MANKATO - Percy Harvin exploded off the line and tried to get Antoine Winfield to bite on a fake during a 1-on-1 drill in the opening practice of Vikings training camp.
Winfield quickly recognized a "tell" in Harvin's route, something that gave away the receiver's intentions, and he turned the tables. Winfield jumped the route and intercepted the pass, leaving Harvin shaking his head. Harvin jogged over to a smiling Winfield on the sideline and asked the veteran cornerback what he did to tip his hand.
"He's a smart, savvy defender," Harvin said. "I'm always going to him trying to get advice to ask what he sees."
Said Winfield, "I've pretty much seen it all."
Winfield is the Vikings' resident graybeard, but he's not ready to hang up his cleats just yet. At 35, he's the team's oldest player and, entering his 14th season, he joins Denver cornerback Champ Bailey as the only remaining first-round picks from the 1999 draft still in the league.
Injuries cut short two of Winfield's past three seasons, and the Vikings are hoping to curtail his workload and possibly his role this season in order to preserve his health and legs. Winfield, however, makes two things clear: He still loves the game as much as ever, and he's not changing the way he plays.
"I'm going to stick my head in there," he said. "I've always played that way. My game will never change. It's still crazy to me, to think about the way I play and to last this long, still able to be effective. I'm just blessed."
In a sport that resembles a human demolition derby, Winfield's style of play remains a marvel. At 5-9 and 180 pounds, he's annually the Vikings smallest player, but he hits like a semi truck. Winfield is still regarded as one of the NFL's best tackling corners, with more than 1,000 career stops. His tackles are forceful and textbook, the way you'd teach someone to tackle.
"I've been playing this way since I was 8 years old," Winfield said. "Turn on the film when I played little league, high school, you'll see the same style of play. I can't change my game. I can only play one way."
His goal after being drafted by Buffalo was to play 10 NFL seasons. Instead, he made his first Pro Bowl in his 10th season. He said he doesn't feel 35, but he laughed when informed that Vikings rookie corner Josh Robinson was only 8 when Winfield entered the league.
"Get out of here," he said. "It's crazy. I was just talking to my wife about that. I'm like, 'Man, I'm the oldest on the team.' I came in [the NFL] with Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, all those guys."
His career is in the twilight now. Winfield has two seasons left on his contract, but he takes things year by year. He's no longer best suited for -- or perhaps even physically capable of -- playing on the outside against young receivers 65 snaps a game over the course of a season. Some fans clamored for the Vikings to move Winfield to safety, but that's not going to happen either.
Ideally, a few young cornerbacks emerge in camp and allow Winfield to shift inside to the slot/nickel back role. The NFL's passing bonanza forces teams to use extra defensive backs, so Winfield still would be on the field plenty in the nickel package.
He loves being near the line, close to the action. He became a one-man wrecking crew against Philadelphia two years ago when he blitzed Michael Vick 16 times from the slot.
"I can still make plays," Winfield said. "Not as fast as I was, but smarter. I know my limitations, what I can and can't do."
His return automatically improves a secondary that, frankly, looked embarrassingly inept last season. Injuries limited Winfield to only five games, which included a season-ending broken collarbone against Green Bay when he landed awkwardly. That injury is completely healed.
"My body feels good," he said. "I'm excited to get back out there."
Winfield primarily covered Harvin in drills the first two days of camp because, he joked, "I don't want to put the young guys out there on him just yet." Winfield acts as a mentor to those youngsters and not just defensive backs. Harvin, in particular, often approaches Winfield during practice to seek advice or pick up pointers, which Harvin believes is good preparation for when he faces other savvy veterans such as Green Bay's Charles Woodson.
Winfield shares his insight because he's seen a lot. He still wants to experience more, too.
"I love the game," Winfield said. "I love going out there competing. I still feel that hunger. I want to win a championship. That's always been a goal of mine. I work hard each year to get my body in shape because I know it's going to take a pounding in a long season. I just try and go out there and make as many plays as I can."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org