There are a lot of fond memories from 2009. A lot. One of my favorites, however, that is burned in my memory all of a sudden was the game against the Cincinnati Bengals (who, believe it or not, were a halfway decent team that year and even made it to the playoffs). Antoine Winfield was hampered that season thanks to a broken foot, and it was his magnificent return from the injury list.
A pass went out, and Winfield made a play for it. It slipped through his hands and was an incomplete, rather than the otherwise sure interception it could have been.
Most players would have been frustrated. Any DB that misses an INT, especially a damn near sure thing INT, is going to be upset. (If not they shouldn't be in the NFL.) Most DBs would shake their heads in frustration, throw their hands up from being upset. But, you know, Winfield was still nursing a foot that prevented him from playing less than 7 days ago. It was understandable that he might make a mistake here and there. After all, not only is your injury still bugging you, but hey- you're a little rusty now because of missed games.
And Winfield didn't shake his head, he didn't throw his hands up.
He dropped and did ten pushups, the punishment in practice for missing an INT.
That story right there is Winfield's career in a nutshell. No excuses. No ‘explanations'. Only results, or else. He makes his play, or he suffers the consequences- consequences usually put on himself because of a perfectionist nature, a player who demands the best from others only because first he demands it from himself.
You hear about Ray Lewis and how he would motivate a locker room, fire up teammates, blah blah blah. You hear about it because the guy is the biggest media whore since... OK, I sat here for no less than four minutes and really couldn't come up with a good follow up. Winfield was so much like Lewis, and yet the total opposite at the same time. He was the heart and soul of the defense, an aging vet who cared far more about his teammates all along than he ever did himself. He bought into the idea that football is a team sport, and that football players are team players. Arif pointed out in the comments section that he himself watched Winfield coaching the very players who could take his job as deeply as an actual coach. Winfield was a Viking, and that was always first and foremost.
Last season, three times, Winfield put team before self as fiercely as any football player could have. First, after his younger brother died, he fought through the emotional agony that he surely must have felt and returned to play in a September game. Then, when things were looking bleak for the team, he silenced the locker room to even beyond a whisper, giving a fiery speech that spurred his team on, helping in a key way to propel the Vikings to an amazing finish and a playoff berth. And then, in the last, he suffered through a broken hand, playing in the season finale (before finally yielding to the pain halfway through) and then returning for the playoff game.
That speech, by the way- do you have any clue what was said? I don't. No one really does. And there is the oxymoronic comparison between him and Ray Lewis. Sure, Lewis too could spark his team with a big speech. But then he wanted cameras around, he wanted reporters to know what happened and what was said. Winfield, however, had none of that. His words were for his team and his team alone. He didn't want the glory or the adulation, he just wanted the win. That was always good enough for him.
There are so many key games where you look back and realize just how incredibly important Antoine Winfield was to the Minnesota Vikings. In 2010, when all had gone to pot, the Vikings faced a Tuesday game against the surging Philadelphia Eagles (who, remember, were a good team at that point). Winfield was unleashed and became a force against Michael Vick- sacks, fumble recoveries, a fumble turned to a TD for the good guys- if every the term ‘nemesis' could be used on the gridiron, Winfield matched it that day for Vick.
There are more examples. So many more. I won't bother with them all here. But after 9 years of solid effort on the field- beyond solid- and providing a source of veteran leadership and locker room stability in the rockiest of times, after mentoring DB after DB, Winfield was summarily released from his duties while lifting weights in the Vikings training facility. He was never given a heads up. He was never given a chance to try and stay. He was never truly invited back- his executioner, Rick Spielman, simply claimed he was in a following press conference in a limp-wristed and pathetic attempt to stave off the fan revolt he so truly deserves.
Now Winfield has been kicked out into the cold, tossed to the wolves. While every other FA DB had their chance to confer with agents and talk to possible teams that might employ them, Winfield, in what is likely his final year of playing in the NFL, is left scrambling and likely wondering just what in the blue hell happened. All while showing up at the training facility to lift weights- to stay near his team headquarters and continue to prepare himself for the next season when players have absolutely no real responsibility to do so.
He felt he deserved better. And he's god-damned right he did. After all he has done for the Minnesota Vikings and the surrounding community, all while never seeking a shred of attention, publicity, etc., after all of the solid effort on the field and locker room leadership off of it, he was treated like a practice squad player on roster-trimming day; hell, he didn't even get that much. At least they know the end could be near. Surely Winfield had no such concept.
Because it shouldn't have been. At least not like that. At least not in such a cold, humiliating, and confusing manner.
Antoine Winfield- you were never a heralded member of this team held up to sell tickets. You didn't appear front page on the website or draped on the stadium. But for any real fan of the Minnesota Vikings, you were a favorite. You gave your all in so many ways to our favorite team, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for it.
G-d speed good sir. I hope you land somewhere where you can get a Super Bowl ring. I hope you land somewhere where you can land one final, well-deserved paycheck of fair proportions.
And I sure as hell hope you land somewhere where you are treated with the respect you deserve, because you earned every ounce of it.