Play is an elastic concept, most vividly so in the summer sunshine. The families sit on the hill. The children duck in and out of the little white tent, or they roll down the hill, down to where the ropes are stretched to keep ordinary citizens off the fields on which the New England Patriots sweat and strain and get ready for another football season. The children holler and laugh. The men holler and grunt. The children are playing. The men are preparing to play. The definition of the word here seems bounded on one end by the heedless, reckless momentum of youth, and on the other by the grinding, stubborn momentum of maturity. The idea of play seems somehow to fill the entire space in between.
The families sit on the hill, and, other than the players, they are the only people whose presence at training camp seems to make sense. Why any simple fan would spend hours in the glaring, calcined sun watching football players run drills remains a mystery. (Football is the only one of the three major American sports where, if you watch practice, you will not see the actual game in question.) Perhaps the payoff comes at the end, when several players work the ropes surrounding the field, signing autographs on footballs, jerseys, plaster casts, hats, and even the occasional piece of paper. The children of the families take this as their cue to come tumbling down the hill again, this time rolling under the ropes and onto the edges of the field, greeting their fathers in a rush.
Seven-year-old Destiny Wilfork has found her father’s practice jersey, which, as football players are wont to do, he has removed as a single unit with his shoulder pads. Destiny’s head finds its way up through the jersey and just past the shoulder pads. She looks as though she’s fallen partway into a well. Her father is not entirely pleased. Vince Wilfork is an immense man – 6 feet 2 inches tall and 325 pounds. As the team’s nose tackle, he is required to maintain this kind of mass. If he doesn’t, some offensive lineman will conspire with Sir Isaac Newton to blast Wilfork off the line of scrimmage and into unemployment. Or worse. At this moment, though, looking at his daughter as she appears to be drowning in his work clothes, he puts on the kind of exasperated dad face that has been a staple of sitcom fathers from Ward Cleaver to Al Bundy. Nearby, his wife, Bianca, begins to laugh.
Married since 2004, they have been together for nine years now, first at the University of Miami and now here with the New England Patriots, which drafted Vince prior to the 2004 season. In every sense, they are a team within the team. Vince’s job is to play football. Bianca’s job is to make sure that playing football remains Vince’s only job. She has had to be strong enough to involve herself in all the extraneous details of a professional athlete’s life – from contract talks and endorsement deals to medical issues and charity endeavors. It is Bianca who reads and assimilates the letters that come home from the National Football League Players Association, warning of a possible lockout next season, and it is she who monitors the increasing amount of medical evidence that playing professional football can be an extraordinarily unhealthy business. She has to be strong enough to do all that. Vince has to be strong enough to let her.
“I can honestly say, what Vince does, it’s unusual for anybody,” Bianca says from the kitchen of the large house the Wilforks own on a woodsy cul-de-sac not far from Vince’s place of business in Foxborough. This afternoon the living room is bare because the new furniture they ordered has yet to arrive. “It works for us. If it ain’t broke, we’re not going to try and fix it,” she says. “It takes a lot of strength and courage to allow someone else to take control of the steering wheel. A weak person can’t do that. They can’t transfer the ride. I’m sure his teammates, they talk a little smack about it, but they better not let me hear about it. To put things into perspective, at the end of the day, it’s me and him, and that’s what it’s going to be, even after the kids are gone.”
“That’s my backbone there,” Vince says of Bianca. “She allows me to play and to concentrate on football, and that takes a lot of the stress off me. She handles all that stuff. Any paperwork I get, it goes straight to her. It goes back to when I was in college. She understands me, and I understand her. I know I’m in good hands with Allstate with her. The one thing we try not to do is to compare ourselves with other people. It works for me, and I’m not going to change it.”
They could not be more different. Bianca is a peppery burst of a person. In everything she says, there are at least three words in italics. Vince talks slower, with more than a trace of a Florida drawl, and he seems the more natural storyteller. You have to let him unwind his words at his own pace. She is three years older than he is, and from the start of their relationship, she has been the caretaker of the two of them. Almost on the fly, she has learned to navigate the economics of professional sports as well as the myriad details of what can be a very odd way of life.
