INDIANAPOLIS — Give Vince Wilfork a basketball and he can stuff it. Send him to the weight room and he'll lift the heaviest dumbbells. Put him in the Super Bowl and he'll try to overpower blockers on his way to the NFL championship.
The 325-pound tackle for the New England Patriots is the passionate leader of their defense — and a very good athlete for his size.
The most athletic thing he does that surprises people?
"Probably dunk a basketball," Wilfork said. "People look at me and are like, 'He's a butterball, he can't.' "
On Sunday, he'll use that athleticism to try to do what he does best, shove aside offensive linemen so he can tackle the runner or sack the quarterback, Eli Manning of the New York Giants.
Wilfork is one of four Patriots left from their last championship team in the 2004 season when he was a rookie. This season, he had 3 11/2 sacks then added 2 1/2 in two playoff games. He was outstanding in a 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game with six tackles.
Against the Giants, he expects his most important task to be trying to stop running backs Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and D.J. Ware.
"Those are some tough runners," Wilfork said. "I've faced all of them, and every last one them is a tough runner. I think defensively for us to be successful, we're going to have to slow it down. If they come out and run the ball and we can't stop them, we're going to have a problem."
Tackling Jacobs, he said, is "like tackling myself."
But Wilfork usually does a solid job of taking up space in the middle, sometimes occupying two blockers and creating a gap for teammates to fill.
He certainly has the strength to do that. About three years ago he was working out and someone told him he was supposed to be doing upper body exercises, defensive line coach Pepper Johnson recalled.
"So we got the dumbbells out and kept going down the rack and they didn't have any more weights for him," Johnson said. "Then I see he had a smile on his face as big as ever."
Wilfork's soft-spoken nature belies his hard-hitting playing style and his role as a leader.
"He's a beast," safety Patrick Chung said. "He gets guys going. Sometimes guys have that look in their face, and you hear V, 'Hey, snap out of it.' And then they bounce back."
A first-round draft choice out of Miami in 2004, Wilfork was chosen this season for his fourth Pro Bowl. As his career has moved along, he's learned to control his temper.
"I was always a hothead and always wore my passion on my sleeve, and I had to learn there's certain ways you can do things to get the same outcome." he said "It came with maturity. And, at the same time, nobody can ever question my love of the game."
Now he acts as a mentor for younger defensive linemen.
"Hard times, hard practices, games, or whatever, he's always been there for me," second-year defensive tackle Kyle Love said. "He's like my big brother out there."
Now they start together on a solid front line, a line that Wilfork leads by example and by exhorting teammates.
"Vince is a great person," Johnson said. "A guy like him, he has film day at his house every week and he constantly talks to younger guys. That's what this game is all about, the younger guys playing for a veteran such as himself."