EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) -Growing up in Akron, Ohio, Antoine Winfield and his family lived by a motto that preached humility and grace in handling success.
As he matured into a star in that football-crazy state, his mother and grandparents would constantly remind him to ``never get too big.''
Those words apply literally to Winfield as well, and the combination of his soft-spoken nature and small stature stand in direct contrast to one of the NFL's most physical and relentless defenders.
The smallest Minnesota Viking, all 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds of him, is having his biggest year yet in his 10th season. The cornerback has hand-delivered both of his team's victories this season and garnered the kind of press that could finally get him to the Pro Bowl.
``He's a small guy, so a lot of people probably underestimate him,'' running back Adrian Peterson said. ``But he has the heart of a lion. He goes out there and he shows it on the field.''
or-pound, a description Winfield has taken both as a compliment and an insult throughout his career.
Playing in the small media markets of Buffalo and the Twin Cities may have kept him from becoming a household name, but the Vikings (2-3) showed how much they appreciate his hard-nosed game when they outbid the Jets with a six-year, $35 million offer with $10.8 million guaranteed in 2004.
``He's always been a playmaker, and if he can finish this season the way he's playing right now, he could easily be the top defensive player in our league,'' defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. ``He's having a great start.''
Winfield had eight tackles, including five for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in a 30-27 win over New Orleans on Monday night in the latest jaw-dropping performance.
``Usually a lot of people don't see me play. It was a great stage to have that kind of game,'' Winfield said. ``I got so many phone calls. It's unbelievable the amount of national attention. But I continue to stay humble and just go out there and do my job.''
The ho-hum attitude masks a ferocity that few cornerbacks share. He takes on pulling offensive linemen nearly twice his size and delivers teeth-rattling hits on running backs who expect to swat him away like an annoying younger brother.
low and taking on a guy who is 150 pounds bigger than he is,'' coach Brad Childress said. ``You better not hesitate. You better be able to let it go. That's what you look for in football players.''
This season, Winfield has perfected the art of the cornerback blitz, notching two sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries - the Holy Grail trifecta for a defensive player.
He did it in the second quarter against Carolina in Week 2, when he leveled Jake Delhomme, then picked up his own fumble and scored a touchdown to tie the game at halftime. The momentum-changing play propelled Minnesota to a 20-10 victory, its first of the season.
Winfield was at it again on Monday night, patiently disguising his intentions to fool New Orleans tight end Billy Miller into thinking he wasn't coming, then unloading on an unsuspecting Drew Brees. He recovered the ensuing fumble to set up another touchdown.
``He's playing outstanding right now,'' defensive end Jared Allen said. ``That's two games where he darn near single-handedly won it for us. It's fun to be on the field when guys are making those kind of plays. I told him, 'Dang, I'm used to making all those plays. You're stealing them from me right now.'''
Teammates and his own coaches aren't the only ones taking notice.
le leader out of the corner of his eye Sunday if he is healthy enough to play. ``Through five games of the season he is playing as well as anybody.''
The only thing missing is an interception, but that is because opposing offenses are staying away from him in the passing game. It's the kind of approach teams take with only the best in the business, and that elusive Hawaiian vacation could be next.
``That was one of my goals every year, to go to the Pro Bowl,'' he said. ``But I don't really look forward to that. It's out of my hands. I just have to get out there and do my job. Hopefully I'll get there.''
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