As one of 59 prospects invited to the NFL draft, Antoine Winfield Jr. was looking forward to the spectacle of being in Las Vegas. Hearing his name called in front of thousands of fans. Ferrying to the stage through the Bellagio fountain via boat. Hugging the commissioner. Pulling that jersey over a nice suit. Donning a cap. Posing with his signature wide smile.
Instead, the former Gophers safety will hear the announcement through TV speakers from a little makeshift studio at his parents’ house near Houston. No fans, no boat, only hugs from his parents and two brothers. He’ll likely even opt for more casual clothes, since he’s working from home.
“It’s tough not being able to actually go to the actual event,” Winfield said.
This pandemic has changed the draft’s pageantry, but it won’t spoil the thrills, especially since Winfield is expected to be a first- or second-round pick; he could be the first Gophers first-rounder since Laurence Maroney in 2006.
Winfield became a unanimous All-America player this past season as a third-year sophomore who led the team with 88 tackles and seven interceptions. He made a statement after returning from back-to-back season-ending injuries.
He’s already caught the attention of recent Super Bowl champion Tyrann Mathieu. The Kansas City safety tweeted about Winfield’s potential to be a two-time All-Pro player by age 30, saying how he hoped the Chiefs draft him.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Winfield’s versatility to play in the slot outweighs some of his missed tackles. The only concern Jeremiah had about Winfield was his health after hamstring and foot injuries, but Winfield has shown teams he is fit and ready.
“I love the way Winfield plays,” Jeremiah said. “When you study him this year, I keep coming back to this one play that just stood out to me at the end of the Fresno State game where you see his instincts. He kind of baits the quarterback, wheels around and picks off the ball to finish it.”
That was Gophers safeties coach Joe Harasymiak’s aha moment as well. After joining the staff last year, he could tell Winfield was serious about the game just from his demeanor in meetings, dedication in the film room and intensity in practices. But the talent blew him away.
“From a standpoint of being a complete player, an elite player, and making every type of play that I’ve ever seen a safety make, that’s when I was like, ‘OK, wow, I’ve never coached someone like this,’ ” Harasymiak said. “I mean, in that game, he’s running sideline to sideline, making tackles, he’s blitzing, he’s making sacks.”
Many attribute Winfield’s instinctual play to his father, Antoine Sr., a former Vikings defensive back who was the Buffalo Bills’ first-round pick coming out of Ohio State in 1999.
With the younger Winfield unable to take the usual visits to team facilities across the country or work out at a professional gym, his dad has once again become his personal trainer in their at-home gym and on a field down the street.
“Brings me back to the old days back when I was in high school,” Winfield Jr. joked. “That’s pretty much all I did was work with him.”
Winfield’s agent, Chafie Fields, played against the elder Winfield in a high school all-star game and in college when Fields was at Penn State. In many ways, Fields views Winfield Jr. as his father’s “clone.” But the agent notes the often overlooked impact mom Erniece Winfield has had.
“Everybody always wants to hear about my dad, and they really don’t want to hear too much about my mom, but she is really the reason why I’m here today,” Winfield said. “… She had to assume the role of being the stay-at-home wife to take care of her three boys while my dad was at work. And she was the one that really held the family together.”
One good aspect of this current situation is Mom has all of her sons back under her roof. And when her eldest isn’t training, the family can play board games or cards, even watch old home movies of when the kids were babies.
That’s pretty much when Winfield Jr.’s NFL aspirations first started to percolate. Now, at 21, he’s on the cusp of realizing them.
“It’s something that I’ve always dreamed about and always work hard toward. And for it to finally almost be here,” Winfield said, “I’m just super anxious and excited to see where I end up going.”