“I’ve learned everything, and pretty much every day you learn more as you go,” she says. “I just kind of fell into my role. That’s just kind of the way I am. Like, when agents came around when Vince was turning pro, I would have an interview with an agent and I’d let him go through his whole thing, and then, at the end, I would have Agent A teach me something, whether it was about escalator clauses or not-likely-to-be-earned incentives or splits in the contract in case you get hurt. By the time I got to Agents C, D, and E, they were screwed. Once they know you know what you’re talking about, it changes the whole playing field.
“I work real hard at not being surprised. If I’m surprised, then something’s going on. If I’m surprised, then that means I missed something, and I’m trying not to miss anything.”
Last winter, when Vince was negotiating his new five-year, $40 million contract with the Patriots (making him the highest-paid nose tackle in the NFL), Bianca stayed in close touch with Kennard McGuire, Vince’s agent. On March 5, when the deal was done, she and Vince used Twitter to tell fans they were “pleased to say that we will be here for many more years to come … C ya in foxboro soon.” The negotiations were remarkable in that they were free of the kind of animosity that has marked negotiations between the team and some of its other players – star offensive lineman Logan Mankins, for one, may sit out the entire season in an intractable contract dispute.
“I come in and I tell you what I need to know, and then I back away and you guys duke it out,” Bianca says of her part in the negotiations between Vince’s agent and the team. “It just took a little longer than we expected.”
For both Wilfork and the Patriots, the deal looks even better now than it did then. Wilfork is satisfied, and, with Ty Warren lost for the season with a hip injury, the Patriots are facing the year with Wilfork as the defensive line’s only truly experienced star.
Though there is no more macho universe in the world than professional sports, Bianca’s involvement in Vince’s career is not unprecedented. College recruiters in pursuit of athletes more often than not find themselves dealing with mothers and grandmothers. Colleen Howe, the wife of hockey legend Gordie Howe, was her husband’s agent. But Bianca is obviously something more than an adviser. In almost every sense of the word, for the past nine years Bianca has been the caretaker – of Vince, his career, and their life together, which now includes three children: Destiny and her two brothers, D’Aundre, 12, and 1-year-old David. And while many, if not most, athletes’ wives take on this job at some level or another, few couples have struck the bargain that the Wilforks have: that is, an athlete strong enough to hand over control of so many aspects of his professional life, and a wife savvy enough to make it work. “I guess it’s what I’m here for,” she says. “It’s a gift and a curse. It’s in you or it’s not. I don’t know how I get in these positions, but I do. I think I have a sign somewhere that I can’t turn off.”
* * *
They met modern. They met cute. They met online before they ever met in person.
By the time they met, Vince Wilfork had already become something of a star, at least within the exploding nebula of hype that is high school football in Florida. Big and round and robust, he nonetheless was so athletic that he played on both the offensive and defensive lines at Santaluces High School in Lantana. They let him run the ball in goal-line situations, which consisted mainly of people trying to get out of his way. They even let him punt a little. In 1999, after his senior season, Vince was named one of the state’s three top defensive linemen. At the same time, there was a gravity to his life that only a few people knew about.
David Wilfork, Vince’s father, worked a parks and recreation job around Lantana. He and his blue van were fixtures at every game that Vince and his brother, David, played. The elder Wilfork even ferried their teammates home after the games and practices. The father took his two sons fishing, and their mother, Barbara, cooked what the three of them brought home. However, even then, Vince’s father was being ravaged by diabetes. As he got older, he had a hip replacement and he couldn’t walk. His sons would carry him around the house and bathe him and do what they could to take some of the burden off their mother. Vince, who was something of a homebody anyway, became even more serious about his life than he had been. In 2000, the University of Miami offered him a football scholarship.
By the fall of 2001, Bianca, then 23, had a son, D’Aundre, from a previous relationship, and the two were living with her father and stepmother in Homestead, Florida, and she was working two jobs. Her father, Angel Farinas, was a Cuban emigre who had come to the United States with his mother, his brother, and his grandmother. He worked construction jobs all over the country, building roads and bridges, and even spelunking in pipes to repair sewer systems. He met Bianca’s mother on a job in Pennsylvania; they split when Bianca was around 10. Angel had a rule about his grown children living in his house: If they didn’t want to pay him rent, they had to have a job. So Bianca began working at age 16 and went to school to become a manicurist. Later, Bianca and her stepmother started B&M Freight Service, an export-import firm, and Bianca learned a dizzying array of skills to keep up with the demands of the business.
