FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles tendon. Then he clashed with the New England Patriots about his contract. His future with the team, and in football, was uncertain.
But there he was on a sunny field Thursday, smiling, joking and excited about the upcoming season.
“I think this year is going to be one of the most exciting times of my career,” the defensive tackle said. “This year is going to be a little special just because of what I’ve been through and how far I came along.”
And that contract dispute? He has put that in the past, too, after restructuring his deal into a three-year, $22.5 million agreement in March, allowing the Patriots to lower his salary cap hit.
“That’s a dead issue,” Wilfork said Thursday after the final practice of a three-day minicamp. “I’m not upset. I’m not holding (any) type of grudge. Business is business.”
In his first nine seasons after the Patriots drafted him in the first round out of Miami, Wilfork missed only six games. He became a team leader and a defensive mainstay who earned five Pro Bowl selections.
Then he ruptured his right Achilles tendon on the first defensive series of the fourth game, a 30-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons last year. It’s a difficult injury to recover from, particularly for a player like Wilfork who plays at about 330 pounds.
“Everything you do in life, there’s always something that says you can’t do it or you shouldn’t be able to do it,” Wilfork said. “So, for me, I know my body. I know what it takes to be at the top of my level, top of my game. I know how hard it’s going to be, but I’ve never shied away from competition or a challenge and this is a big challenge for me.”
After all, he’ll be two months shy of his 33rd birthday when the season starts. “It’s going to take time, but I’m very positive with where I’m at,” Wilfork said. “Everything went well and healed up fine, so it’s just knocking the rust off.”
He said he has no physical limitations and never felt he couldn’t get back to where he needed to be.
“That was never in my mind,” Wilfork said. “From the time they told me I (tore the tendon), from the time that I had the surgery, I knew that I was going to be back, ready to rock and roll.
“I know how tough the injury is, but I tell myself over and over again, I’m not the average person. I just do things a little differently than most people that have this injury, and I’m going to stick with my guns until I prove myself wrong.”
One week after Wilfork was hurt, Tommy Kelly, the other starting defensive tackle, suffered a season-ending knee injury. He thought he could make it back but went on injured reserve about a month after being hurt.
“When you both go down in back-to-back weeks, it was a blow,” said Kelly, who spent his previous nine seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Wilfork “was a really good person to lean on, coming into a new scheme and system. When I got confused about stuff, I would just ask him. He just made it really easy for me.”
Kelly also has been practicing but won’t say whether he’s fully recovered. “All I know is I feel good,” he said. “I have no problems.”
Wilfork has yet to be tested in pads. That will come when training camp starts in late July. “Before I get to training camp,” he said. “I should be at the point where I’m very, very happy.”
Wilfork has been a key member of the defense, making tackles or occupying several offensive linemen and allowing unblocked teammates to stop ball carriers. He doesn’t plan to play any differently than he did before he was hurt.
“For what? If I approach it differently, I may as well walk away from it. I only know how to play this game one way, that’s hard and fast and tough,” he said. “That’s it. That’s how I expect to play. If I can’t do that, it’s time for me to retire. And I don’t think it’s time for me to retire right now.
“If I work hard,” he said, “if that’s not good enough, it’s time for me to call it quits. Until that day happens, you’re going to keep seeing my pretty face.”