One could forgive Vince Wilfork if he feels a bit like the NFL’s version of the Rolling Stones.
With each passing year, more and more of his old friends disappear — or in his case, retire — but he just keeps on rocking.
Wilfork was one of 38 members of the 2001 University of Miami class drafted by an NFL team, a ridiculous statistic that is often the trump card when debating the best college teams in history.
But of that group, only six were on an NFL roster at the end of the 2014 season. The others: wide receiver Andre Johnson, defensive back Antrel Rolle, running back Frank Gore, linebacker D.J. Williams and center Chris Myers.
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“Hopefully we can get back to the U that we all know,” said Wilfork, the Patriots’ stout defensive tackle. “I know there are a lot of alumni out there that really are waiting. And we’ve got a feeling it’s coming soon, but you have to be able to rebuild and put a program in place that works.”
As for that 2001 team, Wilfork might be the group’s last best chance at a Super Bowl ring, and Sunday’s showdown between the Patriots and Seahawks could close the book on one of the most dominant runs in football history.
The game will mark the 15th time in 16 years that a Miami Hurricane player has appeared in the Super Bowl — a remarkable run that speaks to the depth and longevity of the program. Super Bowl 47 alone featured five Canes: Gore, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bryant McKinnie and Tavares Gooden.
But, as any UM fan can attest, times have changed.
The talent simply isn’t the same. And for Miami’s Super Bowl streak to continue, the program’s young pro players — including the half-dozen or so that are expected to be drafted in May — must blossom in a way they didn’t on the Coral Gables campus.
Wilfork, 33, is as good an example for them as anyone. He started all 16 games in 2014 — the year after tearing his right Achilles tendon, a potentially career-wrecking event.
“I was reading all these stories about a person my age, my size, coming back from this injury,” Wilfork said. “Sometimes I tell people I’m not human. Don’t put me in that stat, and I believe that. That’s one of the things that really drove me, just to hear all the gallows saying that I can’t come back off of it because of my weight and my age and all that stuff. When I went to work, I went to work. My training staff, they got me right. My people back home in Florida got me right, my wife got me right. I literally killed myself every day to make sure I’m all right, and I think I’m as strong as I’ve ever been, and I’ve never looked back from it.”
Wilfork added: ”My main goal this year coming back was to make sure I was healthy and help my team win.”
The Patriots have done plenty of that, going 12-4 in the regular season and advancing to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in 14 years.
And Wilfork has been the keystone for a defense that ranked seventh in points (19.5 per game) and ninth in rushing yards allowed (104.3). He recorded 42 tackles, two sacks and 19 quarterback hurries in 2014.
“Vince has been playing the game at maybe the highest level anybody has in the last 10 years,” said Seahawks center Max Unger, whose job it will be to block Wilfork Sunday.
Earlier this week, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia raved about Wilfork’s leadership. Even in his 11th NFL season, he still sits in front of the class and pays attention in every meeting.
“If I need to point to anybody in the room that I think needs to do it a certain way, I can just point to Vince and say, ‘You need follow this guy’s example,’” Patricia said. “‘This is how you sustain in the NFL. This is how you’re a champion in the NFL. You do it like he does it, and you attack each day and each week with the preparation that he does.’”
Furthermore, Wilfork has been a go-to source this week, as sports writers from around the world have grilled players over New England’s ball-deflating scandal that has clouded this Super Bowl.
A Bill Belichick loyalist, Wilfork has predictably said little about the brouhaha.
What reporters could get him to open up about, at least a little: when he helped rescue an accident victim on the way home from the AFC Championship game.
Wilfork came across an overturned Jeep and pulled a trapped woman to safety with one hand. Had the football deflation story broken a few hours later, the act of heroism might have been one of the week’s most compelling storylines.
“I saw somebody that needed help,” Wilfork said. “My parents taught me a long, long time ago to treat people the way you want to be treated. One thing I thought about was that could have easily been my family turned over in the car, and I hope people would do the same thing for me. So, there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to pass that and call somebody and say, ‘Hey, somebody’s here.’ I think everybody would do the same thing.”