“People in the Bahamas, they buy things here, and vice versa,” she says. “Shoes, perishables, pharmaceuticals from Italy, all of those things had to clear customs at a US port. I had to know about custom regulations. I had to take hazmat classes.” At the same time, across town, and somewhat more prosaically, she was also working a full shift as the manager of a Taco Bell. Bianca and Vince were both growing, at different speeds and with different family imperatives, when they finally met in Vince’s second semester at Miami.
To get in touch with friends from back home in Gainesville, Bianca registered at blackplanet.com, a sort of rudimentary Facebook social-networking site. “He kind of saw my picture there and he sent me a little e-mail,” she explains. “He didn’t have any pictures, and he lied. He said he weighed 250. He hasn’t been 250 since he was born, right? All my friends had pictures on there, and I would never respond to people I didn’t know, even if they were on the cute side, let alone someone who didn’t have a picture. He left a simple, plain message – ‘My name is Vince. Call me.’ I don’t know why in hell I called him. We’ve been together ever since.”
Not necessarily in the same room, however. They talked on the phone for two months, and they didn’t meet until well into the beginning of the football season that fall, when Bianca came for a visit. “Yeah, it took us a while to see each other in person,” Vince says. “We hit it off right away.”
Within six months, they were living together, off-campus, something that Vince’s father knew but that his mother did not. Bianca was three years older than Vince, and she already had a 3-year-old son. None of this was likely to please Barbara. “At the time,” Bianca says, “I called him a mama’s boy. To put it nicely, he had a fear of her.” Meanwhile, Vince was learning to be a father himself. “That was something that was totally new to me,” he says. “I mean, I’m 20 years old at the time and I’m a father figure to this little man. Bianca taught me a lot. I got better and better.”
“D’Aundre would always say, ‘OK, Vince. What are we going to do today?’ ” Bianca recalls. “That was the let’s-see-if-this-guy’s-for-real thing. We talked on that phone for two months, and then, when I finally went to see him, Santonio Thomas, one of Vince’s teammates, walked by, and he asked me, ‘Hey, where’s D’Aundre?’ That kind of sealed the deal for me. The first thing his friend did was ask about my kid. So I knew Vince had been talking about him.”
From the start, it was Bianca who kept track of Vince’s academics, reminding him of tests and of when papers and other assignments were due. They were recognized as a team almost from the start. At the same time, she kept him away from most of the off-field distractions inherent in college football. At this time, Miami was coming out of a decade in which “The U” functioned as college football’s equivalent of the last days of the Roman Empire, as voracious for the night life off the field as it was for the excellence on it. Settled into what was essentially an instant family, and with Bianca’s guidance, Vince managed to avoid the more raucous diversions that had become characteristic of the program.
“They were a great team together,” says Randy Shannon, the head coach at Miami who was Vince’s defensive assistant during Wilfork’s time with the Hurricanes. “She was always on top of him, never let him get lazy or lax. She made sure of that, and we kept in contact.”
In May 2002, the day before his mother’s birthday, Vince got a call from home. His father’s kidneys had failed, and David Wilfork was dead at 48. Vince was devastated. Bianca went with him to help with the funeral arrangements. “I felt out of place,” she admits. This was the first time she’d ever met Vince’s mother, and Bianca and Barbara had some things to talk over.
“By that time, she had found out about us,” Bianca says. “She didn’t approve of him not being on campus. She didn’t approve of him being with someone who was older. She didn’t approve of him being with someone having a child already. So I kind of laid it out there. I basically said: If you want him to live on campus, that’s fine. When he goes and hangs out with the other guys and they’re at strip clubs and they’re partying and they’re coming to practice the next day with alcohol leaking out of their pores, he’ll be doing the same thing. In the meantime, he has a 3.4 GPA, and when his teachers have a problem or he has a paper due, they call me, and that’s been from Day One. Because I have a child, I have to set that example for my son, so there’s no BSing going on in my house, especially concerning education.”
