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Good hands serving Patriots’ Tim Wright well

Patriots tight end Tim Wright hauls in a touchdown pass from Tom Brady against the Bills Oct. 12.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Tim Wright has always had good hands, dating to well before he became an NFL pass catcher. As a kid, the future Patriots tight end was still learning the ins and outs of Pop Warner football, just getting a grip on a game that eventually would be his livelihood, when he grabbed his father's hair clippers one day and taught himself how to cut hair — his own hair.

"I used to stand on the toilet, or the sink counter,'' Wright recalled the other day, laughing as he conjured up an imaginary bathroom mirror and clippers as he chatted in a corner of the Patriots locker room. "And I'd just be like, 'OK, now it's my turn.' I still cut my own hair to this day. It's definitely a trait of mine that I'm going to pass on to my son.''


Wright, who grew up near Asbury Park in New Jersey and was an offensive force at Wall [Township] High School, kept clipping his way right through high school.

"Oh my gosh, Timmy loves it, loves it, loves it!'' said his mother, Cheryl Wright, who still lives in the condo where her son once routinely cut his teammates' hair. "They would all come knockin' at the door. And I'd say, 'Yeah, go ahead, he's in the kitchen waitin' for you.' I actually had a TV in there. They'd watch football, college sports, basketball . . . and Timmy would just be there, cutting their hair.''

At Rutgers, where Wright developed into a go-to wide receiver for coach Greg Schiano, he doubled as the Scarlet Knights' go-to hair stylist. The coaching staff ultimately provided him with a professional salon chair, trimmed in black leather, and when Stylin' Tim Wright wasn't running pass routes or studying toward a degree in criminal justice, he would cut the hair of teammates, coaches, friends, professors . . . anyone and everyone who made their way to the cozy gathering space just steps from the dressing room sauna.


"Man, do we miss Tim around here,'' said Jason Baum, the Rutgers sports information director for the football team. "Just a super, super guy, a joy to be around . . . and, yeah, not bad at cutting hair, too.''

Baum was one of Wright's regular customers. In fact, when back surgery sidelined Baum for a month, keeping him away from office duties, the Scarlet Knights' pass-catcher/hair-cutter showed up at his house, clippers in hand.

"How about that . . . a house call,'' said Baum. "He gave me a haircut right in my own kitchen. I couldn't thank him enough.''

The salon chair, with Wright's name inscribed on it, remains in storage at the Rutgers athletic facility.

"I need to pick it up one day,'' Wright said.

Perhaps when he's not so busy.

These days, although he still shops regularly for clippers (Andis his preferred brand), Wright is far more concerned with keeping his hands prepped for whatever business Tom Brady fires his way. In Thursday night's 27-25 win over the Jets, Brady didn't connect with Wright. But the 24-year-old, who caught five TD passes as a rookie last year with Tampa, was on the field for nearly a quarter of New England's 87 offensive snaps, often allowing top dog Rob Gronkowski some extra operating room in a double-tight-end alignment.

In the prior two games, Wright began to emerge as an interesting option in the Patriots' reawakening passing game, one that has been searching for someone with his size (6-4/220 pounds) and tool kit (adequate speed, adept hands) to fill the void left by Aaron Hernandez (indicted on three murder charges). Brady connected with Wright five times, once for a touchdown, vs. the Bengals in the fifth game of the season, and they combined again for a TD against the Bills, with Wright popping wide open in the end zone to haul in Brady's soft lob.


"I feel like it helps out a lot, having another tight end out on the field,'' said Gronkowski, who caught five more passes for 68 yards Thursday night and has four TDs this season. "Tim's a great player, works hard. And he's been making a lot of plays. I feel like it opens up space, takes away some of the coverage, and we help each other out out there, so I think it's great having him out there.''

Despite a solid career at Rutgers, where he finished with four TDs and 596 career receiving yards, Wright went unclaimed in the 2013 NFL draft. He had alternative career options, including, his mother recalled, sincere interest from the New Jersey State Police to be a trooper and feelers from the FBI (for which two of Cheryl Wright's cousins are agents). But he was intent on staying on the field.

"My guess, my gut [why he wasn't drafted], would be that he wasn't the fastest guy,'' said Mark Dominik, the former Tampa Bay general manager who signed Wright as a free agent with the Bucs. "His 40 time wasn't great. He had good hands in college and I think that's obviously the No. 1 trait at tight end or wide receiver — first you better catch the ball or your career is going to be pretty short. I think he didn't test well coming out of Rutgers. But obviously, he decided to [sign with] Tampa, in part because of Greg, and I think the career path for him has been very good.''


