Ernest Wilford's career has come full circle and he has enjoyed every minute of it. After joining the Jaguars as a fourth-round pick in 2004, Wilford spent four seasons with the club and played in three postseason games.
Following the 2007 season, Wilford became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Miami Dolphins. The former Virginia Tech standout returned to the Jaguars late in the preseason this year after being released, and scored his first touchdown of the season last Sunday against Houston.
He will face his former team on Sunday but holds no ill will toward the organization. When you get to know him, you find out he has no enemies. He plans to retire in Jacksonville with his wife, Robyn, and continue to operate the Ernest Wilford Foundation.
I sat down with Wilford this week to discuss his love for the city of Jacksonville and what transpired to return him to where his NFL career began.
When did you first hear you were returning to Jacksonville after playing a season in Miami?
My agent is the first one that told me. I didn't know what was going to happen once I was released by the Dolphins. I knew I could still play the game but I didn't know what team saw value in me.
You arrived in Jacksonville so late in the preseason (August 25) with really no idea what the Jaguars had planned for you.
I didn't. I took a leap of faith. Gene (Smith) called me and said they wanted me back. He said they were not going to play me at receiver but as a tight end. I was fine with whatever was going to help me make the roster.
How did you handle the switch from wide receiver to tight end with Miami?
I was playing a little tight end in training camp and they told me the more things that I could do would better my chances of making the roster.
I remember talking with you prior to this year's roster cutdowns in early September and you really had no idea what was going to happen. You only saw action in the final preseason game against Washington.
I didn't know which direction they were going to go. I had a good relationship with the organization. They know I'm going to come in every week and prepare to play on Sundays. I have stayed healthy so I knew I had a good opportunity to make the roster, but the doubt was still there.
You don't find a lot of guys that leave as unrestricted free agents and then return to their former team. I think it speaks volumes to the kind of person you are and the fact that you left on good terms.
Your name is the most important thing you have so I always make sure I'm doing the right thing. Make sure I'm studying my playbook. Make sure I'm in the community because those things off the field are a key factor in what you do on the field. If you keep your nose clean and have all your connections in order then good things happen to good people. I'm definitely a good person and this is a great organization. When I left on good terms then I had an opportunity to come back.
Why is Jacksonville so special to you?
I'm in love with my church home, I love the community, I enjoy playing golf here. People help my foundation. The people here in Jacksonville love to give back and that's what I'm all about. I want to give back to the kids. When people help support me I am very thankful for that.
Looking back on it, are you glad you went to Miami?
I'm so glad I went to Miami; it was definitely a learning experience. I never thought coming from here where I was the leading receiver that with me going there the tide would turn the way it did. Everything happens for a reason and I'm just so glad to be back here. I became a better man because of my experience in Miami.
When you entered the locker room in Jacksonville again, you probably had to introduce yourself to a lot of new players.
Totally different players. There were so many new faces. All of these guys that I played with weren't here anymore. I think it's a change for the better. Gene (Smith) is moving it in the right direction.
When you left following the 2007 season, the team was coming off its first playoff win since 1999. Now you find yourself right in the middle of another playoff race but with a younger group of guys.
It was about the veterans in 2007, but these young guys are hungry to get better. You see (Derek) Cox out there and he played really well last week on Andre Johnson. You have guys like (Derrick) Harvey and Quentin Groves making plays. You still have some of the veterans making play. It's a great nucleus here. We have a good team. A lot of people doubted us but as a team we know what we have here. We know it's going to be a special season for us but we have to continue to stay in our playbooks, stay hungry and stay focused.
The tight ends really showed up last week with Marcedes Lewis continuing to play well and then you had the emergence of rookie Zach Miller.
It starts with Marcedes at the point of attack for the running game, and then him having an opportunity to catch the ball. He's one of the NFL's best tight ends for explosive catches. Zach Miller has continued to develop his game and he's very explosive. Myself, I can do a little bit of everything. I can block on the perimeter and I can catch the ball and finish plays. We have an explosive group and I'm excited about them.
Not many players leave for a year and come back to their own section in the end zone.
I call it the "Wilford Zone." My foundation is still based out of here so my fans stayed in contact with me even when I was in Miami. They always wished me well and then when I came back they greeted me like I had never left. That's why I go to the Wilford Zone after each game, just to show my appreciation to my fans and the foundation.
Have they figured out yet that you are now a tight end?
(Laughs) They still think I'm a receiver. They're like, 'When are you going to catch the ball?' As long as I'm on the field then I'm happy.
Before you hang the cleats up for good, what are some your goals?
I would love to have a Super Bowl ring and make a Pro Bowl. You never know what's going to happen. I would love to finish my career here in Jacksonville and retire here. That's my goal. Hopefully one day I can check all of that off my list.