Wilfork committed to remake his body.
A year later, Wilfork is a defensive rock for a team playing in the Super Bowl. Thanks to his work at home – diet and exercise – Wilfork revived his career.
Wilfork has been a Patriot since 2004, and only Tom Brady (2000) has a longer tenure with the team. He has been a leader on and off the field this season. Coming off the Achilles tear, he engaged in a contract dispute with the Patriots and it appeared his career in New England was over, even as he altered his body and recovered from his injury.
But here he is, leading the Patriots to another Super Bowl.
"Me being out of football last year, it was one of those things that I never imagined being hurt and being away from my teammates and not being able to be on the field with them," Wilfork said. "My main goal this year coming back was to make sure I was healthy and help my team win."
He has, thanks to the support from his wife. You know his wife – She has been by his side in those Big Y commercials. To casual football fans or even those who wouldn't know Tom Brady from Greg Brady, Wilfork is recognizable from his grocery stores commercials.
Bianca also is a high-profile, partly because Vince openly talks about her support and love. When he reported to training camp noticeably trimmer and he recounted his comeback, Wilfork credited Bianca with assisting him. She's always been his business manager and partner, but she became his nurse, nutritionist, and trainer.
"She's always been my rock," Wilfork said. "No matter what happened – good or bad – she's always right there and the one person I can always come to and get the truth. Being out of football last year, she was the one person that really pushed me to the limit. She woke me up every day at 5, 6 in the morning and we'd work out three times a day. Sometimes we'd go to bed at 10, 11 at night just because she knew how important it is to me, and I thank her for that.
"She's the one who really got me in tune and got my mind to saying, 'What I need to do now in my career is this.' We looked at it and said, 'This is going to be a challenge,' but at the same time, I'm always up for challenges. She pushed me to the max. I'm very grateful to have her in my life."
Wilfork, a 2004 first-round draft pick out of Miami, built his career as a reliable and durable lineman. He played in every game 2010-12, but he incurred the Achilles tear in Week 4 of the 2013 season.
The injury was season-ending and there was some thought his career might be in jeopardy. But he vowed to return, even as he butted heads with the Patriots during contracts talks.
The sides ultimately agreed to a three-year, $22.5 million deal, but that came after Wilfork asked for his release. It might have been a risk for the team, given Wilfork's age – he turned 33 in November – and health.
But Wilfork, so well-respected by the organization, offered more than just player. He has become a leader, a role he continued to embrace even after his season ended last year.
"He's just like having another brother, actually," Chandler Jones said. "His leadership is one thing that stands out to me the most. You could talk to him about anything, about being on the field, off the field, personal life, anything. Having a guy like him in the locker room, words can't explain."
Said Jamie Collins: "He's a great dude. I could sit around him all day. I'm a chill person, but I could sit around him all day."
Wilfork, listed at 325 pounds, can talk football with young teammates, but his message extends beyond the sport. Wilfork was asked this week about balancing football with family and faith.
Life away from football, he said, keeps everything else in perspective. He has two sons and a daughter and, yes, they've been in those Big Y commercials.
"I wouldn't have football if it wasn't for my faith or my family," Wilfork said. "That's one of the things that I always lean on when things get rough, when things get tired, when I really don't want to practice, have got to do this, when my body is feeling like this. If I have a bad day at work, I go home and see my family. My kids, they're so innocent. The only thing they want to do is play, they want to tell me about school. And it kind of puts everything in perspective when you look at it because no matter what I'm going through in life, I can always go home and have that feeling that I'm not a loser or that I'm not this or I'm not that."
Think Wilfork values and loves his career?
"I would take family over football any day," Wilfork said. "My family and faith, I would take it over football any day. But I'm lucky to be at the level I'm at just because of what I've accomplished just because of my family and my faith and being dedicated to what I do and that's football. Without them, I wouldn't be who I am and I understand that and I cherish those moments with my family and my faith and my friends. I cherish all of that."
Jones, Collins, and other players say Wilfork's work ethic and character set a tone in the locker room. On the field, off the field, in the locker room or in the film room, people listen when Wilfork talks.
"There will be times where Vince will say, 'Hey, watch out,' something a coach might not see, but Vince will," Jones said. "He's almost like having another coach in the film room."
The coaches agree.
"It's phenomenal for me to have a leader like Vince in my meetings every day," defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "He's a guy that sits in the front, pays attention, sits upright and is really into the meetings. If I need to point to anybody in the room that I think needs to do it a certain way, I can just point to Vince and say, 'You need follow this guy's example. This is how you sustain in the NFL. This is how you're a champion in the NFL. You do it like he does it and you attack each day and each week with the preparation that he does.' I think it's an easy follow for the young guys that come in."
Wilfork has been asked continually this week about the satisfaction of reaching the Super Bowl after nearly losing his career. And he's been asked to compare this Super Bowl experience to his previous four trips.
Invariably, he's not interested in self analysis or strolling down memory lane.
His satisfaction in returning is tied to something deeper.
"I think we all play football because it's a team effort," Wilfork said. "It's not just one individual. We have a bunch of individuals doing their job, which leads to team success. My goal to the team was to come back healthy and better than I was and hopefully we can get the job done moving forward. Everything I thought about in the offseason – the way I trained, everything that I did, everything was set up for the team – not just my myself, but as a team. I knew if I was at my best, everybody around me would be at their best.'