Bill McGee couldn't resist rewinding to watch the highlight again.
It has been 28 years since Antoine Winfield Sr. played for McGee at Garfield High School, but the former longtime Golden Rams coach still became mesmerized during a recent film review in his Firestone Park living room.
McGee acknowledges it's a statement capable of ruffling feathers because Garfield has produced at least 10 NFL players other than Winfield. Dave Brown, Whitney Mercilus, Jim Lash, Sonny Gandee, Larry Poole, Beanie Wells, Steve Craig, Thomas Lewis, Dick Grecni and Charles Gladman are among them.
However, there is no debate Winfield belongs on the list of the greatest football players to hail from Akron.
As an Ohio State senior in 1998, Winfield became the first Buckeye to win the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the best defensive back at the collegiate level. He went on to play cornerback in the NFL from 1999-2012 — five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the first round (No. 23 overall), then nine with the Minnesota Vikings. He started 180 of 198 career games, including seven in the playoffs, and had 1,125 tackles, 29 interceptions, 120 passes defensed, 14 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries and 8½ sacks. He made three Pro Bowls.
Antoine Winfield's bloodlines: Famous cousins don't cast a shadow on Garfield's D'Monte Terry
Winfield's gridiron legacy, though, began in earnest when he dominated the City Series in the mid-1990s. It's primarily why he's now being honored as part of the inaugural class of the Akron Public Schools Athletics Hall of Fame. Ten inductees will be recognized during a banquet Oct. 1 at Guy's Party Center in Akron.
“He was the ultimate competitor, ultimate warrior,” said Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who served as Winfield's defensive backs coach with the Vikings in each of his final seven NFL seasons. “He's definitely one of the best secondary players, if not the best, I've coached.
“It's funny because he's a little guy. He's 5-foot-9. He weighed between 182 and 184 pounds every time he got on the scale. But he was probably one of the most physical players I've ever coached. You could just see him accelerating into tackles. He just had a knack for feeling blocks — when to take them on, when to slip them and come out on the other side and make the tackle. He had a physical mentality, and he played the game that way. It was like a linebacker playing corner.”
Former NFL player Antoine Winfield was a star in every phase for Garfield
McGee recalls Winfield weighing 130 to 135 pounds as a high school freshman and no more than 165 pounds as a senior.
Yet Winfield became known for his ferocious hits in high school, and one of them compelled McGee to find the rewind button on his remote control. The particular play featured Winfield on offense, not the other side of the ball where he made a fortune as an adult. After a broken play had caused Garfield's quarterback to scramble, Winfield came to the rescue from his halfback position, smashing into the opponent and decleating him.
“He was just a devastating blocker,” McGee said.
The truth is Winfield excelled in every facet of the game for Garfield, and McGee has the proof. The coach compiled video clips of Winfield's best plays from his sophomore, junior and senior seasons with the Golden Rams and had a tape made during his star pupil's Ohio State days. The footage was later converted from VHS to DVD, which McGee recently invited the Beacon Journal to watch.
The highlights show Winfield running through, around and away from defenders as a ball carrier. They show him punishing the opposition as a lead blocker. They show him catching passes out of the backfield and slot. They show him throwing for touchdowns on halfback passes. They show him blocking field goals and punts and returning kickoffs and punts for touchdowns. They show him breaking up and intercepting passes and clobbering tailbacks and receivers as a free safety who resembled a heat-seeking missile.
“When he graduated, we had to replace him with six guys,” McGee quipped. “Not only could he do everything, but he always played like he wanted to do everything.
“He was a coach's dream because you never had any trouble with him. He would get mad at you if he had some injury or something and we didn't think he should practice. He would go and start putting his stuff on, and we'd have to go in and tell him to take it off. He loved football.”
Winfield's freshman season at Garfield was interrupted a couple of times by broken bones he suffered in a hand, McGee said. He became a fixture in the lineup the next three seasons, earning first-team All City selections from 1992-94. He was a two-time All-Ohio pick. As a senior, he was named Ohio's Division I Defensive Player of the Year and the Beacon Journal Player of the Year. He graduated from Garfield in 1995.
“After his sophomore year, very few people tried to throw the ball into the middle of the field against us,” McGee said. “He intercepted a lot of passes, and then if there was a running play and the runner got through the middle of the line, he would get him almost every time — and they would usually have to help the guy off the field. Most people who knew him and saw him play would say he was probably the best tackler that they ever saw in high school.
“Years later, I was watching a football game on television, and [Detroit Lions executive and former NFL linebacker] Chris Spielman was the color commentator. They said to eliminate himself from consideration, but asked who did he think would be the best tackler he ever saw at Ohio State. I thought for sure he would say Jack Tatum, but he said Antoine Winfield.”
