Time away from football provided perspective for former Washington wide receiver Jaydon Mickens.

He graduated as one of the most productive receivers in Husky history — his 203 catches from 2012 to 2015 rank second all-time at UW — but his NFL career didn’t play out quite as he’d planned. He went undrafted in 2016, and then bounced around between four teams over the next five years, getting cut on eight different occasions, always teetering on the fringe of a roster, not sure when his next paycheck might come. For a while, he was living out of his car.

Mickens, now 26, eventually turned his attention to entrepreneurial aspirations. He’s dabbled in real estate, and has a goal of owning 30 properties by the time he’s 30. He also started a dog-breeding business with French bulldogs.

Along the way, he never gave up on the NFL — and the NFL hasn’t given up on him. Out of football for most of 2019, and released and re-signed twice by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the past six months, Mickens will suit up for the Bucs in Super Bowl LV on Sunday in Tampa Bay — and, in a fun twist, he could very well end up being the first person to get his hands on the football during the game.

Mickens has found a niche as the Bucs’ kickoff- and punt-return specialist, and it’s a role he relishes.

“I love it — it brings the best out of me,” Mickens said this week in a virtual Super Bowl news conference. “People don’t look at that role as important — it’s the most important role, and the scariest for some people on the field. That ball is up there higher than the rafters, and that ball has to be caught. You can make a play — a big splash play — to change the dynamic of the game.”

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Mickens’ situation, and his stature, could not be more different than the other ex-Husky who will play for Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. That would be Vita Vea, the former first-round draft pick and one of the most talented young defensive linemen in the NFL. He’s a soft-spoken, 347-pound behemoth — the biggest player on Tampa Bay’s roster, and literally twice Mickens’ size. Vea will play a large role in the Bucs’ efforts to try to slow down Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City’s vaunted offense Sunday. (Another former Husky, rookie defensive lineman Benning Potoa’e, has spent most of the season on Tampa Bay’s practice squad.)

Mickens, meanwhile, is, at 170 pounds, the slightest player on the Tampa Bay roster. He might be the most eloquent, too. He has talked openly about his struggles to survive in the NFL, and about the economic realities for players on the fringe. (He would, come to think of it, be an ideal guest speaker for any college coach looking to educate young players about what it really takes to make it in the league.)

As a practice-squad player with Jacksonville in 2017, Mickens said he chose to sleep out of his car for a while to save money. He would often sleep in the Jaguars’ stadium parking lot, then rise early to shower and eat at the team’s facility.

It didn’t make financial sense, he figured, for him to put down a deposit on an apartment, or pay first and last months’ rent up front, knowing he could be cut from the roster at any moment and have to relocate again. He made about $6,500 per week that season while on the practice squad — and considerably more when he was promoted to the active roster for 10 games — but budgeting is difficult when he didn’t know if he’d be employed the next week.

“For me, I’m focused on living life and not how far I came,” Mickens said. “But at the end of the day, when I do look back, it’s amazing.

“… Some people don’t understand (that) this is a temp job. We only get paid for six months out of the year. So sleeping out of my car was a decision to save as much money as I could. If I could put thirty, forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars to the side and continue to work in the offseason — I felt that was necessary. It was a smart move by me and it was a humble move. But this whole journey, being at the Super Bowl, this is what it’s supposed to be.”

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As a reserve receiver, Mickens had seven catches for 58 yards during the 2020 regular season — all on passes from Tom Brady, who will be playing in his record 10th Super Bowl on Sunday. Released by Tampa Bay early in training camp in August, Mickens was re-signed a week later; he made a point to introduce himself to Brady at the beginning of his first practice back with the team.

“I was like, ‘TB, what’s going on man? I’m Jaydon,’ ” Mickens recalled. “He actually said, ‘You know, I’ve heard a lot about you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve heard quite a bit about you.’ ”

In the first team competition period that day, Mickens said he caught a touchdown pass from Brady, on a slant route in the back of the end zone. Brady came up with a new nickname for his new receiver on the spot. “Great job, Mick! Great hands, Mick!” the QB yelled, as Mickens remembered.

“It’s like, man, I’m doing something right when I hear something like that,” Mickens said. “But at the same time, I gotta make sure it’s consistently right so he can always trust me. And when Mick is in the game, Tom knows where Mick is and that ball can be there.”