Jermaine Wiggins had spent the first five years of his NFL career with four different teams when he finally heard the words most pass-catchers covet.
We're going to throw you a lot of footballs. That's what the Minnesota Vikings told him before the 2004 season.
Wiggins, the personable East Boston native, had shown a knack for catching passes before, perhaps never more so than in the Patriots' 2001 playoff win over the Raiders. He had 10 receptions that night in the snow in one of the most memorable games in Patriots history.
But catches had been hard to come by over the next two years, first in Indianapolis, then Carolina. He had 10 grabs in all of the 2002 season, then eight the next regular season. So when the Vikings spoke with him in free agency and told him they envisioned him as a significant presence in their passing game, Wiggins figured, "Why not?"
"I figured I'd take a shot," he said.
Fast-forward to today, and Wiggins has proven to be a sound decision-maker, as well as the productive pass-catching tight end he envisioned he could be. In his first two seasons in Minnesota, he caught 140 passes, the fourth-highest total of any tight end in the NFL over that span.
Now in his third season with the Vikings, the 31-year-old enters Monday night's game against the visiting Patriots with 18 catches for 158 yards and one touchdown on the season. He has played a significant part in helping the Vikings to a 4-2 start under first-year coach Brad Childress, including a 31-13 victory over the defending NFC champion Seahawks in which he caught a 15-yard touchdown pass.
"One thing I've prided myself on is that I do what I have to do," said the 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound Wiggins. "It might not be flashy, but I feel like production-wise, when given the opportunity to make plays, that I can come through."
The Vikings obviously feel the same way, as they signed Wiggins to a five-year contract extension last year, a significant commitment for a player Bill Parcells signed as a rookie free agent with the Jets in 1999. Yet in typical Wiggins fashion, he doesn't view the deal as any type of long-term security, especially after the team underwent a coaching change before this season.
"My attitude in this game is that no matter what it is, I always feel like I'm on a one-year deal, that I have to prove myself year in and year out," he said. "I never get comfortable. You find out what this league is about quickly. It's what have you done for me lately. I think knowing that has helped me stay around for eight years.
"I accept the fact that I have to fight harder than a lot of other guys, but you can't worry about that. All I can do is keep getting better and going out there and making plays."
The Vikings, with veteran quarterback Brad Johnson at the controls of a West Coast offense, have made enough plays when they've needed them to get off to their fast start. The defense leads the league in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (70.8).
"It's just doing the little things we had to do in tight situations, paying attention to little details, fighting to the last whistle," Wiggins said. "We've had some close games and come out and won, and we've had a few close ones and lost. But we've been in every game, and have been able to play four quarters."
As for his time in New England, Wiggins called the 10-catch Snow Bowl against the Raiders "obviously one of the best days of my career. Being able to go out there and do what I did in front of family and friends, and helping the team get to the next level, was special."
When he didn't return to the Patriots the next season, he chalked it up to business as usual.
"There were no hard feelings," he said. "The main thing is just to keep going on. The way I came up [in the league], I realized that and understood it. It was time for me to go on and see where that led me."
His road map pointed to Indianapolis and Carolina, before Minnesota called. Over that time, he and his wife, Tallena, welcomed two boys to the family, 3-year-old Jermaine Jr. (nicknamed Charlie) and 1-year-old Jaden. Their daughter, 9-year-old Takida, has been part of the entire journey.
"I had a great mother [Doreen] who raised me right and now I can pass that down, about becoming a man and giving them the great family attitude," Wiggins said.
Along the way, Wiggins never strayed far from Boston, a place he holds dear to his heart.
"That's home, the city that made me what I am," he said. "I love the area and the people of the area.
"They're hard-working, they don't complain even when dealing with tough things. They're strong people. I think the city has done a lot for me, making me become a man. Not just Boston, but specifically East Boston."