FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Business being business, Vince Wilfork left the New England Patriots after the 2014 season – and after earning his second Super Bowl ring – to join the Houston Texans as a free agent. But his heart never left New England.

And so Wednesday afternoon, he came back to Gillette Stadium to sign a contract allowing him to retire as a New England Patriot.

“I spent 11 great years here,” Wilfork said at his retirement news conference. “My resume wouldn’t have been what it was without New England. For the majority of my career, this was home. So all the memories I’ve made over the years, it wouldn’t have happened without the Patriots.

“I always wanted to come back and be a Patriot for life. I never wanted to leave, but things happened. Business is business. It happened but I knew once I retired, I knew who I wanted to retire with.”

It was a fitting end to a 13-year career that should lead Wilfork to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Was there a better nose tackle than Wilfork in his prime?

I think not. And Bill Belichick, who’s seen his share of HOF players over his legendary coaching career, certainly took the first step toward Wilfork’s enshrinement when he called him “the best defensive lineman I’ve ever coached.”

Heady praise? HOF praise.

“And that’s (as a) player, leader, on the field, off the field, practice player,” Belichick continued.

Wendesday’s news conference was filled with light-hearted stories from Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Wilfork, as well as some heartfelt moments.

Kraft paused when he spoke of the relationship between the Wilfork family and his, especially his late wife, Myra. The Krafts were important to Wilfork, who lost both his parents (David and Barbara) while he was a student at the University of Miami.

Wilfork, always the last player off the field following pre-game warm-ups, had a tradition where he would kiss Myra Kraft on the cheek, and then turn and kiss Robert Kraft on the cheek, before he went to the locker room.

The first game after Myra Kraft died, Wilfork approached Robert Kraft and kissed him on one cheek. Then he kissed him on the other and said, “That’s for Mama.'”

Wilfork broke down briefly while talking about his parents, saying his one regret was that “they didn’t get a chance to see their son live out a dream.”

Wilfork was an enigma as a football player, a 6-foot-2, 325-pound – probably more – mountain of a man who was athletic and nimble. He was not just quick, but fast. He could run. He could hit. And when he wanted to, he wouldn’t be moved.

He was a first-round draft pick in 2004 who joined a Super Bowl championship team and felt – every day of his career, he said – that he had to earn his keep on the roster. He relished every minute, every conversation, with his teammates. “My teammates made me who I was,” he said.

Nose tackle isn’t a glamour position, but Wilfork made the most of his opportunity.

“I always wanted to be great,” he said. “And you can’t be great without taking chances … I was a player who, even though I was a nose tackle, I took chances. I was never afraid to be great.”

He finished his career with 370 tackles in 189 games. He had five forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, 16 sacks and three interceptions. Yes, three interceptions. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection.

But his impact on the Patriots went beyond statistics.

Belichick spoke highly of his leadership skills when he called Wilfork “the captain of the captains.”

He was the guy the other players asked to talk to Belichick when there was an issue. He was the guy they leaned on when they needed help. He was the guy the other players looked to for friendship.

Wilfork, his wife Bianca and their family became the team family. They became involved in the community. They made a difference.

“He was the true leader of the team, the voice of the team,” said Belichick. “That’s how much respect they had for him. And I leaned on him heavily in terms of what the team needed, how to prepare for a game, where we were each week, where we were at certain points of the season.”

Wilfork, who turns 36 in November, said he is retiring because he can no longer mentally prepare for rigors of the NFL. Physically, he said, he could play for several more years. Mentally, it was time to go. His last game, much like his first one, was played at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots defeated the Texans, 34-16, on Jan. 15 in an AFC divisional playoff game.

What’s next?

“I have no plans,” he said. “For the last 20 years, I’ve been on a schedule. The last thing I’m going to do is jump into something right now and jump into a schedule. I’m going to do things I want to do: wake up when I want, fish when I want, grill when I want, golf when I want.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH