The Jim Thorpe Award was started by an Oklahoma City civic organization in 1986. Three years later, the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame became involved. In theory, the Thorpe Award recognizes the nation’s best defensive back in college football.
That theory took a hit in late October, when the Thorpe committee named its 14 semifinalists and the Gophers’ Antoine Winfield Jr. was not among those contenders.
The list came out on Oct. 22, three days after Winfield had a pair of interceptions for a team that was 7-0. Maybe it was because those two interceptions were against Rutgers.
For sure, the Thorpe committee had to be feeling foolish three weeks later, when Winfield had a pair of interceptions in the Gophers’ 31-26 victory over Penn State in a duel of unbeatens at TCF Bank Stadium.
Maybe the Thorpe folks just hadn’t paid much attention to Winfield Jr., although that would be something of a surprise, since the 1998 Thorpe Award winner was his daddy, Antoine Winfield Sr. from Ohio State.
“Back-to-back Jim Thorpe winners … Antoine in ’98, then me in ’99 for the Gophers,’’ said Tyrone Carter, the Gophers’ package of tackling dynamite from the late ’90s. “We competed in the Big Ten, and then we were teammates.
“I’ve known Antoine and his family for a long time. And when you’re talking about Antoine Jr. as a competitor, don’t just mention his daddy. Don’t forget his mother … Erniece.’’
Carter laughed and said: “His mother don’t play. You mess with her son … Mama don’t play.’’
This was in part a reference to the bureaucratic fiasco in December 2016, when Winfield Jr. was falsely implicated among the 10 Gophers suspended for an alleged sexual assault on campus.
Tracy Claeys was villainized for making a public stand for his players, although he was doing so in a strong belief in players such as Winfield, then a freshman starter for the Gophers.
In the end, Claeys was fired, the suspensions were dropped for five players, including Winfield, and new coach P.J. Fleck lobbied diligently to get the safety to stay at Minnesota.
He did so, in loyalty to compadres in the 2016 recruiting class, including Carter Coughlin, a childhood friend from Eden Prairie during Antoine Sr.’s Vikings years (2004-12).
“To get a young man like Antoine Jr. dragged through that … it was pathetic,’’ Carter said. “It’s great that he stayed at Minnesota, though. I’m still a Gopher, and no one was more important to this 10-win season than him.’’
Carter first encountered Winfield’s father on the football field in the fall of 1996. Tyrone was a freshman starter, and the Gophers went to Columbus and lost 45-0 to Ohio State. Jim Wacker was fired after the 1-7 finish in the Big Ten and replaced by Glen Mason.
The Buckeyes were in the Metrodome in November 1997. The play of Winfield, a 5-foot-9 junior cornerback, in the Buckeyes’ 31-3 victory was such that he was the player sought for a postgame interview.
He had shut down Gophers star receiver Tutu Atwell, while also being a tackling machine.
“I loved the hitting part of football since I was 4-foot-3 and weighed 58 pounds in peewee ball,’’ Winfield said that night.
Ohio State coach John Cooper added, “Here’s what I say about guys like Antoine Winfield: ‘He can play better than you coach.’ ”
Fleck can say the same about Winfield Jr. Antoine was injured and played four games in both 2017 and 2018, Fleck’s first two seasons. The Gophers were 5-13 in the Big Ten.
Winfield has been healthy, a game-saving phenomenon and a unanimous All-America in 2019. The Gophers were 7-2 in the Big Ten, 10-2 overall and they are playing Auburn in an eventful bowl game on New Year’s Day.
It’s not all Winfield Jr., but without doubt the Gophers would have lost to Fresno State without his interception, and they would have lost to Penn State without his two interceptions, and 8-4 gets you what … Tennessee in the Gator Bowl, at best?
“He could play anywhere on the field, but he’s perfect for safety,’’ Carter said. “He can come up and tackle, and he’s also a ball hawk. He has an IQ for the game. He’s a player any coach would love to have.’’
Carter’s days as Antoine Sr.’s teammate were brief. Winfield came here from Buffalo as a big-bucks free agent in 2004, after coach Mike Tice pleaded with owner Red McCombs to spend the money. Carter had re-signed with the Vikings that spring but wound up being injured and was released in September.
That was long enough to develop a friendship with Antoine Sr. And Carter went on to a good run with the Steelers after that and captured two Super Bowl rings.
“Everyone talks about the son of a player having a ‘pedigree,’ but part of that for someone like Antoine Jr. is that he saw from his father how you prepare to become great,’’ Carter said. “The sons of great players ... they find out by watching what it takes.’’
Note: Carter has a son who started playing in kindergarten against third-graders. He’s now 10. “Everybody calls him ‘Bam Bam,’ ” Tyrone said, laughing. “P.J. Fleck already has offered him a scholarship.’’
Unofficially, if the NCAA is listening.
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