Football journey: Tiquan Underwood

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
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Elsa/Getty ImagesTiquan Underwood in his Patriots debut in the preseason vs. Giants.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – There are things that happen behind the scenes that can make a big difference to a player. For receiver Tiquan Underwood, last week’s meeting with quarterback Tom Brady was one of them.

It was early Monday morning, around 2 a.m., and the team had just returned from Philadelphia. In a 38-20 win over the Eagles, Underwood had dropped a would-be touchdown catch and it would have been easy for him to get down on himself.

That’s when Brady stepped in as the two waited for their windshields to defrost in the players' parking lot at Gillette Stadium.

“You go 10 weeks not being on an NFL roster and then you get that one moment you’ve been waiting for the whole time, and for it to be an unsuccessful play …” Underwood said.

“Afterwards, Tom had some great words for me. He said ‘football is a mental game and guys are going to mess up and have mistakes. It’s part of the game and we’re not trying to mess up.’ He said as long as you don’t make it a habit and you continue to get better, you’re going to be all right. That was very encouraging, especially coming from a guy like that.”

That helped Underwood bury the dropped pass, and now he’s hoping to build on his surprising amount of playing time. Coaches seem high on him.

The 25-year-old Underwood shared his “football journey” with ESPNBoston.com this week:

When he first started playing football: “I was 7 years old, playing Pop Warner in Franklin Township in New Jersey. We were the Franklin Warriors. That was my first taste of football.”

What made him go out for football: “Living with my aunt and uncle, I was always watching it on TV. My uncle, Daikiel Shorts, played at Franklin High School and at Delaware State, and he was pretty good. So they signed me up.”

What positions he played: “I started as a tight end, and then moved to running back and quarterback. And then just quarterback from then on. In high school, I played quarterback and receiver and just loved playing offense. I played a little safety in high school, but I just love offense.”

Top memories at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, N.J.: “I would just say the bond we had on our teams. We never lost a conference game. We lost in the playoffs every year, but it was a tight bond and that’s where I really learned it’s all about a team and not individuals. One of my close friends on the team was Rich Gunnell, a receiver who went to Boston College.”

Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesUnderwood at Rutgers.
Why he decided to attend Rutgers: “They were 4-7 my senior year of high school and people were like ‘Why are you going there?’ I wanted to stay home so my family could come to my games, and if I needed anything, it was a close drive home. And what better than to turn a program around than in your home state.”

Top memories at Rutgers, where he started 32 of 49 games and totaled 132 receptions, 1,931 yards and 16 touchdowns: “Louisville was No. 2 in the country and we beat them on national television, a night game. That pretty much put us on the map, from then on. To this day, when I tell people I went to Rutgers, they’ll ask, 'Were you there with Ray Rice when they beat Louisville?’ So there were a lot of people watching that game that night.”

Expectations entering the 2009 NFL draft: “The draft process, you really never know. I got drafted in the seventh round (253rd overall by the Jaguars), but I didn’t have any expectations. When you don’t have expectations, you’re not upset about the outcome. To play in the National Football League, and put on that helmet and jersey, was a dream come true.”

Summing up his two-plus years with the Jaguars (13 games played, 8 receptions): “I was just a young receiver trying to find his way and step through the door. That’s what it’s about in this league. I’ve learned a lot on the business side and on the field as well. My first year, I was down there with Torry Holt and he taught me a lot. Coming here, some players took me under their wing – Deion Branch, Kevin Faulk, Wes Welker, a bunch of the receivers. I’m just trying to learn. The more you know, the better you’ll be. Also, the more you can do, the better off you’ll be. That’s what I’m trying to do, be consistent every day, and show that I’m a smart player.”

Released by the Jaguars and landing briefly with the Patriots: “Whenever you’re let go, no matter what profession you’re in, it’s always a downer. At the end of the day, when one door closes, another one opens. I was fortunate enough to get asked to come here in August, That was my first time here and I tried to make the best of the opportunity, playing against the Giants. It went OK and I was happy with that outcome and the Patriots giving me an opportunity after being let go.”

Getting let go by the Patriots and being without a team for the first 10 weeks of the season: “That was an experience. I was in Arizona at API [Athletes Performance Institute] just grinding away, working out, catching balls. I was out there with my receivers coach, Roy Green, who played for the Cardinals (1979-90) and Eagles (1991-92) and he would tell me every day it was going to pay off for me. He believes in me more than I believe in myself. I still text to him to this day; he was one of the first people I spoke to after the Eagle game last week. I have a friend here in Devin McCourty, and his brother in Tennessee. There are a bunch of guys from Rutgers playing on Sundays and I’d watch the games from a sports bar, keeping up on injuries. It was tough. Everybody’s story and journey is different. You have to go through something to make you appreciate it, and I’ll tell you what, I really appreciate playing football. I will never take it for granted again.”

Working out for teams while seeking a job: “I had a few workouts. It’s a crazy business and you’d see pretty much the same receivers on each workout. With teams having injuries, they need guys. You pack a suitcase, go there, and you don’t know if you’ll be staying or returning to where you came from. I wouldn’t say it’s a fun experience, but it was a good experience for me to have just to know that once you’re back on a team like I am now, don’t take this situation for granted. It gives you a great appreciation for NFL football and being on a roster.”

Favorite team growing up: “To be honest, I never really had one. At one point, it was the Tampa Bay Bucs because my best friend liked them. But I didn’t really have a favorite growing up.”

Taylor Hill/Getty ImagesOne Underwood nickname is 'House Party' because of his hair.
Favorite players growing up: “I’d have to say ‘Prime Time.’ [Deion Sanders], playing with the Niners and Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters. Then he went to the Cowboys with Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. My favorite players now, I’d have to go with Larry Fitzgerald. I looked up to him when he was at Pittsburgh breaking all those records. Then he did it in the NFL. Coach Roy Green sent me to Minnesota to work out with Larry this past summer, and to see his work ethic and the way he grinds every day, it was amazing to see and be a part of it. Now I know I have to elevate my work ethic to be a good receiver.”

Explaining his unique high-top fade haircut: “I started growing my hair out at the end of the season last year. I’m going to have a lower cut as I get older, so I figured I could grow it out now while I’m young and can do something different. I like it because it’s different and gives you personality. I came here and a lot of guys called me Kid ‘n Play or Fresh Prince. It’s pretty cool.”

Summing up his football journey: “I would just say, I’m not the biggest guy as far as weight. People would tell me I should play another sport, that I wasn’t big enough and stuff like that. I was always the underdog, no matter what level it was. I just try to work on an aspect of my game every day. I’m just hungry and I like that role. Nothing was ever handed to me, and I know what it takes to work for it, and that’s what I plan on doing.”

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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