KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — On April 24, 2020, Oak Ridge-native Taumarice “Tee” Higgins’ childhood dream of playing in the NFL became a reality.

Growing up Higgins always had a ball in his hands, playing in the backyard at his grandmother’s house with his cousin when he was 5 years old.

“Either a basketball, football or baseball, they’ve always competed against each other,” Higgins’ mother Camillia Stewart said. “Tee always kept the ball; he always kept the ball in his hands.”

Stewart says her son’s football career started when her sister put him into the sport at 5 years old, however it took some convincing to keep the football in his hands.

“His first year, he quit like five times, and she bribed him with the Hot Wheels cars,” Stewart said.

With the will to get his hands on some Hot Wheels, he played the whole game.

“He just continued to play and got tougher and tougher,” Stewart said.

From toys to trophies

The older he got and continued to play football, the rewards changed from toy cars to titles and trophies.

In high school, Higgins won the Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Award for Class 6A his junior and senior year. In his senior campaign he logged 944 yards on 64 catches and 16 touchdowns, holding the school record for most career reception yards.

The wide receiver was equally as talented in basketball averaging 15 points and 6.6 rebounds per game his junior season and was a finalist for the Mr. Basketball Award.

Tee Higgins was a Mr. Basketball finalist for the Oak Ridge Wildcats.

In college it was more of the same.

In his three years playing for Clemson, Higgins left with two national championship appearances, a national title, tied the program record for career receiving touchdowns with Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, became the first player in school history with double-digit touchdown receptions in consecutive seasons, and was the 2019 ACC Championship game MVP, among many other conference and All-American honors.

His accolades and achievements all lead to his biggest catch of his career.

FILE – In this Sept. 21, 2019, file photo, Clemson’s Tee Higgins reacts after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Charlotte, in Clemson, S.C. Higgins was selected to The Associated Press All-Atlantic Coast Conference football team, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)

Bengal blood

Higgins grew up rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals and his favorite player, veteran wide receiver A.J. Green, every Sunday.

Higgins said he modeled his game after Green’s growing up because he was a “big guy too.”

On the second night of the 2020 NFL Draft the 21-years-old’s football career came full circle.

“I was telling my mom, “If the Bengals select me it’s going to be crazy because it’s my favorite team’. They called and the emotions just started. I started crying, my mom, my sister … started crying. It was a great moment.”

Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver

Higgins was surrounded by his support system that night that consisted of the strong women in his life who cheered him on in the Boys and Girls Club days, at Blankenship Field on Friday nights, at Death Valley on Saturdays, and now, Sundays at Paul Brown Stadium.

“When he got that call it was so surreal,” recalled Stewart. “It was awesome, then, just to see the emotion in him because Tee has always been a guy who never showed his emotion. Here’s a guy whose just so humble … just to see him make it and his reaction, it was priceless.”

First year on the big stage

Higgins was one of the record 13 receivers selected in the first two rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft, picked 33rd overall by the Bengals in the second round.

“Where we got him, when we got him in the second round, (it) is unbelievable now that you look back on it,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said.

Higgins continue to keep the ball in his hands.

The rookie receiver made quite the impression in his first season in the NFL recording 67 receptions for 908 yards and 6 touchdowns. His toe-tapping catches on the sideline and grabs in double coverage earned him a Pro Football Focus grade of 75.9 and a spot on the all-rookie team.

“He’s made plays against everyone in this league. He’s got an extremely bright future,” Taylor said.

Higgins even tied a franchise record with Cris Collinsworth for most receptions made by a Bengal rookie.

“To know that my son is in the NFL, it’s crazy, it’s crazy,” Stewart said, holding back emotion. “Just to think about and see him on TV, oh my gosh. I can’t even really explain it. I tear up too every Sunday when I watch him. It’s a blessing.”

Higgins and Stewart said the continued support from East Tennessee has been rewarding in itself.

“They’re behind me no matter what. If I have a bad game, they’re still behind me, rooting me on, telling me that it’s going to be alright you’re going to bounce back things like that,” Higgins said. “The support there [Oak Ridge] is unbelievable.”

“Tee Higgins Fans for Life,” as Stewart calls them, will have to wait until next season to see Higgins play on Sundays after the Bengal’s season ended in a loss to the Ravens in week 17.

Transition from college to NFL

More times than not whenever anyone levels up from one phase of their life to another, there is a transition period.

While the stat line says otherwise for Higgins, the rookie wideout said the biggest transition for him from college to the pros was the speed of the game.   

“You really have to use your technique here in the league,” Higgins said. “You got to be on top of your film because if you don’t know how to release on certain guys or things like that then it’s easy for them to stop you.”

While Higgins navigated the transition from college to the pros this past year, so did his mother.

Stewart said she went through a transition of her own. From waking him up for class in high school and making sure he was on top of his work, to putting trust in Clemson to help pick up those duties, to putting more trust in Higgins that he can do that on his own — she said she has had to learn to let go.

“He proved to me, ‘Mom, I’m a young man’,” Stewart said. “I’ve had to sit back and let go. I’m trusting God and the process and backing up a little bit, not a lot but enough.”

Adding to the tradition of Oak Ridge football

Higgins is now one of eight former Wildcats to represent East Tennessee at the highest level, according to Oak Ridge Athletic Director Mike Mullins.

  • Tee Higgins
  • Bob Winkel
  • Stan Fritts
  • Jason McAddley
  • Mike Caldwell
  • Danny Sanders
  • Eric Thomas

Higgins is only the third alum in Oak Ridge High School history to have their jersey retired.

Higgins said one thing he learned from playing under Joe Gaddis is to stay “laser-focused,” even when times are tough.  

“I’ve always kept that mindset to say laser focused and it will all work out, and it has so far,” said Higgins.

Aside from his athletic ability, that focus he learned from Gaddis is an intangible trait that his NFL head coach has taken notice of.

“Being around him doesn’t feel like you’re around a rookie,” Taylor said. “Matured is not the right word because he has had the right focus since day one.”

Playing through hardships

Higgins’ route to the NFL was not an easy one.

Higgins opened up about his mother’s battle with a drug addiction at the NFL Combine, that started when he was around 5 years old, according to Stewart.

“It took me a minute to figure out what was important,” said Stewart. “One day the lightbulb came on. I was tired. … Once I got myself together everything else fell in place.”

Stewart said she had to get clean for herself and learn to love herself again.

“I couldn’t want if or them, I had to want it for myself,” Stewart said.

She thanks her mom, Higgns’ father and his sister for being there for him during the rough times.

“God kept his hand on him [Higgins] and my daughter and brought them through it, and He brought me through it,” said Stewart. “And now we’re a happy family. We’re growing.”

“My kids were able to forgive me for the mistakes that I made. I’ve been able to forgive myself. My family has forgiven me. God hands his hands on us. I owe it all the God, he’s the reason.”

Stewart said with her addiction is in the past as the three of them continue to look forward to a bright future.

Higgins said his mother and his sister are his biggest support system.

Stewart was only able to attend a few Bengals games in Cincinnati this past season due to COVID-19 rules and regulations that surrounded this unprecedented season.

Even though he is playing in a new city, for a new team, in a new league, one thing has stayed the same: He can hear his mom and sister cheering him on from the stands.