Garfield High School made it official Friday that Antoine Winfield will be the final Golden Rams football player to wear the No. 24 jersey.
Winfield was back at his alma mater Friday during the inaugural Bill McGee Youth Football Camp. He helped line up children for drills and competition, signed autographs and posed for pictures as Firestone Park embraced the retired NFL star.
“He used to run on this field,” Garfield coach Bob Sax told the kids. “He was you about 25 years ago.”
Sax then told the kids how Winfield, 36, has donated money for weight room improvements, shoes, uniforms and helmets.
“We want to say thank you to Antoine Winfield by retiring his actual jerseys from 1994,” Sax continued as he held two No. 24 jerseys, a white one with maroon and gold and a maroon one with white and gold.
“This is really an unbelievable feeling,” said Winfield, who played cornerback for Ohio State from 1995-1998 and then in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills from 1999-2003 and the Minnesota Vikings from 2004-2012.
“When I first stepped on Garfield’s campus, I couldn’t imagine 20-some years later that I would come back and be doing this. I am honored and blessed. It is good for the kids to see somebody from their neighborhood that graduated from the same school that they are going to be successful.
“I remember all of my games and I have highlight tapes. I go back and watch my Little League games and coach McGee made me a highlight film of my three years playing here. I watch that maybe once a month to reminisce a little bit. I just love football. That is my thing. I grew up around football. My uncles and everybody in my family played. My dream was always to play in the NFL.”
Sax said about 100 players between the ages of 7 and 12 participated in the camp, which included supervision by coaches and current Garfield players. Sax, Audley McGill and Austin Clopton organized the free camp, which also included a lunch.
Winfield was raised in Akron by his mother Shirley Winfield and grandparents Nathan and Velma Winfield. He now lives in Texas in The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston, with his wife, Erniece, and three sons: Antoine Jr., 15, Austin, 12, and Ethan, 9. Antoine and Erniece met in sixth grade in the Young Scholars Program and will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary in September.
“This is great for Firestone Park and the city of Akron,” said Sax, 44, a 1988 Garfield graduate. “Antoine represented all of Akron. It is great for Garfield High School. This is something we have wanted to do at Garfield for a good 15 years.
“No one has worn the number 24 since Antoine. We just don’t order it. When we get new jerseys, we never order 24. I knew this was something I wanted to do. I wanted to do it on a special day. When he was in the pros and he was playing, you just never knew when he was going to be in town. He is done playing now, so we figured this would be a great time to retire his jersey in front of a bunch of kids. He has pretty much funded the Firestone Park pee-wee program for years. He always gives back, so this was a great day to honor him and also coach McGee as well by naming the camp after him.”
Sax said assistant Rick Sims held on to Winfield’s jersey from 1994.
“I often said he is the best player to come out of Garfield,” said McGee, 71, a 1960 Garfield graduate.
“I’ve seen bigger, faster and stronger players than Antoine Winfield, but he is the total package. He is a coach’s dream.”
McGee played for Garfield coach Babe Flossie, served as assistant for 10 years and was coach for 26 years before Sax.
“Antoine’s freshman year he was 135 pounds or so and he might have been the best player on the team, but he only got to play in two games [due to injuries],” McGee said. “After that, he played both ways on the field all the time. … People did not attempt things against him. When he was a senior, he was a free safety and people didn’t throw the ball in the middle of the field. Everything was to the outside or runs and the few that did, they either had an interception or they had to help the receiver off the field.”
Winfield won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1998 as college football’s top defensive back. He played in 191 games in the NFL and made almost 1,000 tackles, had 7.5 sacks, 27 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries and five touchdowns.
Winfield played halfback, tailback and flanker on offense at Garfield, with several big games against Akron rivals in the City Series and against nonleague foes such as Massillon. McGee also coached Winfield in the Ohio North-South All-Star Game in 1995 when he was named the Offensive MVP. Winfield was the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in Ohio during his senior season.
“He was the best tackler I have ever seen in high school,” McGee said.
“I would like to say that we trained him to do that here. The minute he walked out here, he was doing all that stuff. He loves football.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.