Following a time-honored tradition, coaches gave him the quick once-over. They noted his diminutive size and questionable hands. Clearly, this freshman merited a trip to the purgatory of skill positions. "Cornerback!" they yelled.

Antoine Winfield matriculated at Ohio State on a summer day in 1995. After only a few moments, his life as a hard-hitting safety had ended. "Coming out of high school," he said, "I was maybe 175 pounds. There are not many 175-pound safeties. Since I was small and quick, they said, 'You're a cornerback.' "

And so began Winfield's journey down the road of physical mismatches, 60 percent failure rates and $34.8 million contracts. Of public embarrassment, restrictive rules and high rewards for the skilled.

Few athletes set out to play cornerback, and even less excel at it. The Pro Football Hall of Fame, in business for 41 years, has enshrined only nine of them in their 225-member club. Many players settle for the position; ironically, some physical deficiency often eliminates them from a more desired but less taxing role.

Cornerback is so uniquely difficult that Winfield -- who never has made a Pro Bowl, has six career interceptions and is 4½ inches shorter than the average NFC North receiver -- was the most sought-after free-agent cornerback this offseason.

The Vikings won a bidding war for his services, luring him with a $10.8 million bonus -- a figure that tripled the largest bonus they previously had given a veteran free agent. Winfield's six-year, $34.8 million deal, in fact, is larger than any contract for a Vikings player not named Culpepper or Moss.

Winfield's aggressive nature and sound fundamentals promise competence, if not stardom, for a team that in desperation has trotted out 13 starting cornerbacks the past five seasons. Winfield's ascendance -- in a Star Tribune review of league personnel, he ranked among the top 10 NFL cornerbacks -- speaks as much about the state of the position as it does about his distinctive set of skills.

"Bringing in Antoine maybe doesn't give us a great cornerback," coach Mike Tice said. "But it gives us two very, very good corners [in Winfield and Brian Williams]. We haven't had two very, very good corners on the roster in a while."

Accepting failure

Some would argue, in fact, that the Vikings haven't boasted a decent pair of corners since Corey Fuller and Jimmy Hitchcock in 1998. Audray McMillian was their last cornerback selected to the Pro Bowl; McMillian did not play in that 1992 game, meaning Carl Lee (1990) was the last Vikings cornerback to appear in a Pro Bowl.

What gives? Are the Vikings star-crossed? Or is that 14-year drought an appropriate indication of the position's difficulty?

"When you play cornerback, you're under the gun," Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. "You're living on an island. Everyone sees you out there, and they don't notice much until somebody catches a ball on you or a big play occurs. It's a position that takes a certain personality and mentality to play."

Indeed, the most difficult task for a cornerback might take place before he ever steps on a field. "Because it is so easy," said Williams, "to get beat out there."

Last season, NFL teams completed 58.8 percent of their passes. Not every reception indicates a defensive failure, but it is fair to project a cornerback will give up a completion about 40 percent of the time the ball is thrown to his man.

The best any cornerback can do is to accept this premise: You will lose many battles. In their private little netherworld, five consecutive completions followed by an interception is a net victory.

"You're out there playing against some of the greatest athletes in the world," Winfield said. "You have to stay confident in yourself. At corner, there's always this saying: You've got to have a short memory. Of course you're going to get beat. You're not going to make every play. You're not going to stop a receiver from catching every ball. You just go out there, and when it's your chance to make a play, to take advantage of it."

Cornerbacks face the most inherent disadvantage of football: The offensive player knows where he's planning to run. The defensive player must anticipate and chase.

At least two tools exist to help narrow the gap between knowing and guessing: studying tendencies and maximizing specific athletic skills.

Cottrell, for one, teaches cornerbacks to focus on the splits receivers take on the line of scrimmage. In other words, a receiver's position can provide clues about what route he will run.

"You can narrow that gap a lot of you know what to look for," Winfield said. "If a receiver comes out 2 yards outside the [yard-line] numbers, you know they can give you this many routes. If they're on the numbers, the percentages go down. When you get a tight split, they're going to run across the field or do something outside. You have to study a lot of film at this position to try to get an advantage."

Athletically, it should come as no surprise that a cornerback should possess speed and quickness. Less known, however, is the value of what coaches and personnel men refer to as "transitional speed." That term refers to a player's ability to transfer the speed of his movement when a receiver changes direction or breaks off his route entirely -- in essence, allowing him to keep up with the receiver.

