Vince Wilfork, one of the more important pieces of the New England Patriots dynasty, was officially inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame on Saturday at Gillette Stadium.
Patriots chairman, owner, and CEO Robert Kraft spoke about the significance of the nose tackle's contributions during his 11 years with the organization.
"Vince anchored a defensive unit that helped propel the Patriots to 10 division titles, six AFC championships, four trips to the super bowl, and two great parades in downtown Boston," Kraft said. "There are a lot of really big players who battle in the trenches in the NFL, but few have ever had the combined size, strength, quickness and overall athletic agility as Vince."
"Vince just didn't tackle enemy ball carriers, he steamrolled them. And as much as we enjoyed watching him punish an opposing quarterback, there was nothing for me that was more entertaining than watching opponents trying to tackle Vince when he returned an interception or a fumble," Kraft added. "Clearly Vince made an immediate impact on the field and left a lasting impression...typically in the chest of his opponents. And that of course is the reason we're all here today."
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Kraft said Wilfork became one of his all-time favorites, and he got emotional as he shared a personal anecdote about No. 75, recalling how when the pair met for the first time following the 2004 draft, Wilfork was wearing a large gold medallion around his neck that had his parents' wedding photo. Wilfork's parents both died within six months of each other while he was attending and playing football at the University of Miami.
Years later, as Kraft's wife's health was declining, Wilfork brought him a gold medallion with the couple's wedding photo on it. Kraft said after Myra died, he wore that piece of jewelry every day for nearly a year, saying no player had ever done anything like that for him before.
Following Myra's death, Kraft also recalled how Wilfork would give him a kiss on each cheek -- one for Kraft and one for Myra. Kraft said he will always be grateful to him for that.
Former teammates and thousands of fans attended Saturday's ceremony, which was open to the public.
"Patriots fans will remember Vince for his big body, even bigger smile and always making the biggest plays. For a decade of Patriots dominance, no defender played a bigger role both literally and figuratively than Vince Wilfork. Vince gave us all many memorable moments in which we could all be thankful," Kraft said. "In a word, Wilfork was simply in-VINCE-able.
"I'm honored to present Vince with his red jacket and it's only a matter of time hopefully before he gets a gold one, which he truly deserves," Kraft said as he called on Wilfork to come up. "It's my pleasure to introduce the 32nd member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, Vince Wilfork."
The two-time Super Bowl champion said he was honored to be wearing the red jacket. Emotional at times, Wilfork spoke about his life and his Patriots career, clearly focused on how much his parents meant to him.
"As a player, I never really thought about being a Hall of Famer. My goal was always playing football, a game I love, but to understand who I am, you have to understand my journey," Wilfork said.
The 2004 first round draft pick revealed the battles he fought, including rolling his diabetic father in a wheel chair to all of his high school practices. He also talked about his mom being out of work, and how both of his parents died before he turned 22.
“I had to survive. I had to learn how to survive at a very young age. No one every gave me anything. Nothing. Everything I got, I worked for. I worked for. I worked for. I grind. I put the time in. I never got any handouts. Ever,” he said.
Wilfork said his parents' deaths initially led him to quit football, but it was his defensive line coach at Miami who convinced him to get back on the field.
"The more I thought about it, the more I came to my senses, and I picked back up my career. Fast forward, I get drafted with the first pick. I came to New England, one of the best decisions RKK made. And Bill Belichick," Wilfork said. "But at the same time, I was still missing my mother and father."
"I can't tell you how many times I left the practice field or left a game tore up inside. I get a chance to walk back, walk past my teammates and have their families, you know, their mom, their dad, their brothers, their sisters, their wives, they have a good time, you know, and I'm hurt inside because I don't have my mother and father here to enjoy this life with me. And I felt that way for 13 years," he revealed, saying he played in the NFL for 13 years with a broken heart that no one knew about.
"When you look at who the person I am, what I've accomplished, you guys are not fans to me. You are my family," he told Patriots Nation.
"I'm a survivor," Wilfork added, clearly overcome with emotion, saying he tried to get through his speech without crying.
"I worked hard my whole life," he said before breaking down again.
"I had the greatest teammates ever, the greatest fans ever, the greatest owner ever, the greatest coach ever," he said, adding that his teammates especially made his life a lot easier. "I'll forever be grateful for that."
"I want to say thank you to everyone. Everyone is my family, and I love all of you...I really, really appreciate the love that you've always shown me and the memories you gave me and the memories I gave you guys. We all did this together," Wilfork said.
"I’m wearing this jacket but this jacket is for all of us. Because you made me who I was at this level. So I want to say thank you,” he said to close his speech, walking off the stage to a standing ovation.
Before the festivities wrapped up, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick came on stage to talk about his former player, saying he was honored to take part in Wilfork's induction.
"As great of a player as he was, and he was great...he was a greater person and a greater leader. And when they do the captains for the Patriots Hall of Fame, Vince will be one of those because he's that kind of a leader," Belichick said of Wilfork. "I'm talking about a Hall of Fame leader, as well as player, person and everything else. His devotion to the team is really legendary."
Belichick talked about being impressed with Wilfork from their first meeting, noting his maturity, intelligence, self awareness, and professionalism. He called him a man well beyond his years who was very articulate, and understood what it took to be a professional athlete, a champion, and a guy that's targeted and double teamed on every play because he was "unblockable."
Belichick recalled how dynamic Wilfork was, saying he was the glue that brought the football team together.
"Vince was also that guy that when he said something, you could hear a pin drop. Nobody else was talking. Nobody else was giving any rebuttal. Nobody else was saying anything other than, 'yes sir, Vince, we're behind you. Let's go.' And he always led us down the right path, always led us the right way," Belichick added.
"I would just like to personally thank you for what you have done for me. How much I have learned from you. Your leadership, your competitiveness, your team attitude, your physical and mental toughness. All of which are on the superior 99 out of 100 scale, maybe higher. Thank you for all you've done for me, for my family, for this organization. You are truly not only a Hall of Famer, but you're one of the captains on this Hall of Fame team. Congratulations," Belichick concluded.
Wilfork, the 32nd inductee into the Patriots Hall of Fame, is considered one of the best defensive tackles in NFL history. The 6-foot-2, 325-pounder helped the Patriots to Super Bowl titles in 2004 and 2014. In 13 NFL seasons (189 games), he tallied 16 sacks, 560 tackles (39 for loss), five forced fumbles and three interceptions. He was a First-Team All-Pro in 2012 and a Second-Team All-Pro three times: in 2007, 2010, and 2011.
The Patriots will face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, and Wilfork will be honored at halftime. Kraft explained Sunday how the Patriots can actually thank the Ravens for Wilfork, recalling how the Patriots traded their first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2003 NFL Draft to the Ravens for a 2003 second-round and 2004 first-round draft choice. The Ravens selected quarterback Kyle Boller in 2003, while the Patriots chose Wilfork with Baltimore's original draft choice at 21st overall in the 2004 draft.