Antoine Winfield's tackling became his calling card in Akron's high school football scene
There are many ferocious tackles on the Winfield highlight tape, but two stood out during McGee's latest viewing.
As a junior, Winfield crushed an East tailback on a sweep to the left at Ellet.
“It was like [the running back] was driving a car and he went backward,” McGee said. “The car was invisible, and the driver of the car flew backward. That's what this looked like. He hit him, and he went straight backward like 5 yards. The people in the stands, all you could hear was a big 'ooh!'”
The other bone-rattling hit on the Winfield highlight tape is still fresh in the memory of Andre Knott because he said it changed his life. It occurred in 1993, when Knott was a standout sophomore running back for St. Vincent-St. Mary and Winfield was a junior.
“Running back had come pretty easy to me. I'd never gotten hit like that — put it that way,” Knott, the in-game Guardians reporter for Bally Sports, said by phone. “I usually had pretty good vision, and I'll never forget Coach [John] Cistone kind of telling me, 'When you get close to the goal line, you've got to get your shoulders lower. You've got to have your head on a swivel.' Just like everything in life, you get coached or taught certain things, but until you actually go through them, some things you need to learn, and that was my hand-on-the-skillet moment of life because the week before that I had like three touchdowns and they were cutting back against St. Joe's.
“I was a pretty good cutback runner, and I'll never forget [my coaches] telling me, 'Kid, you've got great eyesight, but you better lower your shoulders.' And that play [against Winfield] was right before halftime. It was a really tight game, and when I went to cut back, I didn't listen to everything I was coached to do. I didn't look the other way. I didn't lower my shoulders. I was standing straight up, and I'll never forget Antoine ran right through me. He was motivation for me, in all honesty, because we were the same size.”
Knott, who was inducted into the STVM Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018, had another memorable collision with Winfield the next season.
“I got him pretty good when he made an interception against us,” Knott said. “I happened to be coming up the other way, and I hit him as hard as I could. I drilled him, and the whole crowd went crazy, and I couldn't get up because I popped my shoulder out. I remember he almost had like a Mike Tyson voice. He was like, 'Come on, man! Get up!'
“But after that play my sophomore year, it made me aware of where all 11 guys on the field were, especially the special players, before I lined up. Before that, it was a game to me. He made me realize that if you don't know the chess moves of the game, you can get hurt because I had never been hit that way. I didn't even see where he came from. That was how I was indoctrinated into football.”
More Garfield football:'Smookie' plays key roles for Golden Rams
McGee said he would like to take credit for teaching Winfield how to tackle, but it would be misleading. McGee has concluded Winfield must have learned how to tackle as a pee-wee player in Akron. The Beacon Journal's attempts to reach Winfield, 45, for this story were unsuccessful.
“The first day when he was a 135-pound, 5-foot-6 freshman, he was probably the best tackler and the best player on the field,” McGee said. “He just did things.”
Antoine Winfield made difference as student of game and leader
The feats weren't solely physical acts, either, not in high school or beyond.
Woods recalls an in-game adjustment Winfield made on the fly against the Arizona Cardinals allowing him to tackle an opponent for a loss on a screen. The original assignment had called for him to drop in coverage.
Another tweak Winfield suggested during a film session in 2006 changed the way the Vikings played defense.
“It's something that you don't ever do in that coverage,” Woods said. “People copied it and thought we were blitzing, and we really weren't. It was just an adjustment we made, but it was all because of what he saw on tape, and he asked [Pittsburgh Steelers coach and former Vikings defensive coordinator] Mike Tomlin and myself if he could do it. That's a legacy of what he did.”
Antoine Winfield Jr. has built reputation as one of NFL's top safeties
An important aspect of Winfield's story is continuing to unfold with son Antoine Winfield Jr. following in his NFL footsteps.
Woods privately entertained the possibility of coaching the younger Winfield because the Browns would have drafted him two years ago if they hadn't picked fellow safety Grant Delpit in the second round at No. 44 overall, one spot before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose Winfield Jr. As a rookie in the 2020 season, Winfield Jr. was a full-time starter for the Bucs when they won the Super Bowl with a quarterback his dad played in college and the league, Tom Brady. Winfield Jr. made the Pro Bowl last season and was recently voted 75th for NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2022.”
Memorable Super Bowl moment:Bucs rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. says taunting Tyreek Hill 'just something I had to do'
Last year during Super Bowl media availability, Winfield Jr. said via Zoom, “My dad’s like another coach. It’s been great having him because he’s been a huge part of my success and being able to play at a high level.”
McGee said the elder Winfield had a similar influence on his Garfield teammates.
