HOUSTON (AP) — After spending his first 11 seasons with the Patriots before joining the Texans last season, Vince Wilfork has influenced plenty of players on both teams, which meet Saturday in a divisional playoff game.
"He was huge for me," New England defensive back Devin McCourty said. "He taught me a lot about being a pro, being a good football player — and this is coming from a defensive lineman talking to a secondary guy. But what you need to do to be a good player, the time, the film work, taking care of your body. So I've learned a lot from him."
Wilfork appreciates the kind words from his former teammate. But his focus this week is making sure his new team realizes the opportunity it has, despite critics who say Houston has no chance to win.
"We are excited to have a chance. You have to be excited," Wilfork said. "There's a lot of teams that are sitting back right now wishing that they were in our position. We aren't feeling sorry for nothing. We don't care if we're the last seed ... it's a new season. I have seen teams be where we are win it all. That's motivation."
Wilfork's return on Saturday to the place where he built his career could be the final chapter in his successful run. The 35-year-old revealed recently he's contemplating retirement and said again this week that he was pondering hanging it up after this season.
"That's something I'll think heavy about once the season ends, to see what I really want to do," he said. "It's hard to walk away from something that you love and you've been playing for so long, but we can't play the game forever."
Wilfork, in his 13th NFL season , has started 15 games this season. It's his second year with the Texans after spending his first 11 years with the Patriots, where he won two Super Bowls. He's been to the postseason in all but one of his NFL seasons, and said the excitement of the playoffs never gets old.
"It always feels good to play football going into January and hopefully into February, because that means you've been doing something well, your ballclub's been doing something well, and you're playing toward one goal, and that's to win the Super Bowl," he said. "I've been on both sides where I won it and I've lost it, so I know both feelings, and I know what it takes to get to that."
Wilfork stepped in and immediately became a leader on Houston's defense when he arrived last season. His veteran presence became even more important this season when the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt suffered a season-ending back injury after just three games.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the top overall pick in the 2014 draft who has had a breakout season to help Houston's defense rank first in the regular season, credited Wilfork for much of his improvement.
"Vince has taught me so much. He's a smart player. One of the smartest defensive players I think I've played with," Clowney said. "He knows what's going on. He knows what to look for when he sees certain formations. To have him in the room with me and learning from him, it's big."
At this point in his career, Wilfork enjoys helping his younger teammates almost as much as playing. He revels in the fact that players such as Clowney, outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and rookie nose tackle D.J. Reader lean on him for help and advice — on football and on life.
"It's all leadership," Wilfork said. "Sometimes you have to understand how to get the best out of everyone. Sometimes coaches can struggle with that because they have so much of a bigger picture. They have to run a team ... they can't put the quality of time in individuals like they want to, and I think that's when you have your leaders step in and deliver that message on and off the field."
Wilfork still maintains close relationships with many players, coaches and staff from his time in New England. He made it clear that on Saturday none of that will matter and he'll approach the Patriots the way he would any other team.
"I will say hello and everything before the game, but once the game kicks off, they are my enemies and I'm pretty sure I'm their (enemy)," he said. "That's how the game should be played. It's no buddy-buddy between the lines. You do all that outside of the lines."
© 2017 Associated Press