"You've got to be shifty," Vikings cornerback Ken Irvin said. "You've got to be able to come out of your breaks and accelerate, to have a quick transition when you come out of your break."

This preeminent skill has made the position a haven for shorter players, even while receivers grow taller. This season, for example, the average starting receiver in the NFC North will be 6-1½. The average starting cornerback is 2¼ inches shorter, at 5-11¼.

Three of the NFL's best cornerbacks are taller than that average; Oakland's Charles Woodson and Baltimore's Chris McAlister are 6-1, while Denver's Champ Bailey is 6-0. But such specimens, says Vikings safety Corey Chavous, are rare.

The 6-1 Chavous, who played cornerback for 4½ years, says the unique ability to change direction at full speed is more natural for a shorter player.

"You've got to be able to drop your hips to change direction," Chavous said, "and when you're taller, it's hard to drop them quickly. Even if you're tall and have good hips, you still have to drop them to transfer weight. That's harder for a big corner to do."

Big hitter

Winfield, of course, possesses the same 5-9 frame he took to Ohio State nine years ago. He has filled out -- all the way to 180 pounds. Yet in a list of all his attributes, from coverage skills to leadership ability, the most unlikely characteristics rise to the top: hitting and tackling.

Rooted in his days as a high school safety, Winfield is the anti-Deion: He prowls the field looking for contact rather than avoiding it. Used extensively in run support, Winfield led the Bills with 106 tackles in 2001 and made 124 tackles last season.

"A lot of people have a myth about what tackling is about," said Vikings assistant secondary coach Kevin Ross, who rattled a few helmets as an NFL safety for 14 seasons. "It's about explosion and speed, the speed you approach people with. Antoine can run through people. He has good explosion for his size. Most of the time, a running back or a receiver will try to run over him. But he wants to tackle you. That's when bad things happen [to the offensive player]."

Winfield, congenial and soft-spoken off the field, merely shrugs his shoulders.

"I love to hit," he said. "That's one thing I love to do. I don't know. It's something I do. There's a knock on a lot of corners -- that he's a good cover guy that doesn't tackle. With me, I really don't see that. I cover. I tackle. I do it all."

In fact, many observers consider Winfield's willingness to hit a primary component of his coverage skills.

"He puts fear in receivers just with his tackling alone," Irvin said. "He has a way of making you remember him and pay special attention to him. You don't see him miss many at all."

Said Chavous: "When you see him with a smile on his face, it's not because he's playing the game in a soft manner. It's because he probably just knocked somebody out."

While Winfield's post-catch physicality is undeniable, he considers himself a pure technician prior to it -- a concession to his height disadvantage. He rarely puts his hands on receivers in press coverage, preferring to use his quickness to stay in the receiver's path and disrupt his timing.

That face-guarding technique should help him this season as officials enforce a strict 5-yard limit to making contact with receivers on a pass play.

"For me," he said, "bump-and-run coverage is about your feet. It's not about your hands."

Winfield has a few other tricks to compensate for height as well, skills he honed this summer while working against the Vikings' 6-4 Randy Moss every day in practice. On certain routes -- especially a fade in the end zone -- Winfield doesn't attempt to jump with a receiver.

Instead, he uses NFL rules to his advantage -- a catch is not a catch until both feet have hit the ground.

"I like to play over top of the receiver and just play his hands," Winfield said. "I can't outjump most guys. That's not going to happen. So when he goes up for the ball, I'll just play through his hands and try to break it up [on the way down.]"

We know what you're thinking: If Winfield is some kind of modern-day hybrid of Ronnie Lott and Deion Sanders, then why hasn't he managed more than six career interceptions? He's not so feared that the ball is never thrown his way? Is he?

Winfield is the first to admit he has dropped more potential interceptions than he's caught. He estimates at least seven balls slipped through his hands while playing for Buffalo; some Bills observers would add a few to that total.

However, playing alongside ball-hawking safeties Chavous and Brian Russell, Winfield said he feels confident that he will provide what the Vikings have paid for.

"In talking to coach Tice during the free agency period," Winfield said, "he told me he wanted an experienced corner. He wanted a guy that's real aggressive, a guy that's not afraid of contact. I fit that profile."

Hallowed tradition or otherwise.