What best defines a Hall of Famer? It largely depends on what sport you are talking about, but there are certain universal factors that are common thread. Among those common elements with Hall Famers in all pro sports are championships won, individual awards and accolades, longevity and putting up historically significant numbers.
Most Hall of Fame-worthy players have a majority or in rare cases all of the things I mentioned, but others that lack certain things make for interesting cases once they are subjected to the whims of Hall of Fame voters.
With that I present cornerback Antoine Winfield, who is currently in his 14th NFL season and ninth with the Minnesota Vikings. He spent his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills after being drafted by them in the first round (23rd overall) in 1999 out of Ohio State, where he won the Jim Thorpe Award as a senior in 1998. He signed a lucrative free agent contract with Minnesota prior to the 2004 season, and has been with the Vikings since that point.
Winfield has long been a solid all-around corner, willing to mix it up against the the run despite a lack of size (5’9″, 190 lbs). He is not a quintessential “shutdown corner” like some others around the league, and his interception total (26 career) is not great due in part to that. But he has shown a nose for being around the ball, with 10 career fumble recoveries and six seasons with at least 70 tackles as well as a seventh where he totaled 69 tackles. He earned his first career Pro Bowl selection in 2008, the first of three straight seasons where he earned that honor.
As could be expected given his style of play, injuries have begun to creep up on Winfield in recent years. He has only played all 16 games once in the past three seasons, as a broken collarbone limited him to five games in 2011 and a foot issue issue hampered him in 2009. He has been healthy to this point in 2012, and is having a solid season with 38 tackles (17 assists), two interceptions and one sack through the first seven games.
Winfield has yet to make it to a Super Bowl in his career, with the Vikings coming close in 2009 before losing to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game. Despite Minnesota’s current 5-2 record, they are a long way from being a Super Bowl contender, and Winfield is under contract through the 2013 season. He will be 36 years old at that point and may be ready to call it a career, though the Vikings or any other team would certainly be glad to have him if he chooses to continue playing.
So is Winfield a Hall of Famer? I would say yes, even if he has not received the individual accolades some of his peers have gotten or won a Lombardi Trophy to this point.
Sometimes doing it the right way at a high level for a long time is noteworthy and makes a player a Hall of Famer, and Winfield certainly fits that criteria whenever he chooses to retire. Let’s hope Pro Football Hall of Fame voters feel the same way at some point once he is eligible for election.