Vince Wilfork didn’t know if he’d get back to this point. He didn’t know much he’d miss it.
The 6-foot-2, 344-pound defensive tackle was a freshman on a 12-0 Miami Hurricanes Rose Bowl team in 2001. He was a sophomore on a 12-1 Fiesta Bowl team in 2002. He was a junior on an 11-2 Orange Bowl team in 2003.
Wilfork was used to winning. The ‘U’ went 35-3 over his tenure there. And even when he left as a New England Patriots first-round pick in April of 2004, it didn’t leave him.
The Patriots went 17-2 on the way to being crowned AFC champion and Super Bowl XXXIX champion during Wilfork’s rookie season. He played in every game along the way to that run, starting seven behind a 14-year veteran in Keith Traylor, who had been in the league since Wilfork was 10.
But Wilfork didn’t fully grasp the moment then, as the Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles by a score of 24-21 to raise the Lombardi Trophy. He was 23 years old. His teams had gone 52-5 in four years. He had two rings in the two highest tiers of the sport. And after the Patriots had secured three in four years, he thought his third would arrive just as fast as the last one.
“Yeah, oh yeah. I really did, because I’m coming from a college where we won a lot of games,” Wilfork reflected during his Wednesday news conference in Chandler, Ariz. “I didn’t lose many games in college. I was a national champion in college. So my first year in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl, I was like, ‘Man, this is easy. I could do this all the time.’”
But time passed for Wilfork. The Patriots made it back to the Super Bowl in February of 2008 during his fourth season, then again in February of 2012 during his eighth. Only no celebration followed those games for the five-time Pro Bowler and seven-time team captain.
Now 33, he’s hoping his fourth time playing in February will bring one back.
“Little did I know here I am 11 years later, more excited now than then that I’m at this level with my teammates,” Wilfork said. “It’s one of those things you just worked so hard for. At the beginning of the season you have 32 teams starting at the same level. We all have one goal – it’s to get to this point. ”
The Patriots will meet the incumbent Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks at this point on Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“The saddest thing about this is you have to have a loser in this game,” added Wilfork. “The two best teams in this game – somebody has to win, somebody has to lose. Hopefully we’re on the right end of that this year.”
A lot has changed since New England was last on the right end, yet what describes it has not for No. 75.
He recalls one thing.
“The feeling. I think everybody asks me what it feels like to be a Super Bowl champ, and it’s something that you really can’t put into words,” Wilfork paused. “It’s just the feeling that you have being the world champion, and everybody looks at you as a world champion. That’s being on the field after the game with your family, your friends, organization, the confetti coming down of your colors and everything runs across your mind.”
Much has run across Wilfork’s mind since Sept. 29, 2013; the day he saw his 10th year with the Patriots end with a torn Achilles. He looked on for the final 14 games of that campaign. He watched from the sidelines as his teammates lost to the Denver Broncos just one game short of a chance to play Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Wilfork didn’t know if he’d be back to watch or play another. But 13 months after New England’s 2013 season ended, he finds himself part of a 2014 season that’s still going into 2015.
And with perspective packed along with him to Glendale, the second-longest tenured Patriot is looking to regain the feeling the Seahawks last captured.
The same feeling he last captured a decade ago.
“Everything that you’ve worked for that whole year, it finally came to a conclusion and you finished the way you wanted to finish,” Wilfork said. “That’s the main thing I take away from games like this. And I’ve also been on the other side where we’re walking off the field and don’t like that feeling, but I always tell people it’s the feeling that you have after being able to win this game that you’re searching for.”