Arts & Entertainment » Sports

Saying goodbye to the Bills’ king of candor


National Football League free agency means teams usually don't spend much time at the top or bottom. It also means many top players don't spend much time in one place. So when they're free agents after three to five years and they choose to sign elsewhere, their careers with their old teams --- usually the teams that developed them --- are suddenly over. No pomp. No circumstance. No nothing. It's sort of sad.

            Former Bills cornerback Antoine Winfield signed a six-year, $34.8 million contract with Minnesota. The 5'9" Winfield played five years in Buffalo and was good in coverage, great against the run, and tackled as well as anyone. He wasn't the community service presence some athletes are, even though he appeared in a Cellino & Barnes ad imploring kids to wear bicycle helmets. He was simply a likable guy.

            It's too bad he's gone, but before you cry, know that he made $10.8 million just for signing that Vikings contract.

I met Winfield in April 1999 after Buffalo drafted him 23rd overall. I wrote for the independent Bills publication Shout!, and was assigned to ghostwrite an ongoing diary chronicling a player's rookie year. We chose Winfield, figuring there wouldn't be any better subject than the team's first pick.

            As it turned out, there probably weren't many better subjects in the NFL. Winfield's candor, without the pro-athlete speak or bombast, made the feature among the newspaper's most popular for five years. He wasn't funny or outrageous like Fred Smerlas, and he never said anything for effect. But he was surprisingly straightforward and unassuming, with an endearing aloofness like Mr. Magoo.

            He was just different. That was obvious after his first training camp session, when he declared to me that he had the defense down. Now, somewhere in the NFL code it says rookies must claim that their heads are swimming because of the playbook's complexities. Not Winfield. As I got to know him better, he began to make me think maybe this notion that football is an unbelievably complex game was a big sham. Players don't need doctorate degrees. Winfield needed a few mini-camp practices, some classroom study, and a training-camp double session. That's how complicated football is.

            Winfield's diary made headlines last season when he criticized then-offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride for playing a system that didn't fit Buffalo's personnel. He added that he'd sometimes sit on the sideline wondering why the offense wouldn't run. When Buffalo still had playoff hopes that depended on the exact alignment of stars in the solar system, Winfield was the only player to publicly dismiss them.

His tone of voice was never angry. He spoke plainly, as if someone were asking him about the weather. His nonchalance was occasionally flat-out funny.

            When a financial advisor allegedly cheated him out of $1.35 million, he said that he merely wrote the loss off on his 2001 taxes, and got "like a million back" that would go for his kids' futures and his wife's love of shoes and purses.

            When I asked him if his wife was going to teach after she earned her Master's from Canisius College in 2002, he said she better because he had to get her "out of that house." When I asked him how his wife liked Buffalo their first year there, he said she was bored. When I asked the same question of him, he said he liked it because there wasn't much to do except concentrate on football.

            Winfield wasn't Muhammad Ali, but his realness amid the NFL's faux-warrior environment made him entertaining and unique.

            Unfortunately, Buffalo wasn't really interested in re-signing him. And Winfield seemed eager to test free agency in search of the Mother Lode anyway. He sold his Orchard Park home way back in fall 2001 in seeming anticipation, and told me then that Buffalo was so "cold, boring, and just depressing" that he had to do something. At the time, he planned to "send the wife" down to buy a house in Houston, adding that he trusted her with that kind of decision, which was why he married her.

            He would later postpone the house-hunting until the contract was resolved. And now it is. So good for him. It couldn't have happened to a more brutally honest guy.