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No challenge tougher than what DT has faced

4/13/2004

Hunkered down over a microphone that still barely reached halfway up his chest, and with his girthy body jutting out from behind both sides of the podium, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was struggling during the media interrogation at the combine workouts two months ago.

And with his head bowed in introspection, and his massive chest heaving with emotion, failing at what seemed a cruel exercise.

The former University of Miami standout, arguably one of the top two tackle prospects in the 2004 lottery, had been asked about the sudden deaths of both parents in a six-month stretch of 2002 and 2003. Forced again to confront the twin tragedies, and apparently not content to simply deliver a stock answer in front of an audience of national reporters, he hesitated for what seemed an eternity before finally framing his succinct reply.

"You just go numb," Wilfork responded. "It's what gets you through. After something like that, well, you can pretty much handle anything, you know?"

Indeed, for Wilfork, who should be off the board by the halfway point of the first round, taking on a double-team combination block, trying to not get suckered by a trap play, or keeping off the 20 pounds of spare tonnage he shed before the combine, figure to all be a lot easier than dealing with the deaths of his parents.

The massive Wilfork (6-feet-1¼, 323 pounds) is into neither total catharsis nor absolute denial, the Hurricanes coaches acknowledge, and so the suspicion is that he still carries a bench-press full of pent-up emotion. But in personal interviews, NFL scouts noted, he has spoken more openly of his loss. Even publicly, of late, there seems less hesitance to bring up memories, even if it means occasionally ripping off a freshly-healed emotional scab.

A driven competitor with a tough façade, Wilfork doesn't speak of devoting his career to the memory of his parents, in part because that would be letting down his guard. His soft side does emerge when he talks about his wife, Bianca, or about their aptly-named young daughter, Destiny. But even then, Wilfork dictates the limits of language, and determines the boundaries of how far he will plumb his persona.

"If you know him well," said former Hurricanes middle linebacker and fellow first-round prospect Jonathan Vilma, "then you sort of know when enough is enough."

For sure, enough was nearly too much for Vince when Barbara Wilfork succumbed on Dec. 16, 2002 to a stroke she had suffered a month earlier. He had been prepared to bring her home from a convalescent facility, was only awaiting the arrival of a special hospital bed that was on order, when his brother phoned Vince Wilfork to tell him their mother had passed away. Six months later, hardly time to grieve, his father, David, died after a lengthy battle with diabetes.

This year's draft, rife with first-day defensive tackle prospects, also runs deep when it comes to players at the position who have experienced incredible tragedies. The mother of Florida State tackle Darnell Dockett was murdered in their Atlanta home, and it was he who discovered the body in a case that has never been solved. His estranged father had died only months earlier. Two tackle prospects have younger siblings who died, another had to battle through a severe learning disability, and Chad Lavalais of LSU thrice failed college entrance exams and once worked in a correctional facility where he witnessed events he politely refuses to discuss.

It is a class of tackles that, while lacking the first-round cache of the past three lotteries, features as many as a dozen players who could be off the board in the first three rounds. The opening stanza might have just three tackles -- the average in the last three seasons, at a position that historically has been difficult to fill, was five -- but there figures to be a run on the position in the second round and continuing into the third.

And there seems to be a tackle prospect for every defensive scheme and every style of play. There are pure 4-3 tackles, massive "anchor"-type defenders to align on the nose, and even some hybrid prospects who could move out and play end in a 3-4 front. Nearly every personnel director assessing the '04 draft pool cites defensive tackle as one of the better positions in a year when quantity outdistances quality.

"There are a lot of tackles who have a lot of grit," said Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, who almost certainly will land a tackle prospect on the first day, with the defection of starter Robaire Smith to Houston in free agency. "Lots of good, tough guys."

Few are grittier and tougher, of course, than Wilfork, who nearly entered the draft in '03, but held off because he felt he had unfinished business at Miami, and because he was also too emotionally spent to render a well-considered decision. And there was clearly a point, Wilfork allowed, when football just didn't matter much to him anymore.

"You could see him going through the motions, and that was about it, but there really was nothing you could do to help," said former Miami safety Sean Taylor. "He had to deal with it himself and in his own way. I don't know how he got through it, but he did, and he is back to being his old self in a lot of ways."

Known as "Big Daddy" to some teammates and "Baby Sapp" (an allusion to NFL tackle Warren Sapp, of course) to others, Wilfork's mettle has now superseded his massiveness. Football in general, and his pursuit of a first-round berth, has filled some of the void. His family, over which he dotes, has provided him with motivation.

There may never be any ultimate triumph capable of expunging his tragedy but his new mantra, "keep pushing forward," is with him every second of every day, Wilfork said. The big man, it seems, is back in a big way.

"I think," said Wilfork, "I've found my purpose again."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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