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2020 NFL Draft: Antoine Winfield Jr. on putting Gophers on map

NFL.com's "Why I Play" series provides a thoughtful peek into the minds of the next generation of NFL players to better understand what drives them to make it in the league. Other prospects included in this series: TCU DT Ross Blacklock, Auburn DT Derrick Brown, LSU CB Kristian Fulton, TCU CB Jeff Gladney, Florida edge Jonathan Greenard, USC OT Austin Jackson, Utah CB Jaylon Johnson, Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor and Michigan LB Josh Uche. This edition's featured prospect is ...

2020 NFL Draft standing: Winfield sits at No. 47 in NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah's ranking of the top 150 prospects and is projected to be an early- to mid-round draft pick.

Prospect bio (from NFL.com draft profile): Son of three-time NFL All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr., Winfield Jr. didn't waste time making his mark on the Minnesota Gophers football team. In nine starts a true freshman in 2016, he posted 52 tackles, 2.5 for loss, four pass breakups and an interception returned 82 yards for a TD. He missed a majority of the next two seasons with hamstring and foot injuries, respectively, but came back for a healthy senior season. In 13 starts in 2019, Winfield was named a first-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten selection after leading the Gophers with 88 tackles (3.5 for loss, three sacks) and seven interceptions (returning one for a score), along with two forced fumbles.

This interview, conducted via phone call on April 17, was condensed and edited for clarity.

How I started

My father played in the NFL for 14 years, so I was playing football when I was really young. As early as I can remember, my dad put a football in my hand. My earliest memory of watching him play was when I was 12 or 13 years old. It was a Vikings home game toward the end of his career, and I remember I was excited to watch him make plays. Watching him make plays, it felt like we were making plays. If the Vikings were on the road, we would watch the game on TV and play crush the carrier when the offense was on the field. But when defense was on the field, we'd watch.

I wanted to go to Minnesota to help change the culture there, and our class was able to do that. We did things Minnesota football hasn't done in 115 years. We put a lot of work in to flip the switch and put the Gophers on the map.

My biggest challenge

I was hurt two of my four years at Minnesota, and I learned a lot about myself. People generally want things right now and it doesn't always happen that way. Throughout that process, I learned to be patient. I learned a lot about the game, and I helped coach guys at my position when I was hurt. I watched extra film and made sure guys knew their assignments. I believe I had to go through that for the knowledge, and I don't think I'd be where I am today if not for that experience.

My motivation

My family motivates me the most. I want to make them proud every single day. I play for them and my passion for the game is what motivates me to reach my potential. I've dreamed of playing in the NFL for a long time. I have leaned on my parents day in and day out. They have been super supportive throughout this process, and I know they are there with anything I need.

A positive influence on me

My girlfriend, Tessa, has affected me maybe more than she knows -- in a good way. We've been dating for six years, ever since high school, and she's really supportive and kept me doing the right things. I can count on her for anything.

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter @BCersosimo.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) makes a deep catch as Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Kyzir White (44) trails on the play during an NFL football game , Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif.

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