Antoine Winfield sat on a beach in the Dominican Republic waiting for a friend’s wedding to begin. The scene was postcard perfect, yet Winfield kept staring at his phone.
His wife, Erniece, told him to put it away and enjoy paradise.
“I’ve got to watch this,” he replied.
He had a football game to dissect and a player to critique.
The wedding was Labor Day weekend, a few days after the Gophers opened their season with a victory against Oregon State.
Antoine Winfield Jr. made his college debut that night, which meant his dad, a former Pro Bowl cornerback and fan favorite as a Viking, kept his usual routine: He reviewed the game in painstaking detail to provide insight for his son.
“I’m teaching him everything that I know,” Winfield said.
Winfield’s expertise and athletic genes have helped guide his son’s path to Division I football. Antoine Jr., a true freshman safety, played in the Gophers’ first two games, and his role is expected to expand.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff that we’re doing with him right now,” defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. “He’s going to be valuable for us going forward.”
As a recruit in Texas, Winfield caught Sawvel’s eye with one particular skill.
“He can run and tackle,” he said.
Sound familiar, Vikings fans?
The elder Winfield was one of the NFL’s best tackling cornerbacks of his generation, finishing his 14-year career with 972 tackles. He had textbook fundamentals and was fearless as a nickel corner, despite being undersized at 5-9, 185 pounds.
Winfield sees a lot of himself in his son, only slightly bigger at 5-10, 195.
And fans are going to see a lot of father in son. They look similar physically, they run the same, the name’s the same — that’s a lot of pressure on the young man.
Dad’s advice: Be yourself. Make your own name.
“Trust me,” Winfield said, “he’s going to be a hell of a baller for the University of Minnesota.”
If things had gone differently, Antoine Jr. would have been an in-state recruit. He attended Eden Prairie as a freshman and became friends with fellow athletes Carter Coughlin (freshman linebacker for the Gophers) and JD Spielman (freshman wide receiver at Nebraska).
Life changed abruptly when the Vikings released his father after the 2012 season. Winfield was 35 and scheduled to make $7.25 million.
Winfield went to training camp with the Seattle Seahawks but retired once it became clear he would not survive cuts. His release by the Vikings angered fans, but Winfield says he understood the business.
“I was an old guy,” he said. “This is a young man’s sport.”
The family moved to Houston and Winfield immersed himself into teaching Football 101 to his three sons, starting with Antoine Jr., the oldest.
Antoine Jr. loved that football is serious business in Texas, allowing him to train year-round. His favorite spot in his family’s home was their weight room. He lifted daily and stopped eating fried food.
His father took him to a field several times a week in 100-degree heat. They worked on footwork, technique, cone drills, ladder drills and defensive back fundamentals.
At night, they’d fire up the laptop and scrutinize Antoine Jr.’s games or watch videos that his dad kept of his own high school career in Akron, Ohio.
“I want them to see the standards,” he said.
Antoine Jr. still watches his dad’s videos often and marvels at his toughness.
“He was able to play that way as small as he is,” he said. “I don’t know how he did it. He was hitting some big guys.”
Winfield refused to let his size deter him. Tackling, he said, came natural.
“Technique, be low, play nasty, play strong,” he said. “You have to love contact.”
He instills that mentality in his sons.
“It’s weird how we look the same,” Antoine Jr. said. “The way that we look tackling and running to the ball.”
Road to the U
Antoine Jr. grew up a fan of the Vikings and the Ohio State Buckeyes, his dad’s alma mater. The Gophers were never on his radar, even when he lived here.
He returned to the Twin Cities to visit friends last summer. Coughlin already had committed and encouraged Winfield to take a look at the Gophers, too.
“I didn’t really think too much about it,” Winfield said. “But I came up here and I loved my visit. Everything was nice and I felt like I could fit in.”
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys dived deep on football philosophies with father and son during his in-home recruiting visit that included “probably the best sloppy joes I’ve ever eaten in my life,” Claeys said.
Erniece, who used to cook for Vikings players on Monday nights during the season, has a confession.
“We were eating leftovers,” she said.
Erniece said her son’s tunnel-vision ambition at times felt like “all work and no play.” Antoine Jr. makes no secret of his desire to become an NFL player.
“Little ’Toine is so determined and dedicated and devoted to football,” Erniece said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Like father, like son.
“It was always my goal to play Division I college football and go to the NFL,” Winfield said. “And then to see my oldest son follow in my footsteps, I’m so excited.”