Bianca and Barbara quickly reached a modus vivendi. Not long after Vince’s father died, he and Bianca were preparing for the birth of their first child together, a daughter they would name Destiny. Everyone was happy. But six months after his father’s death, they got another call from his home. Barbara had suffered a stroke. She died later in the hospital. “Tell you the truth,” Bianca says, “I think she died of loneliness.” Vince was utterly bereft. Miami was preparing to play Ohio State in that year’s Fiesta Bowl. Vince told the coaches that he wasn’t going to make the trip, that he was done with football.
“You got to understand, I didn’t have anything after that,” he says, emotion still draped like a shroud on every word. “My father passed the day before my mother’s birthday. Six months later, my mama passed. Both parents are going out of my life. Bianca’s pregnant with Destiny. I got nobody to call. I had a lot of stuff to go through. Mentally, it was tough.
“Football? When my mama passed, I told them I wasn’t going to play. I was going to give up football.”
But he didn’t. Two conversations changed the direction of his life. Vince sat down with Greg Mark, his defensive-line coach. All season, Vince and his teammates had seen Mark disappear early from practice. “He shared something with me that day,” Vince recalls. “All that year, he’d come to work every day and then he’d head to the hospital, where his wife was. She ended up passing that year. I never knew what it was until he told me.” And then he talked to Bianca, and she told him that if he quit, all the work his parents had done for him and all the work he’d done for himself would go to waste. Vince bridled at that, but he decided to play. Then he and Bianca arranged for his mother’s funeral. This time, she was ready.
“How do you bury your mom?” she asks today. “When his dad died, me and her and his brother and Vince sat there, making the funeral arrangements for their dad. So I was able to come in and do it for her, because I had seen her do it only six months earlier.”
If you want to see the rock on which was built and secured the lives together of Vince and Bianca Wilfork, look to those six months – two parents dead, a period of almost gratuitous heartbreak. “Too long a sacrifice,” says W.B. Yeats, “can make a stone of the heart.” That is not entirely true. Share the sacrifice, and you get something stronger than stone, and warmer, too.
* * *
Every year, the Wilforks host a party on the occasion of the NFL’s annual draft. Proceeds go to the Diabetes Research Institute at Vince’s alma mater and to the Joslin Diabetes Center here, through the Vince Wilfork Foundation. This is the great charitable cause of their lives, and it’s a mortal one for 28-year-old Vince, who saw his father die before 50 from complications of the disease, and whose weight, while absolutely necessary for his current job, may be an invitation to the disease in later life. To that end, three years ago Bianca helped devise an off-season diet and workout plan aimed at improving Vince’s nutrition while maintaining his weight. She conducted regular weigh-ins, and she set up three workouts a day, the first one before dawn. “We stay on top of that [diabetes],” she explains. “His parents died when they were 48 and 46. That’s reality. Our goal is that, once he’s finished with football, he will not be that size. Now, he needs that mass or they’re going to kick his ass. Once football ends, that’s a whole nother ballgame.”
Beyond the personal, the Wilforks have worked tirelessly to raise money for research into the disease. “They truly are a team to themselves,” says Michael Sullivan, a senior vice president at the Joslin Center. “This past winter, I was hosting a golf tournament near his hometown and I was flying home, and there are Vince and Bianca. Bianca came over and she said, ‘You were here for a golf tournament? You know Vince would love to be a part of that next winter.’
“She’s a businesswoman at heart. You could see it in that conversation. She’s attuned to business, gets back to you fast, and you always get a direct answer.”
The day at training camp is winding down. Baked and groggy, players file off in one direction and spectators wander off in another. They are together now, Vince and Bianca Wilfork, their children bustling around their feet as the crowd along the ropes begins to thin. This whole scene is about playing, in one sense or another, and the hard work that is involved in playing a game for a living, and for a life. Whatever it is, it’s anything but simple.Click here to order Vince Wilfork’s proCane Rookie Card.