If Vince Wilfork’s last game as a New England Patriot was the Super Bowl, then he’ll leave the same way he arrived.
As a champion. A leader. A nose.
The defensive tackle announced Thursday that the organization that drafted him in the first round 11 years ago will not pick up his two-year option. And that decision means the second longest-tenured Patriot behind Tom Brady will be a free agent by 4 p.m. on March 10.
The 33-year-old Wilfork was due a $4 million bonus for being on New England’s roster at the start of the new league year Tuesday. If the Patriots elected to pick it up, Wilfork would have extended his stay for a 12th season, with $3 million in base salary and $8.9 million against the salary cap.
Instead, New England will save just north of $8 million in cap space by allowing Wilfork to embark on the unrestricted waters.
He could return. He could depart. But if this is it, then it was a hell of a run for the Miami Hurricane head coach Bill Belichick called at pick 21 back in 2004.
Wilfork’s career in Foxborough began with a Super Bowl XXXIX victory alongside a 14-year veteran in Keith Traylor. It may have ended with a Super Bowl XLIX victory with himself serving as the veteran in the middle. And in between, it was all by design. It was a remarkable run of longevity at a position that seldom sees it.
No. 75 became a first-team All-Pro, a five-time second-team All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler, a seven-time team captain, a member of the Patriots’ 50th anniversary team.
He became what he is now. And through it all, through the torn Achilles he suffered in September of 2013 that he tried to shake off, through agreeing to restructure his contract in March of 2014 and hitting every incentive, through playing 952 snaps by the end of 19 games in February of 2015 – Wilfork gave it everything he had.
The 6-foot-2, 325-pound product of Santaluces High School gave it 158 regular-season games, 516 tackles, 16 sacks, 25 pass breakups, three interceptions, five forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries and a touchdown. He gave New England’s defense an identity, whether that sent him to the nose, to the bookend, or to the three-technique – he gave the line the versatility of a 3-4 and 4-3 at the same time.
And he loved every snap of it. He loved to prove people wrong. He loved winning. He loved football.
He still does.
“It’s just, the things I’ve done in my career, where I’m headed, I still have a lot of football left in me,” Wilfork told WEEI’s Dale & Holley in February. “That’s how I feel. If I don’t feel like that, then I say, ‘You know what, maybe it’s the chance to walk away.’ But it might be easy for somebody like myself that’s got two Super Bowl rings to come back off of injury to get another Super Bowl ring and say, ‘Hey, I’m good. I started my career with a Super Bowl win, and I ended my career with a Super Bowl win.’ So, yeah, I could could call it quits. It’s easy for people to say that. But I’m not saying that.”
Wherever that leads him next, he’s ready to keep going. As he should.