When a beaming Vince Wilfork talked about being selected for his first Pro Bowl, one of the first people he thanked was his wife, Bianca. Athletes often dole out prosaic praise for their significant others, but this wasn't just a symbolic token of gratitude from the Patriots nose tackle. It was due well-deserved for a selfless teammate.
Even somebody as big as the 6-foot-2-inch, 325-pound Wilfork, the massive middle man of the Patriots 3-4 defense, needs someone to lean on, and Bianca is equal parts wife, mother, business adviser, spiritual sage, and motivational master for Wilfork.
When Patriots coach Bill Belichick or defensive line coach Pepper Johnson needs to get ahold of Wilfork, they know which number to call.
"Everybody that needs me calls her number," said Wilfork. "Bill said, 'If you want to get something done, don't talk to Vince, talk to his wife, Bianca.' I'm well-covered. Anybody that is important to me and needs to get to me has her number."
It's been this way since Wilfork was at the University of Miami, when Bianca, then his girlfriend, was the one his college instructors called to make sure Wilfork was aware of his assignments. Or when she interviewed agents for him once he decided to turn pro and quizzed them on incentive and escalator clauses.
Wilfork, 26, might dominate on the field, but Bianca, 29, dominates off of it.
"His job is to go out on the field and [play], and my job is everything else," said Bianca, who met Wilfork in 2001 through an African-American community website. "What he takes on his body, I take on my brain. We do it together.
"I don't feel he can enjoy football if he has to worry about all the other things - appearances, contracts, bills being paid - that stem from what he does. If he has to worry about that stuff, it takes away from what he does."
The truth is that if it weren't for Bianca, none of those other things would exist. Wilfork wouldn't be in Arizona today preparing to play in Super Bowl XLII. He wouldn't be a Pro Bowler. He never would have been selected in the first round of the 2004 draft (21st overall) by the Patriots. He never would have started Super Bowl XXXIX as a rookie and won a ring. He wouldn't be playing football at all. He'd probably be back in his hometown of Boynton Beach, Fla., fishing for snook, grouper, and snapper, and living in the past.
A bond with his fatherPatriots practice squad wide receiver C.J. Jones remembers the big blue van that David Wilfork Sr., Vince's father, would ride around in. Jones grew up with Wilfork and the two attended the same high school, Santaluces High, in Lantana, Fla.
"He was at every practice," said Jones. "He'd take us home after practice in his big blue van, which they still have to this day. Every time I go home, I still see it parked there."
Wilfork, the younger of David and Barbara Wilfork's two boys, was a star at Santaluces. He did it all, playing defensive tackle, offensive tackle, offensive guard, goal-line running back, and even punting. In December, Wilfork was named one of the 100 greatest players in the first 100 years of Florida high school football by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
"They called Jevon Kearse 'The Freak,' and he was just as much one," said Mark Boretti, a math teacher at Santaluces who was the offensive coordinator when Wilfork was there. "Just watching him throw a football, if he was not 250 pounds, he could play quarterback. He was an incredible athlete. We had him punting also because he was that athletic."
Wilfork had a bond with his father, a parks and recreation worker. They were more like friends than father and son. David went to every one of Wilfork's games, from Little League to high school to the University of Miami, even when he was using a cane to help him walk.
Until he couldn't anymore.
In 2002, David Wilfork Sr., a diabetic, died from kidney failure. He was 48. Then Wilfork got a call on his 21st birthday, Nov. 4, 2002. His mother, Barbara, had suffered a stroke. She died Dec. 16, 2002, at age 46. In a six-month period, Wilfork had lost both his parents - and his desire to continue playing football.
That was the bittersweet background the last time Wilfork came to Arizona to play in a championship game. The Miami Hurricanes were undefeated and seeking their second straight national championship, but initially Wilfork wasn't going to play in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
"I wasn't playing football for me anymore. I was playing for my parents," said Wilfork, who wears a locket with his parents' prom picture in it and holds an annual draft party to raise funds to combat diabetes. "We grew up poor. I was playing for them. To this day I'm so mad. My father, he came to every game I played and his dream was to see me play pro football. I regret to this day that he's not with me.
"That stuff runs through your mind. I didn't have anything to play for. Bianca was like, 'Either you're going to move on and accept it and make your Momma and Daddy happy or you're going to let everything go to waste.'
