JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Ernest Wilford’s adrenaline kicks in when he hears his call sign broadcast over the police radio.
The sign means he has to be ready for anything because there’s no such thing as a “routine” call-out.
He said the rush he gets is similar to the feeling he had when he played in the National Football League although the crowds and TV cameras are gone.
So are the teammates and coaches who grew close to him in the locker room and on the field.
Wilford said he has a different kind of team now. His fellow officers have his back. He has theirs. The risks are more severe and the excitement is constant, something that’s hard to replace for any former NFL player.
“I tell people I have more fun doing this than I did playing football,” Wilford said of his new career as a police officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
The former Jacksonville Jaguar traded one type of protection for another. Football pads and helmet were replaced by a bulletproof vest and gun.
For Wilford it’s the dream job he hoped for when his career in professional football ended in 2010.
“I’ve seen a lot,” Wilford said of his time at the Sheriff’s Office so far. “I get all of my adrenaline dump every week.”
Sometimes he pursues speeding drivers. Other times he responds to some of Jacksonville’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
“It’s time to go to work,” he said of the feeling he gets when he turns on his emergency lights and siren.
Wilford was drafted by the Jaguars as a wide receiver in the fourth round in 2004 after playing at Virginia Tech. He played for the Jaguars – mostly as a starter – until he was signed as a free agent by the Miami Dolphins in 2008. He rejoined the Jaguars in 2009 as a converted tight end and was released in September 2010.
Wilford said he knew he wouldn’t be able to play football forever, although he said it was still a shock when former coach Jack Del Rio called him into his office and told him the team was cutting him.
“I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Wilford said.
Luckily he had a backup plan. He just needed to put it in motion.
Wilford participated in the ride-along program at the Sheriff’s Office during his playing days and the experience confirmed what he wanted to do after football.
He was hired by the Sheriff’s Office in March 2015 and then attended the police academy, graduating in October. He went through more training until February.
Growing up in Virginia, Wilford said he wrote his goals down on paper so he could hold himself accountable. That’s something he encourages young athletes to do to stay on the right track.
He recently spoke to students from Raines High School who are part of a group called Operation Save Our Sons – an organization that works to educate at-risk males with skills to make them productive members of the community.
Wilford said once he told the students who he was, he had their attention immediately.
“There are too many kids killing kids and if I can reach just one of them, then I’ve done my job,” he said.
He doesn’t pretend he’s perfect.
In 2011 he was arrested at a Jacksonville Beach bar on his birthday.
Police were called to the bar after management received complaints that Wilford was groping cocktail waitresses and refused to leave, according to the arrest report. The report said he mouthed off and pushed an officer before he was hit with several Tasers.
Wilford pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge and was ordered to pay $303 in court costs, but a judge withheld adjudication, which means he is not technically considered a convict.
“That really opened my eyes,” Wilford said of his 2011 arrest.
He said he will never forget being in a jail cell. The experience, he said, will give him a different perspective when he’s handcuffing suspects and putting them in the back of his patrol car.
“I’m not a perfect man … at that time I thought I was entitled,” Wilford said, pointing out that everyone has flaws.
At the end of the shift, Wilford said he goes home to tell his wife about his day with a great deal of enthusiasm.
For now, he said, he wants to perfect his new career for a few years and eventually wants to be part of a specialized unit within the Sheriff’s Office.
He said he believes Sheriff Mike Williams is a great leader and the organization is heading in the right direction with him in charge.
“We are very excited to have Ernest on our team now,” said Michelle Cook, Sheriff’s Office director. “He understands the importance of hard work, teamwork and it is obvious that he loves the Jacksonville community. We are confident that he will serve the citizens of this city with enthusiasm and integrity.”
The people of Jacksonville were good to him during his playing career, Wilford said, so it made sense to become an officer here and protect the people who cheered for him years ago.