Antoine Winfield (Bruce Kluckhorn/USP)
Antoine Winfield, who turns 35 today, reflected on what it takes to play an entire season and the direction of the Vikings’ roster.
The older you get, the less you look forward to birthdays. Antoine Winfield turns 35 today. In NFL terms, that means he is nearing the point where he starts eating dinner at 4 p.m. and the highlight of his day is sneaking in a nap.
With the retirement of Jim Kleinsasser and the Vikings’ youth movement, Winfield is now the oldest guy on the team and, as the fire marshals stand on alert in the event his family is planning to fully candle a birthday cake, about the only thing that makes Winfield feel old is being the dean of boys in the locker room.
“It’s a big change,” Winfield said. “I’ve been around awhile and seen a lot of faces. It’s an overhaul this season. There are a lot of young guys in that room. I’m going to go out there and lead by example and hope they follow my lead.”
So just how many players in the new-look Vikings locker room are unfamiliar to Winfield? Try about 70 percent. In light his “overhaul” comment, Winfield was asked how many of teammates he actually knew? He furrowed his experienced face, chuckled and thought about it for perhaps the first time.
“We have how many players on our team?” Winfield asked. “90? I’d probably say I know 25. That’s an overhaul.”
It wasn’t always that way. When Winfield entered the NFL in the last millennium (1999 to be exact), he was the young guy on a team dotted with veteran Hall of Fame types. He knew what it was like to be the new kid on an old block.
“When I came into Buffalo, there was Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith,” Winfield said. “I’m the oldest on the team. It’s a big change for me.”
There has been talk from head coach Leslie Frazier that Winfield will go through fewer first-team reps during training camp and the preseason in an attempt to keep him fresher when the regular starts. Winfield believes that’s just part of the game for players over 30. There are a lot of youngsters trying desperately to make an impression on the coaching staff, who already know what they have in Winfield. He said he welcomes a lighter preseason workload if it helps out the team in the long run.
“It comes with age,” Winfield said. “I expect to play a full season. I want to last 16 games. I want to last the whole season. I feel like, if I’m on the field, our defense plays a lot better. I want to be out there and help them.”
Winfield’s biggest concern is being able to finish what he starts. Winfield has been unable to finish two of the last three seasons, but it wasn’t the standard kind of leg or back injuries that put him on the shelf last year. It was freak sideline hit that broke his left collarbone.
He has dedicated himself to coming back and spent the entire offseason in Minnesota rehabbing at Winter Park. He has proclaimed himself fit, but still remembers his shoulder injury like it was yesterday – and believes he is more than 100 percent, on the left shoulder anyway.
“I was chasing Jermichael Finley,” Winfield said. “I was pushing him out of bounds and came down and fell on it wrong. I heard the pop and went to the sidelines. It’s totally healed. Actually it feels better than my right (collarbone). I’m actually thinking of having my right shoulder worked on.”
While age is the curse of NFL players, with experience comes knowledge of the game. With the Vikings completely revamping their secondary, Winfield is being expected to take on a mentorship role with the slew of young Vikings in the new-look defensive backfield. It’s a challenge Winfield is taking on, because, when he was the young guy in Buffalo, the veteran players welcomed him in and worked with him to improve his game.
“Right now, I’m letting the coaches handle all that,” Winfield said. “When we get into training camp, I’ll have more time with them. The coaches are out here working with them a little extra in the film room. If they have any questions, they can feel free to ask me.”
Winfield endorses the direction the Vikings are taking. He won’t be around when, as the team hopes, it comes full circle and the Vikings are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in two or three years, but, as the guy who has been around longer than anyone else in the locker room, the current youth movement is a welcome sight.
“I think it’s good,” Winfield said with a chuckle. “Considering we were 3-13 last season, we can’t much worse. Young guys bring energy. There’s a lot of competition. Guys are fighting for positions. I think will be good for us this season.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.