"I was kind of mad at her. But she was right. The quicker you can understand what's going on, the better you'll be. It made a lot of sense. If she wouldn't have done that, football was over for me. I would have gone down as a big-time waste. She's in my life for a reason."
Miami lost that memorable game to Ohio State in double overtime, but Wilfork found he still had a passion for the game. He and Bianca had their first child, Destiny Barbara Wilfork, on Feb. 14, 2003, and were married the following month.
"When his parents died, I took over everything," said Bianca, whose 10-year-old son from a previous relationship, D'Aundre, was adopted by Wilfork. "I was a single parent. That's just my life. Whatever happens, roll with it and pick it up and keep moving forward."
Shaping him upAfter a Patriots road game, it's not unusual to see Bianca at the airport at 6 a.m., preparing to board the first flight to Boston with a bunch of sleepy-eyed reporters. She hasn't missed a game, home or away, this season.
Bianca, who was working two jobs, one at Taco Bell, when she met Wilfork, always has her laptop with her so that she can do her schoolwork. She has earned an associate's degree from the University of Phoenix, the online college whose name adorns the stadium in Glendale, Ariz., where the Patriots will try to cap their perfect season Sunday, and is working toward a bachelor's degree in human services with a concentration in management.
"That's my biggest fan. She goes to every game, home and away. Wherever I'm at, she's there," said Wilfork. "A lot of players can't say that about their fiancée, girlfriend, wife. I'm proud to say it."
But Bianca lends a lot more than moral support. She was the mastermind behind Wilfork's website, vincewilfork75.com, and came up with the plan to redefine Wilfork's physique last offseason, leading to his first Pro Bowl selection in his fourth NFL season.
Bianca demanded that Wilfork whittle his waistline, not just for football reasons, but also because of his family health history. She put her husky husband on a new diet and demanded a revamped workout regimen. The result was that Wilfork was in the best shape of his career this year, and his appearance generated curiosity and publicity.
"Everything has been attributed to his weight loss when he hasn't lost any weight, it's been redistributed," said Bianca. "He carried all of his weight in his stomach and that was so dangerous for him."
Wilfork's stats this season - 70 tackles, according to coaches' film review, and two sacks - are similar to the 81 tackles and one sack he had last season.
However, the Pro Bowl nod has been overshadowed somewhat by the fact that Wilfork has been fined four times by the NFL for his on-field conduct, most recently $5,000 for a 15-yard facemask penalty he incurred in the AFC Championship game against the Chargers.
Bianca is quick to come to her husband's defense regarding the fines, except the $15,000 he was docked for putting his finger inside the facemask of Giants running back Brandon Jacobs in the regular-season finale. Both Wilforks admit that was unwarranted.
Bianca said the accusations that Wilfork is a dirty player have been discouraging.
"He's gotten e-mails saying, 'I hope you have a career-ending injury.' Unbelievable," said Bianca. "I give him credit because he politely writes them back and says, 'I'm glad you have an outlet for your comments, and I'll be sure to tell my kids you hope I have a career-ending injury.' "
'A great team'Boretti, who hosts the Wilforks at his Wellington, Fla., home during the offseason, said the Pro Bowl berth is proof that Bianca and Wilfork work well together to make him the best player he can be.
"A lot of people probably don't agree with how she takes over and does stuff, but they're a great team," said Boretti, who is originally from Beverly. "They make a great team. They really do.
"I bet some of those other guys wish their wives were like that."
Bianca said she knows some people think she's too involved in her husband's career, but she doesn't care.
"I'm not going to let anybody intimidate me," she said. "I know the decisions I make, and the things I learn about and find out about affect more than just me."
Wilfork said Bianca is the perfect partner for him, both on and off the field.
"The people who first meet me think, 'Oh, his wife is in his business too much,' " he said. "To be honest with you, I don't care what people think. My wife is the same way. People who are truly our friends, they understand my wife's role. She's perfect for me. It's like all the things I lack she picks up the slack on.
"A lot of people may think that because she handles all my business I'm this or that. That's the best hands for it to be in. If it's not football or dealing with my family, I don't know anything about it.
"She gets a lot of credit. The only thing I have to do is be a husband and father and play football."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.