Sitting on the stage at his draft party, outfitted in an Amiri bandana jacquard denim baseball shirt and pants — a draft-day fit his mom and sisters helped pick out — cornerback Nate Wiggins looked and felt good.

Earlier that morning, he had exercised off some of the jitters with a former high school coach turned “big brother,” Stephon Brown, and a group of receivers. All of them, Brown said, were looking for some peace of mind and a reminder to “keep the main thing the main thing.”

After a long heart-to-heart and a nap later that day, they loaded into the Maybach sent over by the venue hosting their draft party and cruised through the city where everything began. As the Atlanta skyline passed by their windows, they reflected on Wiggins’ journey.

Wiggins was headed to a venue full of people who have loved and supported him as far back as his rec football days.

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Ravens cornerback Nate Wiggins, left, spent the day of the draft with his former coach and mentor Stephon Brown working out and then celebrating. (Courtesy of Stephon Brown) (Stephon Brown)

But their eyes weren’t the only ones on him. As a projected first-rounder, Wiggins had gained national attention. So there were cameras, lots of them. Everyone, from high school friends to people from Clemson, had their phone cameras, but the big ones were sent by ESPN.

And then …

“The picks started coming; the picks started coming; the picks started coming,” Brown said.

Many mock drafts had Wiggins going in the 20s and he was ranked 24th on Arif Hasan’s Consensus Big Board. So, as the picks passed, the doubts started to creep in.

And then the Jaguars were on the clock with the 23rd overall pick. Both Wiggins and his agent, Edward Dandy, thought that was the team. It felt as close to certain as it gets. Instead, the Jaguars called for a wide receiver.

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That shook Wiggins. But the eyes and the cameras were still on him. His mother, Tamika Lucas, is very emotionally attuned to her youngest, Wiggins’ sisters said, and left the stage for the back. Wiggins followed.

Away from the cameras, surrounded by just his mother, his trainer and Brown, Wiggins asked, “Why?” Why was he falling? What did he do wrong?

“Keep your head up,” they told him. It didn’t matter if Wiggins went in the first round or not.

He’d already broken a “generational curse,” as his sisters put it.

Running from contact

Wiggins’ story begins in Atlanta in 1993, when Tamika had to give up her basketball scholarship because she gave birth to her oldest, Tanesha Lucas.

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Her parents helped the best they could, but Tamika put her head down and went to work to provide for her child. Then Jonae Wiggins — Tamika’s middle child — came along, followed by Nate Wiggins three years later. Tamika was working multiple jobs at a time, being an all-around “super mom,” Jonae recalled.

When Nate Wiggins turned 4, Tamika decided to get him involved in sports and took him to Pittman Park, a green space in an area some would call the “ghetto,” his sisters said, that was funded more by care than dollar bills. Football and Wiggins are not a love-at-first-sight story.

“He did not like it,” Tanesha recalled. “He used to always cry and tell my mom that he didn’t like it.”

Ravens cornerback Nate Wiggins got his start in football at Pittman Park where his coach encouraged his mother, Tamika, to bring him back despite his tears and protestations he didn’t like football. (Courtesy of Tamika Lucas) (Tamika Lucas)

But Tamika trusted the coach who told her to keep bringing him. Wiggins eventually learned to like football — though not the part where he had to take a hit. It became motivation to run fast: to keep people from colliding with him. Scoring was an extra benefit. Speed became his calling card.

Tamika’s kids don’t recall her ever missing Nate’s games (nor Jonae’s basketball games or Tanesha’s cheer performances) despite working multiple jobs. As her kids got older, they started to realize just what a superhero their mom was. But they also started to learn the differences between their neighborhood in Atlanta, known as Pittsburgh, and the other areas.

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“Just coming from Pittsburgh, it’s just a lot of not having all you want,” Wiggins said. “Like going to the games, just different color helmets, different color jerseys. A lot of coaches didn’t have, and a lot of parents didn’t have, so it was hard.”

Some nearby leagues, Tamika recalled, provided snacks and transportation for their teams. Wiggins’ squad had no such support, with parents pitching in as they could to make it work.

Poverty ravaged the neighborhood where the family grew up, Tanesha said, and many of the kids who first shared a field with Wiggins eventually got into trouble with the law. A few are not here anymore.

Going to what was then called Henry W. Grady High School, which is located in a more well-off part of Atlanta called Midtown, Wiggins was in a better situation in terms of education and environment. But it became clear they didn’t have a football program that would help him grow as a player. Wiggins didn’t just have to play both sides of the ball, as many high school kids did, he had to play multiple positions: from quarterback to receiver to cornerback, to keep the team competitive.

