Eye of the storm

KAPOLEI, Hawaii – Vince Wilfork, literally, wears the pair of losses on his sleeves … or at least beneath them.

But this is no reference to the AFC title game defeat to the Indianapolis Colts last year that kept the New England Patriots from reaching the Super Bowl. Nor is this an allusion to the upset at the hands of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII Sunday that denied New England a perfect season. Wilfork, yet another Patriots burgeoning talent turned Pro Bowler, has tattooed reminders on each arm of the tragic times during his college days.

"R.I.P." atop "MOM" on his left forearm. "R.I.P." atop "DAD" on the right one.

Those scars of affection have become even more noticeable to the 26-year-old defensive tackle following a year in which he lost both a teammate with the Patriots and a former one with the University of Miami.

"I've been through a lot," the 6-foot-2, 325-pound athlete said shortly before leaving the field at Kapolei High School following Wednesday's practice as his AFC squad gets ready for Sunday's Pro Bowl.

New England's just-completed season at times was a circus-like atmosphere encompassing "Spygate," the hysteria over the Pursuit of Perfection and mini-dramas surrounding Randy Moss and Tom Brady in the postseason. However, before the Patriots reached training camp and talk of an unprecedented 19-0 season began, tragedy struck.

Reserve defensive end Marquise Hill died on May 28 in Lake Pontchartrain, La., during a jet-skiing accident. Learning of the tragedy was quite chilling for Wilfork, who believes he was the last teammate to see his fellow linemate and NFL draft-class buddy alive after the two had left the Boston-area following a mini-camp.

"I remember telling him 'Be safe man and I'll see you back up,' " Wilfork said as the two parted ways to head to their respective hometowns. "That carried a lot of weight on me."

As a tribute to Hill, the Patriots wore a black No. 91 on the back of their helmets all of last season.

On the field, the tragedy didn't appear to distract Wilfork as the '04 first-round NFL draft pick further distanced himself from the shadow of celebrated Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour. Wilfork helped the Patriots keep opponents to just below 100 rushing yards per game (98.3 per game; 10th in the league). Even more impressive: Wilfork's ability to get a push up the middle helped New England rank sixth against the pass.

Yet, nearly a month before the Pro Bowl teams were announced and Wilfork would learn whether he had earned his first selection, the former Hurricane – and the rest of the NFL – got more bad news.

As Wilfork was on a tree stand hunting for deer on Tuesday, Nov. 27, he received the call that Sean Taylor – who had been in intensive care after being shot during a home invasion – had died. There was no more hunting; just tears as a result of losing yet another person close to him.

"I just broke down then and there," Wilfork acknowledged. "I climbed down from the tree stand and just headed home."

Days after Taylor's passing, stories about the tight-knit community of The U continued to surface. Wilfork, who entered the NFL the same year as Taylor, was and is still one of those Miami brethren in pain.

"I constantly think about him. I'll never forget about him. He's everywhere I'm at," said Wilfork, a married father of two children. "He was like family to me."

At such an early age, Wilfork has had to deal with family leaving him early. First, his father, David Sr., died of diabetes on June 5, 2002. On Dec. 16 of that same year, his mother, Barbara, succumbed to a stroke that she had suffered five weeks earlier – on Nov. 4 , Vince's 21st birthday.

In addition to the tattoos, Wilfork wears a necklace to remind him of his parents. However, neither gesture comes close to the civic-minded way in which he honors his dad.

During each of the past four years, Wilfork and his wife, Bianca, have hosted a draft-day fundraiser to support the Diabetes Research Institute. But instead of thinking about charities, defeats on the field and personal losses away from them, Wilfork just wants to chill right now and enjoy the paid trip to Honolulu.

"Once we walked off the field (after Super Bowl XLII), my mind was on Hawaii," Wilfork said.

Given all that he's endured, that's quite understandable.

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