“He was like another coach out there,” McGee said. “He would help out other people, and all the other players loved him. They thought he was great because he was a gentle and kind person in between plays, and he was vicious during the plays.”
Those awe-inspiring plays have not been forgotten, especially as Winfield enters a hall of fame in his hometown.
Akron Public Schools Athletics Hall of Fame features 10 inductees in 2022
APS athletics director Joe Vassalotti said individuals had to be nominated by the general public or the APS Athletics Hall of Fame selection committee to be considered for induction. The committee considered 40 nominations, which were accepted from November 2021 through this past February. Of those 40 nominees, 10 were chosen. Vassalotti said APS plans to use the same time frame for nominations moving forward.
In addition to Winfield, the nine people listed below are being inducted into the APS Athletics Hall of Fame. APS provided the following information about them.
Bruce Alexander (North basketball and track and field, class of 1978) — Beacon Journal Player of the Year for the 1977-78 basketball season; starred at Youngstown State University, where he was inducted into its athletics hall of fame in 1994
Phil Boggs (Firestone swimming and diving, class of 1967, deceased) — member of state title team in 1966 and state runner-up team in 1967; individual state runner-up in diving in 1966; three-time All-American in diving at Florida State University; NCAA 3-meter springboard champion in 1971; first diver to win three consecutive world championships in 3-meter springboard (1973, '75 and '78); won gold medal in 3-meter springboard for the U.S. in Montreal Olympics in 1976; inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1985
Dave Brown (Garfield football, class of 1971, deceased) — All-Ohio selection 1970; defensive back chosen by the Steelers in first round (No. 26 overall) of NFL Draft in 1975 out of the University of Michigan; won a Super Bowl as a Steelers rookie in 1975; played 15 NFL seasons (one with Pittsburgh, 11 with Seattle and three with Green Bay); Pro Bowl selection in 1984; inducted into Seahawks' Ring of Honor in 1992
Jimmy Gooden (Central-Hower basketball, class of 1980) — All-Ohio selection, Class AAA Player of the Year and Beacon Journal Player of the Year for 1979-80 season; state tournament co-MVP when Central-Hower won state title in 1980, completing season with record of 28-0
Bill Heideman (Kenmore track and field, basketball and football, class of 1959, deceased) — All-City selection in track, basketball and football; state champion in 800 meters in 1962 and three-time City Series champ in the same event; University of Akron basketball co-captain for three seasons; UA record in 800 meters (1:49.3); coached basketball and cross country at Firestone (state runner-up 1965) and track at Buchtel (state runner-up 1993); inducted into Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches in 1991
Michelle Marquess-Kearns (North basketball, softball and volleyball, class of 1989) — All-Ohio selection in basketball; all-district selection in all three sports
Ricky Powers (Buchtel football, class of 1990) — Parade All-American in 1989; All-Ohio selection in 1988 and 1989; two-time Beacon Journal Player of the Year (1988 and 1989); named first-team All-USA by USA Today in 1989; named top player in the nation by Dallas Morning News in 1989; member of Division II state champion teams in 1987 and 1988; played four seasons at Michigan and one season in the NFL, appearing in three games with the Browns in 1995; coached Buchtel for 14 seasons, leading football program to Division III state runner-up finish in 2010; now coach at Brush
Dan “Babe” Flossie (Garfield football 1949-75, deceased) — 185-67-10 record; 12 City Series titles; one of two coaches to be named Akron Touchdown Club’s Summit County Coach of the Year three times; inducted into Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1980
Joe Siegferth (Central boys basketball 1955-70 and Central-Hower 1971-82, deceased) — 441-151 record; coached Central-Hower to state title in 1980; won 10 City Series, 21 sectional, 12 district and seven regional titles; four-time Summit County coach of the year; two-time Associated Press Ohio coach of the year (1978 and 1980); United Press International coach of the year in 1978
Ticket information for Akron Public Schools Athletics Hall of Fame induction
Tickets to the Oct. 1 induction banquet are available for purchase online at www.akronschools.com/departments/athletics. The cost is $35 per ticket. Doors open at Guy's Party Center (500 E. Waterloo Road, Akron) at 5:30 p.m. for a cocktail hour with a cash bar. Dinner is set for 6:30 p.m., followed by the induction ceremony at 7:30 p.m.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.
Looking back on Weeks 1-2 of high school football
Miss any of our earlier coverage this season? Here it is:
Akron-area high school football Week 2:No. 1 Hoban rolls; North wins first game since 2019: Akron high school football scores
Akron-area high school football Week 1:Friday night prep scoreboard: Twinsburg edges Copley; Tallmadge, Hoban win big
Ohio high school football:Greater Akron high school football: Everything to know for the 2022 season
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This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Antoine Winfield honored as Akron high school football legend