Antoine Winfield (Hannah Foslien/Getty)
Nine years ago, one of the best Vikings stories of a free agent pursuit took place. It also involved Antoine Winfield’s “decision,” some personal negotiating tactics and a storyteller with a flair for the dramatic.
For those of us who have been around the Vikings for a while, the ongoing saga of Antoine Winfield is reminiscent of how he became a Viking in the first place nine years ago.
It was one of the great inside cloak-and-dagger stories of how cutthroat the NFL can be. If we set the dials on the Wayback Machine to 03-05-04, we land in the middle of one of the great underhanded business-tactics stories of the NFL – a decision that would have ramifications in ensuing years as the Vikings scalded the New York Jets in their pursuit of Winfield.
One of the great things about Mike Tice back when he was the head coach of the Vikings was that he was brutally honest. In today’s terms, I could claim I was bullied by Tice. After calling him a liar during a minicamp in which he claimed the Vikings were going to bring in Antonio Freeman, which was a weakly-veiled threat to contract terms they had already reached with pedestrian Kansas City wide receiver Derrick Alexander, he grabbed my by the label of my shirt and pulled up – the grown-up equivalent to a wedgie. He chewed me out for calling him a liar, but quickly followed that up with that the Vikings had agreed to a deal with Alexander 15 minutes earlier. We got the story.
Tice’s brutal honesty often would come out on draft weekend – whether at Winter Park during the draft or at Bunny’s after the draft. He made a point one year to tell the assembled beat writers that if a specific player was still on the board when the Vikings picked in the next round, they would take him. With social media in its infancy, the news didn’t get out until after the fact. For those wondering the name of that infamous player, it was punter Eddie Johnson. In hindsight, perhaps Twitter could have averted that particular franchise mistake.
But of all the Tice stories that I enjoyed over the years, my favorite was the story of Antoine Winfield. I’m not sure if Ed Werder was involved in the first one, but, it would only seem fitting.
The date was March 5, 2004. Winfield was at the Winter Park equivalent of the Jets complex with his wife Erniece. At the time, Winfield was an unrestricted free agent that was visiting interested teams. That year, the franchise tag had cut into the cornerback crop of free agents and Winfield was the prize of the open market. He visited the Vikings, but left without a deal. He met with the division-rival of his Buffalo Bills, the Jets. They wined him. They dined him. They did everything but sign him. There was a kryptonite in the plan.
Tice knew that Erniece didn’t want to raise a family in Manhattan. In what became a storyline worthy of The Bourne Identity, Winfield became a Viking under very suspicious (perhaps even sketchy) circumstances.
The Winfields were in the Jets headquarters as legal beagles scoured the contract details to make sure everything was mutually satisfactory. Tice didn’t call Antoine. He called Erniece. He played on her aversion to raising their children in a city that doesn’t sleep. She had enjoyed the relative small-town feel of Buffalo and Tice sold the Minnesota Nice mantra like few others can. He was from the New York metroplex. He knew what he was talking about. The Vikings would increase their offer. All they had to make sure of was that Antoine didn’t put pen to paper.
This is where the story borders on an epic mafia tale. All that is missing is the smoke wafting off of Tice’s cigar during the telling of the story. Back then, Bunny’s allowed cigar smoke to waft inside its walls and Tice took advantage of that privilege.
ESPN announced in the afternoon of March 5, 2004, that the Jets had agreed in principle to a five-year, $30 million contract with Winfield. The Vikings were willing to put more money ($4.8 million) on the contract offer – to get Antoine to agree – but it was Erniece that was the lynchpin to getting him to leave the Jets facility without signing. Seeing as he arrived in a limo provided by the Jets, the biggest question was how to get them out. To hear Tice talk, it was Argo before anyone had heard of Argo.
Within minutes, it reached DEFCON stage at Winter Park. They had to extricate the Winfields from inside the Jets consulate, which, one could only imagine, was guarded by the Sopranos or their associates. Red McCombs could get a limo to the Jets headquarters to do a “dark-op” and get the Winfield’s out of the compound. But then what?
Fortunately, Tice had friends in high places in Maryland deeply steeped in the thoroughbred horse racing industry – guys like that have last names for first names and, under duress, can all make a tasty julep. Tice made a couple of calls and, in short order, a private plane in Maryland took off with a hastily improvised flight plan. It met the limo at the nearest airport and whisked the Winfields off to Minnesota.
Wednesday’s report (again from ESPN) said that Winfield was going to sign with somebody else. Hours later, reports surfaced that the Vikings have gotten back in the discussion. If Winfield’s deal is done in Seattle, we wish him the best. If he comes back to the Vikings, we will get to the bottom of the pursuit this time around.
We owe it to Tice and the memory of a smoke-filled room at Bunny’s.
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.