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Heart and soul of the Patriots? It's Vince Wilfork in a slam dunk

Wilfork, all 6-2, 350 pounds of him, may or may not be able to dunk a basketball as he claims. But his love for the game is sky high.

February 02, 2012|Bill Plaschke

From Indianapolis -- The biggest man in the Super Bowl yawns, a gaping chasm of a yawn, and it's as if all the air in the hotel conference room is sucked up under his backward camouflage baseball cap.

It's 8:30 a.m. and, clearly, the biggest man in the Super Bowl has just climbed out of bed, his eyes clouded and his face unshaven and his belly bouncing through a tight red T-shirt pulled over his saggy gym shorts.

Vince Wilfork, the New England Patriot who hauls at least 350 unruly pounds around on his bulging 6-foot-2 frame, has us right where he wants us.

"In the locker room ... we always joke and jive about who is the best athlete," he said Thursday. "Of course, I'm saying I am. I'm always saying me."

Everyone laughs as the words fall out of his mouth in a drawl so Southern it could be poured on his pancakes, but he's serious.

The New York Giants better not sleep on Vince Wilfork in Sunday's Super Bowl, because this is a man who claims he could dunk a basketball on them, no matter what they think.

"People look at me and are like, 'He's a butterball, he can't,' " Wilfork said.

The Giants better not forget about the Patriots' mammoth defensive tackle, or he will tip and grab an interception and rumble 28 yards with it, as he did against the San Diego Chargers in Week 2. The sight of his giant stomach jiggling with each step was so picturesque, it has been immortalized in a variety of YouTube clips accompanied by a variety of songs, a run become a reality show, "Dancing With the Lard."

"The run was ugly," said teammate Andre Carter. "I know he was trying to high-step, but those hips were a little tight."

The Giants better not ignore the Patriots' most unlikely defensive weapon or, heck, he will return punts on them. Beginning in 2004, for his first three years of training camp, Wilfork would catch punts at the end of practice to give others a night off. His coaches didn't think he could do it, yet he eventually did it holding two other balls in his hands.

Yes, this is also on YouTube. You can see him make the catch while falling to the ground and kicking up his legs like a giant turtle. You can see his teammates swarm him with stunned congratulations.

"It took Bill until Year 4 to realize I wasn't going to drop any," Wilfork said of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick.

And, no, some of his teammates still don't believe any of it.

"He told you he was the best athlete on the team? He told you he could dunk?" said cornerback Nate Jones with a laugh. "On what size rim?"

The biggest man in the Super Bowl is a tale tall indeed, an aging giant who couldn't have been more impressive this season if he had dug the Grand Canyon with an ax.

His eighth year, his heaviest year, was probably his best. Only one other Patriot was on the field for more defensive plays, with Wilfork recording a career-high 3.5 sacks and the first two interceptions of his career. In the AFC championship win against the Baltimore Ravens, Wilfork was nearly unstoppable, appearing for 67 of the Ravens' 70 plays, eventually making consecutive big plays on third and fourth down late in the game — tossing aside Ray Rice and chasing down Joe Flacco — to help rescue the Patriots.

"I still don't know about that dunking thing, but I do know he is the heart and soul of our defense," Jones said.

No offense to Teflon Tom Brady, but Wilfork is the heart and soul of this entire Patriots team, which embraces a simple sentimentality that sometimes is lost in his giant girth.

"No one can question how much I love the game," Wilfork said. "I wear it all on my sleeve."

The Super Bowl cameras will show his stomach, but they might not show those "sleeves," his bare forearms, which bear tattoos reading, "RIP Dad" and "RIP Mom." He lost both of his parents within six months of each other while he was still at the University of Miami, his diabetic father dying of kidney failure and his mother dying after suffering a stroke.

He was so upset, he quit football as his Hurricanes were marching toward a spot in the 2002 national championship game. Only a coach who was dealing with his own wife's cancer could talk him into coming back.

"We are very blessed to be where we're at today," Wilfork said. "But I had to learn through time."

The Super Bowl cameras will show his giant arms smacking around some offensive linemen, but they might not show him, after the game, kissing owner Robert Kraft on each cheek.

For the first seven years of his Patriots career, before every game he would plant one kiss on the cheek of both Kraft and his wife, Myra, who helped Wilfork become a community role model. But in July, Myra died of cancer, so Wilfork is trying to make up for her loss.

"Now Mr. Kraft gets two — one for himself and one for Myra … because of what she meant in my life and the person she made me," Wilfork said.

The Super Bowl cameras might show Wilfork studying a grease board on the sidelines, but they will probably not show a screen shot of Wilfork's Twitter account, which, like the man himself, fairly drips with a heart that cannot be hidden in that belly.

Someone recently tweeted: "You think MHK [Myra Kraft] is throwing a Super Bowl party in heaven?"

He answered: "Her and my parents."

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