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“I think it really wore down on him. … He was kind of frustrated because he wanted to win,” Tamika said.

Tamika, always looking to put her kids in the best situation, sat down with Wiggins, and they decided it would be best for him to transfer to Westlake High School for his senior year, so they moved in with a family member. There, he united with Brown, who had known Wiggins through word of mouth for years and connected with him through seven-on-sevens a few years earlier.

Working with Brown, his trainer Justin Miller and better teammates and coaches, Wiggins was able to focus in on one position rather than trying to be the entire team. Tamika explained that colleges seemed to understand he was athletic, but that season was when they started to see his true potential and talent.

“It was the best thing to happen to him at that time,” Tamika said.

Westlake exited the playoffs in the semifinals that year. A few weeks later, Wiggins was enrolled at Clemson, taking college classes. At 16, Wiggins, a kid from Pittsburgh in Atlanta, was already a college student and had beat the odds. His mom, meanwhile, went back to school and graduated from Strayer University with a degree in business administration, also proving that your circumstances don’t ever mean you should give up on your dreams.

“It didn’t matter how long it took, I was always going to get it done,” Tamika said. “As my kids got older, I’ve always told them my story. ... They’ve always been so supportive and pushed me to fight through adversity and be very resilient. My kids watching me overcome so much in life has encouraged them to always do their best.”

‘Again’

Sixteen-year-old Wiggins lined up against 25-year-old Calvin Ridley. As the NFL receiver burst off the line, Wiggins kept up with him until the last minute, when Ridley hit his blaze out route.

As they made it back to Brown, Wiggins told him “again.” Any time Ridley or another receiver — whether it was a peer like Javon Baker (a recent draft pick of the New England Patriots) or established NFL stars like Jerry Jeudy or Mecole Hardman Jr. — beat Wiggins in drills at TopShelf Performance, he wanted a do-over.

That’s partly because if Wiggins doesn’t get to have the ball in his hands, he doesn’t want anyone else to, either.

After getting over his initial dreams of following in the footsteps of fellow Westlake alum Cam Newton and playing quarterback, Wiggins shifted his focus to being a wide receiver. That sounded good to his mom, who watched him tear it up for years, but his high school coaches and trainers saw a longer career in Wiggins’ future if he focused on defense. Wiggins didn’t love the idea.

“He’d always want to train at receiver,” Brown said. “He’d allllways want to train at receiver. I’m like, ‘Bro, you got to go to DB training.’ He’d be like ‘Man, I don’t want to play DB. I don’t want to play DB. I don’t want to play DB. I’m a receiver. I need the ball in my hands.’”

So Brown allowed Wiggins to train with him and his receivers, as long as Wiggins went to cornerback training first. Sometimes, Wiggins ran routes and drills. But other times, he’d be the opposition.

“He’d get to do one-on-ones with them,” Brown said. “He was doing one-on-ones with pros at like 16. … He was ahead of his time. There were times he’d go out there and he’d get beat. I’m like ‘That’s OK. He’s a pro. You’re in high school. You’re good. Don’t worry about that.’”

Brown and Tamika remember the NFL players being bemused at how fast this kid was for only 16. And the success he found against them gave Wiggins the confidence to take the next step in his career and enroll in college early — as a cornerback.

“It helped me a lot going into college,” Wiggins said. “I’m going against people who’re making 1,000 yards in the biggest league. So it just made my confidence go high. Like if I’m going against them, why can’t I guard people at college?”

After originally planning to attend LSU, Nate Wiggins committed to Clemson to avoid the issues surrounding the LSU program and to stay close to home. (Courtesy of Tamika Lucas) (Tamika Lucas)

Wiggins was originally committed to LSU but decided to go to Clemson instead in part to avoid the issues around LSU’s football program at the time (those problems would lead to the departure of coach Ed Orgeron and Odell Beckham Jr.’s suspension after Beckham handed out money to the national championship team, among other things). Mostly, though, he wanted to stay closer to home. But even the two-hour drive proved difficult for a teenaged boy who had never been far from his family.

Wiggins might be able to run with the pros, but sometimes that made people forget he was just 16. Like most college kids, Wiggins had to figure out his own meals and do his own laundry for the first time, though he was doing it at an earlier age. And he had to learn time management, like all students, but with the added commitment of early practices — Clemson’s workouts were much earlier than high school workouts, and Wiggins is a heavy sleeper.

