"I'm kind of a strange athlete, I guess," Winborn told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently. "I don't really look at other athletes as inspirations or whatever. I think it's great for them if they do it, but I wanted this for me. In my mind, it was never an option. I knew I would come back and finish."
In a long line of Vanderbilt linebackers who have advanced to the NFL, Winborn may be the greatest of all. He played for three seasons under Woody Widenhofer, was named All-SEC all three years, and led the SEC in tackles two of those years. He attended school for four full years, but after being drafted in the second round by the 49ers in 2001, he opted out of school a few credits short of a degree and with a year of eligibility remaining.
In last year's 49ers season opener against the New York Giants, Winborn showed flashes of the greatness he had exhibited at Vanderbilt. After registering 16 tackles, a sack and two tipped passes, Winborn was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Two weeks later, however, Winborn suffered an injury to his medial collateral ligament. Originally he was scheduled to miss only a month, but the ligament failed to heal properly, and it ultimately cost him the remainder of the season.
It was a painful lesson that taught him that a professional football career can be over in an instant, and that a degree is a valuable thing to fall back on.
"I'm blessed to be here in the NFL right now, but I knew that if it didn't happen for me, my degree would be a pretty good backup plan," Winborn told the Star-Telegram.
After a successful surgery in January and five months of rehabilitation, Winborn appears ready to reclaim a spot in the Niners' linebacking rotation. He was impressive in the 49ers' June mini-camp, and seemed to have regained most if not all of his speed and ferociousness. He will compete with starters Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich for a spot in San Francisco's 4-3 defensive scheme.
"I'm just out there playing hard, trying to be the player that I was," Winborn said. "I don't question myself about being able to play or anything like that. I just want to go out and help the team as much as I can."
As a little-known recruit from Wetumpka, Ala. who signed with Vanderbilt in 1997, Winborn quickly established himself during a redshirt season as one of the team's most ferocious hitters. He also became known for the long hours he spent in the film room.
Winborn told the Star-Telegram that he chose Vanderbilt in 1997 for its academic reputation.
"In high school, some schools were looking at me, but when Vanderbilt came into the picture, that was the end of it," he said.
Considering his rough-and-tumble childhood, Winborn's rise to the NFL is almost Hollywood material. He grew up in a two-room house in rural Alabama. He never knew his father, and his mother was jailed multiple times due to a drug addiction.
"I figured that there were two ways for me to make it," Winborn said last year in an interview with CNN/SI. "I could make it through athletics. I was blessed with speed and football ability, but I knew that wasn't enough. What if I got hurt, or I didn't last in the NFL? So I knew I had to make it in the classroom, too. I had to have something to fall back on.
"I was always asking people about their jobs, car salesmen, real estate agents. I had this hunger to know. They were making money, but they were human, just like me, and at one time they had to be taught their trade. So why couldn't I learn, too?
"I love football. I love coming to work every day, the practices, the film study. But I never forget that it all can be taken away from you in a minute. The risk of injury is always there. That's why, at 23, I'm preparing for the future.
"I've never forgotten where I came from."
Winborn will successfully complete his degree within six years of entering school, which is the time period used by the NCAA in computing a school's graduation rate.