New England Patriots at the Super Bowl: Vince Wilfork is the team’s heart and soul.

The Most Important Player on the New England Patriots Never Touches the Balls

The Most Important Player on the New England Patriots Never Touches the Balls

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Jan. 30 2015 10:45 AM

He Never Touches the Balls

Tom Brady may be the handsome face of the Pats, but the team’s heart and soul belong to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. 

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Vince Wilfork is perpetually unsung, famous for not being famous.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

For all our talk of balls lately, one of the weirdest aspects of football is how few people who play the sport have anything to do with them. The vast majority of people on a football field are not supposed to touch the ball; in fact, there are people who play the sport for a living who, if all goes according to someone’s plan, will never lay hands on a football for their entire career. A hugely significant amount of football, the sport, occurs in almost total abstraction to football, the ball. Nowhere is this truer than on the line of scrimmage, where gigantic men crash into each other with the sole object of ending each play standing over someone who is on the ground. On the line, football is not a game of throwing and catching and running but rather of struggle, a violent and existential stalemate.

Jack Hamilton Jack Hamilton

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic and assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.

Vince Wilfork, a 33-year-old defensive tackle who is about to play in his fourth Super Bowl for the New England Patriots, is this part of the game personified, enormously. Wilfork is one of the greatest defensive linemen of his generation and one of only two current players on the Patriots roster who was a member of the team the last time they won the Super Bowl, in February 2005.* The other, of course, is Tom Brady, one of the most famous athletes in the history of his sport. If you reside outside of New England Wilfork is about as unassuming as a 6-foot-2 inch, 325-pound, five-time All-Pro can be. Within New England, however, Wilfork is an object of almost universal adoration. Big Vince may not be every New Englander’s No. 1 favorite Patriot, but he’s probably the closest thing to a beloved consensus: Brady is too camera-ready for some, Revis too mercenary, Gronk too injury-prone—or just too Gronk.

Wilfork, on the other hand, is the living embodiment of what’s-not-to-like. He’s a native of Florida who attended the University of Miami and speaks in an affably laid-back, Southern-inflected baritone. He is a family man extraordinaire, fiercely devoted to his wife Bianca and she to him. His passions include dancing and barbecuing, simultaneously. He is, as a recent, hard-hitting sit-down with investigative reporter Chya Mayo uncovered, exceedingly good with kids. Recently his appeal verged into the superheroic: In the aftermath of the Patriots’ AFC Championship win over the Indianapolis Colts, Wilfork took it upon himself to rescue a motorist from an overturned Jeep.

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With his sizable belly and his approachable off-the-field personality, it’s easy to see Wilfork as an amiable, lunchpailing everyman, but the truth is closer to the opposite. He is a freakishly gifted athlete who brings a virtuosic blend of physical and mental mastery to his position. Television tends to showcase the otherworldly awesomeness of Odell Beckham and Marshawn Lynch and Rob Gronkowski because their brand of awesomeness involves the ball, and often the end zone. The athleticism of a great tackle like Wilfork is more subtle, a combination of speed and grace and coordination that seems almost impossible in a man his size, and allows him to exact his violence with such precision that a casual viewer usually doesn’t even notice it.

The people who play against him, though, most certainly notice it. Wilfork has made his career by demanding attention in the minds of offensive line coaches, in the bodies of the men who try to block him, in the nightmares of quarterbacks and running backs who try their best to never encounter him. He is such an imposing force in the middle that he often requires the attention of two blockers, which means suddenly there’s one less person blocking someone else.

Wilfork doesn’t always tally the quarterback sacks and pressures, but an awful lot of them trickle down from him. His stats aren’t gaudy, nor are they really supposed to be. He has not recorded a sack since 2012, and his high for tackles in a season is 46. He does have three career interceptions—this pick of San Diego’s Philip Rivers was particularly memorable—as well as 12 fumble recoveries, one of which came with his only career touchdown, in 2011 (he gave the ball to Bianca). And yet Wilfork is about to play in his fourth Super Bowl as arguably the hallmark defensive player of this Patriots era and one day he will, at the very least, prompt animated discussion among Hall of Fame voters.

All of the above has made Wilfork a legendary figure in New England, where XXL No. 75 jerseys are as reliable a fixture in autumn as foliage and second-guessing whoever’s managing the Red Sox. But Wilfork’s appeal to Patriots Nation is more than just the sum of his winsome personality off the field and consistent excellence on it; he also offers a psychic utility to an addled populace. Being a Patriots fan in 2015—if it’s not already clear, I am one—is not an untroubled existence. At this point only the most head-in-the-sand loyalist can deny that the team has, at times, taken a somewhat opportunistic approach to the NFL’s rulebook (there is a coarser term for this, one that incidentally rhymes with “beating”). For many, our way of dealing with this is to proudly not care, to belittle the accusations instead of countering them. Other teams do this all the time, we say, and, besides, one-half of playing with slightly deflated footballs does not lead one team to score 45 points while the other scores 7. If there’s a credo that Pats fans have come to embrace, from Spygate through Deflategate, it is that We Would Have Won Anyways.

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This is, of course, insanely obnoxious, and a large reason that almost every person who lives outside of five states and half of Connecticut hates us. Patriots fans believe that our team’s run of sustained success is cultural, in a sort of vaguely mystical, 19th-century sense of that word. We believe that the reason our team wins is not because of coldblooded and cutthroat personnel moves, not because of our gameness to wring productivity from sociopaths, and certainly not because of the thing that rhymes with beating. We win because we work hard, because we’re smarter, because we do the little things the right way.

Vince Wilfork does the little things and does them the right way. How ironic that a Floridian has come to embody the stoic constancy that New Englanders have always imagined we exemplify, and that in the past decade and a half we’ve learned to project onto our football team. Big Vince is perpetually unsung, famous for not being famous, the perfect avatar for a team and fanbase that has been to six Super Bowls in the past 14 years and still manages to feel disrespected. Vince Wilfork has nothing to do with deflated footballs; Vince Wilfork has barely anything to do with footballs at all, unless something goes horribly wrong for Seattle on Sunday. And if that happens then Patriots fans will love him even more than they do now, even though we probably would have won anyway.

Correction, Jan. 30, 2015: This article originally misstated that the Patriots last won the Super Bowl in January 2004. They last won in February 2005. (Return.)