Wiggins was late to class. He was late to workouts. He was, as he himself put it, very immature that first year. He also wasn’t getting the playing time he wanted.

“I told him you can’t feel like that when you aren’t doing the right things off the field,” Brown said.

Tamika is not the type of mother to let that stand for long. She’s the type that will always be on you to make sure you’re doing the absolute best you can, her daughters said. Brown is the opposite of a “yes man,” as he put it, always keeping it real with Wiggins. And Clemson defensive backs coach Mike Reed wasn’t scared to butt heads with his young star. They all sat down for some face-to-face conversations with him, which “sparked a sense of understanding because if he didn’t follow these standards, he wasn’t going to start,” Tamika recalled.

To his credit, their lessons were heard, and they’ve stayed with Wiggins. At Ravens organized team activities, his response about why he works so hard in team meetings echoed what Brown once said to him: “I want to play, so I just know, in the position I want to be in, I know I have to learn it.” When Wiggins got his act together both on and off Clemson’s football field, the results were plentiful.

From freshman to sophomore year, Wiggins went from zero starts to 11, two tackles to 29, two passes defensed to 14, and he made his first interception. With results came sponsors — thanks to relaxed rules around college athletes earning money off their name, image and likeness — and with sponsors came the ability to give back. It was what Wiggins had dreamed of.

“I think maybe when he was a freshman in college, and he just said that, ‘Mom, you know if I ever make it, I want to give back to Pittman Park,’” Tamika said.

And they did. In 2023, they officially started the Wiggs Worldwide Foundation in an attempt to not only break the “generational curse” as a family but as a community. Both his mother and sisters are on the foundation’s committee, although none of them take a salary — it’s a passion project for all of them. Using Wiggins’ sponsorship money, they handed out school supplies, made meals and held events at Pittman Park like meet and greets and a spring fling where they gave out gifts to single mothers.

“In the communities where we grew up around, where we come from, a lot of people are not making it out,” Jonae said. “And a lot of people may be making it out, but not giving back or just tending to where they started from. We were raised to give back. … I feel like everything’s happening how it was destined.”

A dream finally realized

While Wiggins and his innermost circle gathered in the back of the draft party venue, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was busy texting. He was messaging Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta that, should Wiggins be around at 30, DeCosta should take him.

Wiggins’ agent was also messaging DeCosta. The conversation was positive, but he was hesitant to tell Wiggins. He had already suffered from crushed expectations.

Jonae and Tanesha were still sitting on stage. They’d been feeling good, celebrating with their friends and family, but Tanesha had picked up on the tension — plus, the picks were getting closer to 32, the last of the first round. She started to ask some questions, but their cousin, Paul “PJ” Truitt Jr., halted her: He’s going in the first round, he assured her.

Meanwhile, Wiggins started making trips to the bathroom. He heard the pep talk, but nonetheless, he was mad. But the cameras were everywhere, so he took his emotions to a place they couldn’t follow him.

On his final trip to the bathroom, Brown was heading to get him a water bottle. Tamika was still in the back. Wiggins came out on the phone, and Brown didn’t think anything of it until Wiggins grabbed him.

“He’s like, ’It’s the call!’ " Brown said in a low, intense, raspy voice, imitating Wiggins.

Wiggins’ agent went rushing to the back, calling for mom.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins is introduced at a press conference at the Under Armour Performance Center after the NFL draft. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Together, Wiggins and his mom reentered the room and took the stage. Shortly after, the Ravens made their pick, and the ESPN cameras in the room broadcast Wiggins and his family going crazy.

In a whirlwind 24 hours, Wiggins, his mom and stepfather, and Brown headed to Baltimore to check out the facilities. From the front row of the Ravens auditorium, they listened to Wiggins hold his first in-person press conference and were struck by just how genuinely the Ravens seemed to want Wiggins there.

Jonae and Tanesha can’t wait to go to Baltimore for the first time in their lives. Jonae is ready to experience the festivities of a game day. Tamika is ready to scream her head off when her son makes his first NFL interception.

And they all can’t wait until his paychecks start coming so they can put the “worldwide” in Wiggs Worldwide Foundation. Already, they’re scoping out areas of need in Baltimore with a focus on single mothers and children, as well as education.

But that first paycheck is going to go somewhere a little closer to home.

“As soon as it comes in, that’s what I’m going to do,” Wiggins said, “Going to get them [Pittman Park] helmets, shoulder pads, same-colored jerseys.”

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