Antoine Winfield Jr. heaved a long sigh when he remembered a difficult moment three years ago, going back to his dorm to face his roommates.
The Gophers safety had put together a freshman All-America season, making 52 tackles in nine starts, but he was ready to quit.
A sexual assault allegation rocked the team in 2016, implicating 10 players, including Winfield. He faced a one-year suspension, and his father, former Vikings player Antoine Winfield Sr., had said his son would transfer from the school in the wake of the scandal.
It seemed certain he was done with the Gophers. But he stayed, with a disciplinary panel eventually clearing him of wrongdoing. Winfield went on to endure two season-ending injuries before re-emerging this season as one of the Big Ten’s best playmakers. He has a team-high 57 tackles. His seven interceptions rank second in the nation.
And it all came down to that one dorm-room come-to-Jesus meeting.
“We talked about it, and I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do, whether I was going to stay, whether I was going to leave,” Winfield Jr. said. “And I just couldn’t leave them. I couldn’t leave those boys. I love them. And that’s pretty much the reason I stayed.”
One of those roommates, defensive end Carter Coughlin, actually convinced Winfield to come to the Gophers in the first place, his childhood friend talking him into a visit even though the Winfields had moved to Texas. The pair — plus linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin and receiver Clay Geary — still lives together, including taking spring break and summer vacation trips together. There’s even a photo of the group holding the Governor’s Victory Bell trophy in the locker room after upsetting then-No. 4 Penn State 31-26 on Saturday. Winfield made two interceptions and 11 tackles in the game.
The Gophers — after rising to No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings — now have three games to improve upon their 9-0 record, including a chance to reclaim the Floyd of Rosedale trophy at Iowa on Saturday.
His father said his comments in 2016 were an emotional response to the allegations. But he ultimately left the stay-or-go decision up to his son, wanting him to have “no regrets.”
“From what I’ve seen this year, he 100 percent made the right and correct decision,” Winfield Sr. said. “So I’m happy, and I know he’s happy to be here.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck came on in the wake of the scandal and dealt with several players seriously considering transferring. He recalled his first week on the job, living out of the Graduate Hotel and not sleeping for four or five days, too busy calling players. It was a tough sell because of the coaching change, the strong culture Fleck brought with him from Western Michigan and the players themselves even boycotting.
Fleck feared he wouldn’t have a football team to field, let alone star players.
“You look at all those guys who stayed, there’s not many of them,” Fleck said. “… That’s why we’re powerful, because it’s the leadership of our football team.”
Winfield Jr. certainly has become a key player even though he is only a redshirt sophomore in eligibility. While he will graduate this spring, a hamstring issue and torn foot ligament limited his past two seasons to only four games each.
Most of his roommates will have exhausted their eligibility after this year, with Coughlin and Martin likely NFL draft picks. Winfield could follow them, forgoing his final two years to become a potential second- or third-rounder, according to Cam Mellor, lead college football analyst at Pro Football Focus.
Fleck joked Tuesday that keeping Winfield was one of his most important recruiting jobs when he came to the Gophers.
“Still is,” Fleck said, adding Winfield was coming to his house for dinner Tuesday.
Winfield, though, said his only goal for this season was to stay healthy and prove his past injuries were just flukes. And while it’s hard not to think about his future, he admitted, he’s just trying to live in the moment and realize that’s a decision for later.
The 21-year-old is just enjoying the success, after all the allegations and injuries.
“I think back on those times, and I don’t think I would be able to play to my ability that I’m playing now if it wasn’t for all the things that happen to me over those years,” Winfield said. “And so it’s definitely worth it, though. A lot of life lessons that you learn, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Now, Winfield constantly has a big grin lighting up his face, beaming after making a game-changing play or just quietly to himself.
“Any time I see him, he’s just always smiling,” Winfield Sr. said. “And he’s got every right to do that.”