HOUSTON -- Vince Wilfork is usually quiet in the locker room when media is around. But when he heard that Houston Texans' fifth-round pick D.J. Reader said he had been watching Wilfork play football since he was 10 years old, the veteran defensive lineman shook his head and let out a huge laugh.
"He [has] kept that to himself," Wilfork said. "I guess he told you guys that, but god darn that makes me sound old."
Reader and Wilfork have had a good relationship since they met in April after Reader was drafted out of Clemson. In his first NFL season, Reader found a mentor in Wilfork, who said after the Texans’ season-ending loss to the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs that he thinks he has played his last NFL game.
If the 35-year-old Wilfork does retire or signs with another team during the offseason, he will pass the torch to Reader, a promising young player ready to take over because of the guidance Wilfork gave him this season.
Reader said he felt like he was in a great situation when he was drafted by the Texans, and having Wilfork -- someone he had looked up to on the field for so many years -- eased the transition from college to NFL player.
"[I didn’t] feel like, 'I’m that kid that had to step in,'" Reader said. "This guy knows everything so being able to sit behind him and learn stuff is just a blessing. I don’t feel stressed out because I know he’ll be able to explain something to me."
In his rookie season, Reader finished the regular season with a sack, a pass defensed and 22 tackles, including four for a loss. In two playoff games, he added a sack and three tackles.
Wilfork called Reader "a sponge," saying that he wants to learn, listen and then apply it to his game.
"That’s the beauty of it, is you get a chance to see [him] execute what’s taught to [him] in the film room," Wilfork said. "That’s the sign of a good football player."
And that fellowship has translated to success on the field for Reader. Anthony Weaver, Reader’s defensive line coach praised the rookie for the job he did to put himself in a position to help the Texans win as a part of the NFL's top-ranked defense.
"I typically don’t like rookies," Weaver said. "They’re hard to win with. I love D.J. Reader. He’s a guy that comes to work with the same mindset every day, happy, loves ball, just puts his hard-hat on and gets better. I think you’ve seen the results of that on the football field. He’s earning the right to get more snaps and that’s a credit to him."
And then there’s the bond Reader and Wilfork have off the field. They have gone through similar struggles in their lives -- losing parents at a young age and the aftermath of dealing with that pain. And so the help Wilfork has given Reader in the eight months they have known each other has been really meaningful in Reader’s life. Reader said Wilfork helped him out a lot, just "thinking through life."
"Stuff that he’s been through in his life, I can kind of relate with my life," Wilfork said. "It was kind of like an older brother talking to my younger brother. I think a great teammate takes the time out to understand their teammates and it’s good to see our guys go out together and come to the house and watch film together. We do things together. We bond. We build character."
And that’s something Wilfork said he takes pride in.
"You never know what people go through in their lives or what they’ve been through in their lives," Wilfork said. "For me, it’s more than football. When you leave a locker room, this is what you have. Your family that you built and played with over the course of the years. You’re going to have that forever. So you want to get a chance to know your teammates and how they grew up and their families and stuff like that and I think this team is full of great guys and D.J. is one of them.
"I think it goes beyond football because when you’re all said and done I want to walk away being a great dude, great person. Not a great football player. I don’t want to be remembered as a great football player. I want to be remembered as a great person. That’s one of the things I stress on guys all the time."
Wilfork said he has loved the chance to mentor Reader this season. The rookie said it will be a little daunting to replace a guy who’s been “the best in the league for 13 years,” but said because Wilfork lives in the Houston area, he thinks that “still having him around will be good for [him].”
Wilfork said Reader has "grown up well" in the short time he has been in Houston.
"From the start of the season to now, he’s a different football player," Wilfork said. "He’s playing with a lot more confidence, understanding the game, understanding his technique, understanding what he needs to do to help the team. He’s a great teammate. He’s a smart football player. That’s one of the things, as a rookie, when he first came in his football IQ was pretty good as a rookie.
"He’s going to be as good as he wants to be. Everything that I’ve seen and we’ve seen, we’re very happy with all of our rookies, especially D.J. He’s helped us a lot."