Despite not being drafted, said Wright, he had Schiano, who was now the Bucs' coach, urging him to sign in Tampa and he also had a strong offer to join the Raiders.

"I couldn't resist Tampa,'' recalled Wright. "You know, someone I was under for four years in college. I was like, 'Man, this is probably the best decision for me.' And it turned out to be."

Part and parcel in joining the Bucs, though, was the requirement to make a change in career path. Schiano and Dominik both felt Wright's best shot at sticking in the NFL was as a hybrid tight end, more a pass-catcher who could be spotted into games to try to exploit mismatches in coverage. Wright may have lacked the weight and bulk of a bonafide No. 1 tight end, but he had hands, game sense, and enough speed to get open.

"He came in and really put his heart and soul into a position change," recalled Dominik, dismissed late in 2013 by the Bucs and now an ESPN analyst. "That's a hard thing to do at the National Football League level. A lot of people will say, 'Well, just move him here or move him there and see what happens.' A lot of the times, those people fail because it is too hard of a transition. Tim really worked hard on his body and the mental part of it. He knew he was going to have to add some weight and some real muscle mass to create stalemates and get into position and not get beat up at the line of scrimmage. So, that's where he really impressed . . . to build his body to play the position of tight end at the NFL level.''


Ex-Syracuse fullback Chris Barnes coached Wright for two seasons at Wall High after Wright transferred there from neighboring Neptune in the spring of his sophomore year. Wright was already 6-3, a towering presence in the school's halls, said Barnes, who recalls Wright being immediately embraced by students and teachers.

"He walks into a room, it changes a room, with his charisma and how humble he is,'' said Barnes, a Wall High guidance counselor who is no longer the school's football coach. "Our faculty thought the world of him. He was only in our school for a little over two years and he was a leader in so many ways — he was even the homecoming king on the day of homecoming game senior year. That tells you what kids thought of him.''

Brennen Fitzsimmons, who teamed with Wright at forward on the Neptune High junior varsity basketball team their freshman year, still stays in touch with his frontcourt partner via Facebook.

"It's awesome to see a picture of Tim catching a TD pass in the NFL and to think, 'Wow, I grew up with that guy!' '' said Fitzsimmons, these days a coach of the Rutgers Division 3 soccer squad. "It's not like I was his best friend, or anything, but I can tell you he was a great teammate, a great basketball player, and obviously even a better football player. Above everything else, an even better person.''

Wright and wife Jodiann have a 16-month-old son named Major. Jodiann and Major, who one day will be schooled in dad's fine art of cutting hair, sometimes joins members of Wright's extended family, including mom, dad (Davel), grandparents, and cousins, at Patrick's Pub, a sports bar and grille in Neptune, to watch Wright's games on TV.

"We love having them here,'' said pub owner Pat Fitzsimmons, the brother of Wright's former frontcourt partner at Neptune High. "It's first-come, first-serve and they come in early and lock up our large room with the 72-inch TV. Kinda funny, because here we are in New Jersey and everyone in there's rooting for the Pats. This is really Giants country. But that's OK. We cater to 'em all.''

Wright graduated from Wall High in 2009, and had multiple colleges, including the likes of Iowa, UConn, Michigan State, Syracuse, and Boston College, eager to have him join their programs. But Wright opted for Rutgers, the closest school to his home.

"I remember Coach Schiano asking me, 'Chris, what do you think, is there anything we need to be concerned about with Tim?' '' recalled Barnes, who spent 18 years coaching high school football. "And I said, 'In all my years, I really don't have anything you need to be concerned about, coach.' And he said, 'Nothing, really?' I said, 'No, nothing . . . I am telling you right now, you have a terrific young man.' ''

That Wright, who couldn't get a sniff in the NFL draft, and who ultimately was swapped for New England standout Logan Mankins, has continued to make an impression, isn't a surprise to the man who signed him, Dominik.

"If it's taught me something, it's to look and ask what's most important,'' said Dominik. "The hands are the most important part of the position, because if you can't catch you are not going to have a job. And that he's got the character and the fortitude that you say, 'Look, he runs good enough, he's got good hands, and he's an awesome kid, he's got the tools.' He may never be, you know, Tony Gonzalez, but if he can become a second tight end in an offense, that's an awesome choice."

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.