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After 10 seasons, underappreciated Winfield finally makes Pro Bowl

Antoine Winfield
Antoine Winfield

Back when he was still tall for his age, Antoine Winfield rarely missed watching his uncle, Nathan Winfield, play football for Garfield High School in their hometown of Akron, Ohio.  Winfield especially loved how his uncle tackled people — squaring his shoulders to the ball carrier, driving low and wrapping up. Perfect.

So when Winfield participated in his own games — for the Akron Parent Pee-Wee Football Association, in playgrounds and streets, and later for Garfield High — he tried to emulate his uncle’s fundamentally sound style. By the time Winfield reached Garfield, he had no choice, and not just because he played for the same staff that coached his uncle.

“I don’t think I’ve grown any since I was 14 years old,” Winfield said.

That it’s taken the Vikings cornerback, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, 10 seasons to make his first Pro Bowl shows how underappreciated some players can be, even among their peers.  (Players, coaches and fans all have a voice in Pro Bowl voting.)

Splashy New Orleans game helped
And even Winfield himself concedes he might not have made it this time without that splashy Monday night game at New Orleans, when he returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown and drew a $10,000 fine for using the base of the goalposts as a fire pole in celebration. That 10 grand might be the best money he ever lost, because it got him noticed.

“I’ve been going against some really good competition,” Winfield said. “There are some really good corners in this league. True enough, we haven’t been playing on that many nationally televised games. I had that Monday night game against New Orleans which I think propelled me to get there.”

Of course, Winfield’s teammates and most Vikings fans have known for years how good he is. Since his arrival in 2004 as a free agent from Buffalo, Winfield has been the Vikings surest tackler and one of the leaders of the team’s defensive resurgence. With Jared Allen filling the last missing piece — a relentless, disruptive pass-rusher — the Vikings boast one of the NFL’s most formidable defenses, especially against the run.

And defense, rather than the identity of the quarterback, figures to be more important to the Vikings’ quest to finish atop the NFC North Division. The Vikings finish against two teams with strong running games, Atlanta on Sunday and the Giants on Dec. 28.

We recall Red McCombs’ cheapness and Mike Tice’s buffoonery, but they, along with then-defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, made sure the Vikings landed Winfield. Remember? Winfield was at a Hempstead, N.Y., hotel with his wife, Erniece, ready to sign with the Jets, when they had second thoughts. Winfield had promised Cottrell, formerly his defensive coordinator in Buffalo, a visit. Tice called a friend with access to a private jet, who picked up the Winfields and brought them to the Twin Cities. Then McCombs approved the six-year, $34.8 million deal, about $4.8 million more than the Jets’ offer. At the time, it was the richest contract the Vikings ever gave to a free agent.

And Winfield made an immediate impact. He led the playoff-bound Vikings in tackles in ’04 until spraining his left ankle in early December. Winfield has never been among the NFL leaders in interceptions because most quarterbacks avoid his side; he has only 20 in his career, never more than four in any one season.

Three defensive TDs since ’06
But he makes plays. He has three of the Vikings’ 14 defensive touchdowns since 2006, plus the field-goal return. And his 21 takeaways as a Viking, 14 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, tie him with Audray McMillian for sixth in club history among cornerbacks. Bobby Bryant leads with 58.

Tackle Kevin Williams, a 2003 first-round pick, and Winfield turned into the cornerstones of the present defense, which allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL the last two seasons and tops the rankings again this year. Winfield’s effective run support belies his size, and Minnesota will need it Sunday against Atlanta’s burly, fast back Michael Turner.

“You wonder sometimes how he can do it,” linebacker Ben Leber said. “A lot of times you just shake your head. It’s just ‘Toine being ‘Toine, as far as him tackling guys or taking on blocks.

“At the point of impact, he’s always driving his hips through, and his feet are always going. You see a lot of times he’ll take on a bigger guy and actually put them back. They don’t gain the extra yards. He’s just not a wrap-tackler that kind of drags people down. He actually delivers the blow and hits through the person. His face is usually right on the target. His hips or his knees are hitting the guy right in the chest and driving through. He does everything with great technique.”

Winfield explains it succinctly: “At a very young age, I learned, try to sink your hips, try to keep your head up, and run through. Try to grab a leg, and just hold on. That’s pretty much it.”

But Leber said there’s more. “He’s got this little move where he drops down to his hip to avoid a blocker and pops back up to makes a tackle,” he said. “I’ve seen him do it countless times — big lineman coming around the edge, he drops down, they whiff over the top of him, he pops back up and makes the tackle. He just has some unbelievable moves.”

And now, he’s a Pro Bowler. “It’s been a long time coming,” Winfield said.

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