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Wednesday, January 1
Updated: January 2, 3:39 PM ET
Wilfork possesses strength few can imagine

By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It is only a game, right? It will be over and done in three-and-a-half hours and the scoreboard will tell us everything, right? Then the winners will hoist up a gaudy crystal football and hug their families, while the losers will sob on each other's shoulder pads. And then we will forget about all of them for nine months.

From ground level, you start to believe this whole thing is really just a fancy photo op for a company to spread the gospel of its salsa and tortilla chips. But come on in here closer, dodge the TV cameras and all the microphones and you'll see something different, something much more. It is all right there in front of the cluster of cameras -- a mountain of a man with scraggly dreads, soft eyes and no neck. Take a good long look at him. This is Big Vince and he is the reason why you are here. His is a story about football and life -- and the life of a 21-year-old football player. It is about a chubby manchild who was once so broken he was ashamed to walk to his mailbox, and about how he became the most powerful man in college football. Literally and figuratively.

Most people never thought Vince Wilfork would be here in Arizona, ready to lead Miami to another national title. Not just a few weeks after his mama passed. Not just a few months after his daddy passed. But, really, there is nowhere else Big Vince could be. At least not right now.

A father's love
Vince Wilfork
For Miami's Vince Wilfork, playing football has been therapeutic in overcoming the loss of his parents.
The story actually starts 10 years ago. That's when the kidney failure started to gut his old man. In just two months back in 1992, David Wilfork lost 140 pounds, dropping from 285 to 145. But he kept battling. Then, he lost an eye, and had to have a toe amputated, and as his body kept betraying him, he vowed he wouldn't let diabetes or anything else get the best of him. He promised himself as long as there was air in his lungs he would be there for his boys -- David Jr. and Vince -- even if that meant showing up at the kids football practices, hobbling around on crutches or with a cain, battling heat and humidity.

And Vince would be there for the old man too. He bathed his father, fed him, even carried him to the bathroom. The old man did whatever he could to make it to Vince's games as the chubby kid grew into a dominating defensive lineman. But the kid's path wouldn't be easy, either. He failed to get his eligibility after signing with Miami. He stayed home in Boynton Beach, Fla. and kept prepping to pass his test scores -- and piling on pounds while his self-esteem shriveled up and his weight ballooned from 315 to 380.

"We couldn't talk to him at all," the father, David Wilfork told last winter. "He just wanted to be alone, but we pressured him more than ever. People around here kept telling him he'd never do anything more than high school, so me and my wife kept saying 'Prove them wrong. Make 'em liars.' But he was so humiliated. He just didn't want to be seen. He wouldn't even walk to the mailbox."

"I was like 'Vince, you gotta get out of the house. This is ridiculous,'" says Ray Berger, Wilfork's coach at Santaluces High, who eventually -- with the old man's prodding -- got Vince out to his alma mater's practices where he became a de facto assistant. The old man couldn't have been happier when his boy made it to UM and emerged as a star. He was right there to be a waterboy to Vince and his teammates, even though his own battles were getting tougher. After the kidneys went and the eyesight vanished, his hearing disappeared, and then, finally, last June, Big Vince knew it was time to say their goodbye. He placed his national championship ring on his father and then his dad was gone. David Wilfork was 48.

"I thought that would be the worst of it this year, my father passing," Wilfork explained at Tuesday's media session. "I mean, what are the odds of something else?"

'The only thing I'm missing is my mom'
Vince Wilfork believes it is cathartic to share his story. He realizes that he is not alone. That he not only has his older brother David, but a entire family to support him and keep his mind right, he says as he gazes up at 50 or 60 Hurricanes goofing around in the bleachers at Sun Devil Stadium. "I don't have a dad anymore. But I have 12 dads here, all the coaches. The only thing I'm missing is my mom."

At Vince's father's funeral, Wilfork's prep coach, the guy the old man affectionately reffered to as his boy's white godfather, stood up and spoke. Berger explained how in his faith, as a Jew, boys are believed to become men at 13, but he admitted he really didn't become a man till he was 24 when his father passed away. "Today," he said as he looked at the Wilfork boys, "you guys are men."

