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Miami player is strong, both on and off the field

Vince Wilfork lost both parents and has a baby in the future

By Jeff Miller

Knight Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI -- Not as a high school All-American.

Not as a college national champion.

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Not in the weight room, on the football field or even as an athlete at all.

Never before had defensive tackle Vince Wilfork -- all 6-2, 350 pounds of current Hurricanes star and future NFL player -- shown more strength than he did Saturday. And the only thing he appeared to lift was his head.

"I can't tell you how tough this is," he said. "I loved my parents, and that will always be there. But no matter what I do from now on, this will be in the back of my mind and the back of my heart, for the rest of my life. But the only thing that changes is that my parents are gone. Everything else stays the same. I'm OK with this. I'm willing to accept the facts. I'll keep doing what I'm supposed to do."

Keeping a promise

That means he will play for the Hurricanes in the Jan. 3 Fiesta Bowl, that he will return to Miami next year for his junior season, that he will fulfill the promise he made to his dying parents and earn his degree.

Wilfork guaranteed all these things and more, two hours after burying his mother, six months after burying his father and two months before he becomes a dad.

How much weight can one mind hold? How about a mind only 21 years old? A mind that has to concentrate on winning another national title? A mind that must deflect talk of the NFL and its millions? A mind that knows the problems such money could solve?

Forget Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee and 34 consecutive victories. Forget even that Fiesta Bowl, only the largest game this college football season. Because the most amazing, compelling and endearing story of this year's Miami Hurricanes is happening right now.

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"I wasn't over my dad yet ... and now my mom," Wilfork said. "This one really struck me. I enjoy every moment now, every moment I breathe, every game I play. As long as I don't break ... I'll never break. You can trust me on that now. I might bend, but I'll regain my focus and bounce back. I will never break."

Barbara Wilfork died Monday from complications of a stroke suffered last month. She supposedly had been improving. David Wilfork died in June after a long fight with diabetes and kidney problems. He had been slowly dying.

Maturing early

Along with Vince, they left behind another son, David Jr., 23, and the two boys who already had grown up plenty are maturing by the minute again. This happens when you watch your father hooked to a machine just to stay alive. You learn responsibility when you have to bathe your dad, help him go to the bathroom and carry him when he no longer can walk.

Then, finally, the day you watch them lower your father into the earth, you find out your girlfriend is pregnant, expecting a girl. Responsibility? This is the same girlfriend, Bianca Farinas, with the 5-year-old son you willingly have embraced as your own, saying, "If I wanted her, he had to come along. That was fine with me."

The past month, Wilfork had been traveling three times a week from Miami to Boynton Beach to see his mother. He often would leave practice exhausted but make the drive anyway because he knew the smile that was awaiting him. More importantly, he understood the significance of that smile.

"When other people were laying down in bed because they were so tired, I was up here checking on my mom and brother," Wilfork said. "It seemed like I was always on the run, but, if I had the time, I had to come and see her. She was so happy when I'd walk into the room. I knew I was making her day. As long as I was doing that, I was straight. I didn't care about sleeping."

He has cried plenty, of course, no amount of muscle able to hold back something as small and powerful as a tear. But those moments have come only in private and almost always alone. As he spoke Saturday, his voice never cracked, he never swallowed hard. He paused at times but only to sort through his thoughts.

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It's remarkable really, that any sophomore could be so grown up. We call these student-athletes "college kids," but the label seems absurdly undersized for someone who is as large as Wilfork is, on the outside and inside.

"All that crying doesn't do anything," he said. "Now believe me, I've shed tears. But if you know you did well by that person, if you did all you could, there's no reason for crying. I have no regrets. I did the best job I could to help my parents."

Two busloads of Wilfork's UM teammates were at Boynton's Bible Church of God. So were coach Larry Coker and athletic director Paul Dee. Some of the players wore BCS jackets. Each made an effort to hug their teammate.

Showing they care

"How can you leave a foundation like that?" Wilfork said. "That shows the love they have for me. I could never leave them blind like that. It's 100 percent -- 110 percent -- certain I'll be back next season. If anybody tells you otherwise, I want to meet that person."

Inside the church, ceiling fans spun, ushers passed out tissues and women handed off their babies in order to stand, clap and sway with the choir. They shouted amens and hallelujahs, and Rev. James Bouie told Vince and his brother: "You are men now. Hold up each other's arms. Lift each other up."

It was a few hours later, after Wilfork said he "can't push anything away because I have a little girl coming, and I have to be there for her," after he thanked his parents for how they raised him, after he promised he was "still going to be just Vince" -- after all that, it was clear Wilfork had lifted more than his head on this day.

He had lifted something a lot heavier, in fact.

He had lifted his heart.

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