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When Vince Wilfork almost quit football

As he prepares for his fourth Super Bowl, the Patriots defensive tackle reflects on a series of events that almost drove him away from the game for good.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

PHOENIX -  The batty and bizarre remained rampant at Super Bowl 49 Media Day, but the practical and sensical could be found in the heart of it where Vince Wilfork sat. Wilfork is a big man with big thoughts. He never feebly spews them. Long ago, he said, he learned how to listen. He liked that listening was free. But Wilfork knows how to embrace defining moments. He was on a podium. The microphone was in front of him. A throng of reporters encircled him. The world was watching. It was time to talk. So, he did.

He said his favorite food is tacos. He said the biggest practical joker among his Patriots teammates is offensive guard Ryan Wendell. He said he was given Psalms 23 as a child and continually refers to it for guidance and inspiration. He said his wife, Bianca, is his grittiest coach and closest friend. He said Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is the best running back in football. He said his coach, Bill Belichick, is the greatest NFL coach ever.

Then later, this 6'2, 325-pound rock of power and agility shared with me how he traveled from Boyton Beach, Fla., to Foxborough, Mass., how one day changed his life and how it resonates.

"I cried like a baby when I found out," Wilfork said. "And then I went back to work."

"I was in the ninth grade," he began. "I was at school. I saw a pair of shoes I liked. I stole them. That got me 10 days of suspension. I had a teacher who took me aside and ripped into me. I decided to make changes. I decided to listen. I had told my dad since I was four years old that I was going to play in the NFL. I knew right then that to make that happen, I had to listen.

"Everything wasn't perfect for me growing up. But I had a mother growing up who worked so hard that I only saw her in the mornings before school. I had a father who came to my practices, came to my games and who was always there for the both of them. My dad (David) died after a long struggle with diabetes in the summer of 2002. Six months later my mom died of a stroke. I was going to quit football. I was going to quit on a lot of things."

But Wilfork listened to the support around him. He rose to leave the University of Miami as a first-round draft pick, the 21st selection overall, by the Patriots in 2004.

New England instantly gained, though he was a young man, a seasoned man.

He has been a Patriots' fixture since 2004. He won a Super Bowl championship as a rookie. He has suffered two Super Bowl losses since. This fourth appearance in his 11th NFL season is an extremely passionate one for Wilfork. He is a Patriots' captain now. He is age 33 now.  He knows the chances beyond could be few.

He plays a scary, intimidating brand of defensive tackle for the Patriots. He does the dirty work. He often lines up directly over the center. He often is double teamed. It is taxing, grinding work. He clogs the middle. Sometimes he dominates and gets into the backfield and blows up plays and quarterbacks. Often, he attracts so much attention that he frees teammates to make the big plays, to get glory.

Vince Wilfork is among the most respected players in the NFL. His peers value him.

Listen to the Seahawks talk about Wilfork in preparation for Super Bowl 49:

Seattle center Max Unger: "Vince has been playing the game at maybe the highest level anybody has in the last 10 years."

Seattle offensive tackle Russell Okung: "Vince is a tough player. He really brings it. We know that. I mean, he really brings it. He is a passionate player who knows football, knows what it takes. We have to match his intensity. We know that."

And this from Seattle head coach Pete Carroll: "He's a monster of a guy. Such a worker. He is really tough to knock off the ball. He has a penchant for making plays. We have got to find a way to throw him off his mark. We have got to find a way to move him. And that is not going to be easy."

Wilfork tore his right Achilles tendon in 2013 in his team's fourth game. He missed the rest of that season.

"I cried like a baby when I found out," Wilfork said. "And then I went back to work."

He felt like crying again last March when contract negotiations with the Patriots turned ugly. Wilfork asked to be released during those talks. He explained: "Oh yeah, it sure looked like for a minute that my Patriots time was up. I got way too personal in it. I took everything involved in those talks way too personal. But this is where I am supposed to be."

Listening. Leading. Creating havoc in the middle of the Patriots' defense.

Wilfork gained notoriety after the AFC Championship at New England for helping to rescue a woman from an overturned car.  He was driving home, a Super Bowl berth secured, and saw distress along the way.

That is a "road" for Wilfork well traveled.

"I come from a small town," he said. "But I've lived a lot of big things."