"Those parents had such a great impact on them," Berger told Monday. "They really are special guys. Honestly, I don't know if I could even deal with all they've had to endure this year." . A big reason is "all these guys up there," Wilfork said, pointing to the players in the stands. "They saved me."

When they all showed up at his father's funeral, Wilfork realized he wasn't alone. Then, as the season kicked off and Miami made its drive to become the first Miami team to repeat as national champs, his brothers were still there for Wilfork, making sure he was OK, playing games with him, watching movies with him or just teasing him. Then, the week of the big game at Tennessee on Nov. 9, his mom suffered a stroke. He rushed home to be back her side. But he called UM coaches and told them he still wanted to play. They needed him to shut down that Vol ground attack, right?

"Vince, this is just football," UM head coach Larry Coker told him. "Stay home. Be with your mother. She needs you."

After Miami's romp in Knoxville, defensive line coach Greg Mark called from the team bus, asked how Vince was and then passed the phone to a player seated next to him. Who passed it to another player. Who passed it to another. And the phone snaked its way around the whole bus.

"I talked to everyone on the bus besides the driver," Wilfork says. "You can't imagine how things like that helped."

Things then seemed to steady with his mom. Her condition appeared to get better. Vince made the 90-minute drive back to campus and returned to the team. He was all excited that his mom was coming home and was about to begin therapy. David Jr. was there at the hospital the night before her release. "Go home so you can get ready for work," she told him. So he did, and then, just like that, her body stopped working and she was gone too -- before Vince could get back to her. Gone at 46.

At her funeral, two buses pulled up. Hurricane players and coaches piled out, went to the service, heard stories about what a sweet woman and loving mother Vince's mom was. And one-by-one, they hugged their brother. For the next 10 days or so, Wilfork didn't want to do anything, couldn't turn on the TV. He was tired of hearing about how this was going to induce him into bolting Miami for the NFL. He wasn't sure if he'd make the trip to Fiesta Bowl. Then Vince realized something. He needed to go to Tempe, but not for the team. Not because the Hurricanes needed him to freight-train some poor Buckeye linemen or gobble up Maurice Clarett. No, Big Vince he needed to come to Tempe for himself.

"Playing football, being around these guys, that makes me happy," he said.

'I'll just keep moving on, you know?'
Teammates are thrilled he is back with him, back with their family. "Players don't talk about 'it' with Vince," says defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. "All we do is joke around with him, laugh with him and always be positive and get that smile on his face."

They missed Vince's enthusiasm and jovial, joking personality. They missed the guy who always seems to be able to calm the coaches down, Shannon says. And they also know probably no one will be playing with any more steam than Big Vince. "He is so ready to play and take out all that anger and negativity and stuff out on somebody," says defensive end Jerome McDougle.

Of course this whole experience is not easy, Wilfork says. "But you have to look forward to things. I have a bright future ahead of me. I can't let it go to waste. If I dwell on my mother and my dad all the time I'd be a sad person. I know they wouldn't want me to do that. My mom or my dad would probably kill me if that happened.

"I'm just looking forward to a brighter future. I look forward to going to practice. I look forward to going back to the hotel and having fun with my friends. If I get a little emotional by myself, that's OK. I'll just keep moving on, you know?"

In a few months, Wilfork's girlfriend is expecting a child, a daughter, and he is excited about that. "I believe that the Lord doesn't give you adversity that you can't handle," Wilfork says. "Anything he puts on me, I can handle. It's gonna be hard, but I'm not too worried about it. Now I'm getting to do something I love, and whatever happens from here, happens."

Sure, he wishes his folks would be there to see his baby, but he believes they are there watching him, proud of who he is and how he is handling all this. And they are sure that he is in good hands.

He says he is dedicating this game to his teammates to get them that repeat, to his parents and to his baby girl. "It's gonna be emotional, but I think it's gonna be a pretty good day."

Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at