As Tom Brady has crossed generations, redefined NFL stardom and tattooed his name on nearly every page of the NFL record book, some of the accomplishments transcend conventional paradigms.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted University of Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. with one of the savviest picks of the 2020 NFL draft, Brady added another mind scrambling footnote to his deep dossier of NFL achievement. In Winfield Jr., he had a teammate whose own father had played in the league, Antoine Winfield Sr., and intercepted Brady as a player.
For Brady to break his own record and win his seventh Super Bowl, Winfield Jr. will need to flash the verve he has shown in emerging as one of the top NFL rookies. Winfield’s 91 tackles, six passes defended, three sacks and two forced fumbles thrust him into the heart of the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
And in full-circle fashion, Winfield credits much of his instant success to his father, who taught him to be a pro long before he became a pro.
“He’s been a huge part of my success and being able to play at a high level,” Winfield Jr. said this week.
When Antoine Winfield Jr. takes the field in the Super Bowl, he’ll bring with him the lessons passed on from his father’s 14 NFL seasons as a cornerback. That starts with relishing the moment. Antoine Sr. may have picked off Brady back in 2001 while with the Buffalo Bills, but he never reached the Super Bowl in five years in Buffalo and nine with the Minnesota Vikings.
When Tampa Bay outlasted Green Bay in the NFC championship, Winfield Jr. said the first call he got in the locker room came from his dad.
“He was yelling and screaming,” Winfield Jr. said. “He was more excited than I was.”
Film study sessions with dad help pay off
Growing up, Winfield Jr. soaked in all the little things that have his NFL and college coaches rave about his instincts and professionalism. He noticed the amount of time his father devoted to film study at night, and often plopped down next to him to learn the nuances of defensive back play.
He watched his dad do 50 sit-ups and 50 push-ups each night, a lesson in the importance of a healthy body. Papa Winfield ran his son through ladder drills in the backyard, teaching him the fine points of backpedaling and breaking. At The Woodlands High School in Texas, Winfield Sr. would continue his film sessions with Antoine Jr., breaking down opponents’ tendencies.
“I was able to see what a pro was like at an early age,” Winfield Jr. said. “And I tried to do the same thing that he did.”
At just 5-foot-9 – and yes, the Earl Thomas comps are rolling in – he was neither an elite recruit or prototype draft pick. That’s why Ohio State never pulled the trigger on an offer, despite his father’s success there including winning the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s top defensive back.
At Minnesota, Antoine Jr. overcame injury-riddled seasons in 2017 and 2018 to emerge as one of the most dominant defensive players in the country in 2019. He blended a unique maturity and competitiveness with the preparation skills of an NFL veteran. The results make sense.
“He’s still the most instinctive player I’ve ever coached,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said in a phone interview this week. “He hits you like a linebacker, covers you like a corner and gets everyone lined up like a middle linebacker. It’s special.”
Winfield sealed games against Fresno State with late-game, end-zone interceptions in back-to-back seasons. The play from the 2019 game still makes Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi gush with awe because Winfield completely turned his body and sprinted more than 20 yards to make a diving interception to seal the game.
“He’s always around the football,” Rossi said. “Wherever the football was, Antoine was there.”
Mostly because he can anticipate where it’s going. When Gopher co-defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak arrived to coach safeties prior to the 2019 season, he was impressed that Winfield sat in the front row of the first meeting he had with his defensive backs.
That posture proved predictive, as Winfield became the ideal pupil. He’d arrive early at the facility for treatment, meet with Harasymiak 10 minutes before the daily position meeting and then return after practice to watch extra film. He’d then return at night to meet again one-on-one.
Harasymiak said Winfield was such a savvy player that he told him how on a certain safety blitz he’d use the umpire – who stands about 8 yards off the ball – as a shield to disguise the blitz. “He’s not the tallest dude, and he’d use that guy as camouflage,” he said. “And he brought it up to me, it was his idea.”
Perhaps most impressive considering Winfield’s bloodlines, Harasymiak said he never once heard Winfield reference his father in conversation, as in: “My dad does it this way.”
Instead, he kept showing up early, sitting up front and using his infectious personality to inspire. His smile and laugh earn similar raves with Gopher coaches as his work ethic.
“I’ve never witnessed someone practice as hard in all my years of coaching,” Harasymiak said. “He’s everything you want in every player. He’s the rare breed, the one in every 10 years that you get.”
How Winfield Jr. became a 2020 NFL draft steal
So why did one of the Top 3 defensive rookies in the NFL slip to the fourth safety taken at pick No. 45? Winfield pointed to his height, as he’s just a few sheets of printer paper over 5-foot-9 and just 203 pounds. “Everyone was looking for that prototype 6-foot-2 and 215-pound big guy,” he said. “That’s probably why most teams passed on me.”
Credit Tampa’s staff and front office for working together. Fleck is a former Buccaneers assistant and worked with Byron Kiefer, who is now the team’s senior national scout. Fleck said that Kiefer did a lot of homework on Winfield and fellow rookie Tyler Johnson, a fifth-round pick from Minnesota who has been a revelation with 12 receptions and two touchdowns this season.
Rossi said that Bucs safeties coach Nick Rapone clearly saw Winfield’s upside, as he was worried that he’d be off the board by the time Tampa took a safety. “I love everything about the guy,” Rossi recalled Rapone telling him. (Rossi worked at Maine at the same time Rapone worked at Delaware, a Colonial Athletic Association overlap that would surely make Chip Kelly smile.)
Winfield was projected to go in the third round, but he ran well at the scouting combine – 4.45, which was good but a tick slower than dad – and that helped the front office types believe what they’d seen on film when Winfield’s seven interceptions earned him unanimous All-American honors in 2019.
With his hot start in the NFL, it’s easy to project a career as long and distinguished as his father’s. He’s already reached one more Super Bowl than his dad, and his ability to help slow Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce from the post may well determine the fate of Tom Brady’s 10th.
“To really know how good Antoine is, you have to experience him playing football,” Fleck said. “When you look at him and watch the film, you’re going to say, ‘He’s not this and not that.’ You’re going to play against him and you’re caught in this nightmare and you can’t get out.”
Living it feels more like a dream for Winfield Jr., who flashed that fluorescent smile reflecting this week. “I’m glad at least one Winfield can get to the Super Bowl,” he said. “It means everything. It’s surreal to actually be here.”
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