MANKATO, Minn. -- For all the emotion and energy that emerges on NFL fields, the league has a cold, scripted side that can lead to drudgery. Visanthe Shiancoe did what he could last season to find the creative outlets he needed to maintain mental health.
He needed the escape. It was a rough year.
"It keeps you sane, man. I'm telling you, if you just work and work and work and you don't play, man, you would go nuts," the Minnesota Vikings tight end said. "And the next thing you know, one day you're just going to go, 'Aaaarrrggghhh."'
Fans often made a similar noise last season toward Shiancoe, who signed a five-year contract worth as much as $18.5 million -- including $7 million guaranteed -- and caught a mere 27 passes for 323 yards and one touchdown.
The low production wasn't all his fault. It takes awhile to learn a new system, and the passing game struggled through three different starting quarterbacks. He dropped too many balls, though, and a couple of those came in the end zone. Even on his franchise-record 79-yard reception (the longest ever by a Vikings tight end) off a reverse play by wide receiver Sidney Rice, Shiancoe was caught from behind before the goal line in a game against Oakland in November.
"It was almost like being a rookie again: You have to learn a whole new system, a whole different environment," said Shiancoe, who spent his first four years in the NFL with the New York Giants as a backup to Jeremy Shockey. "Especially the playbook. The terminology was different. Pretend like they would say, 'C.' And 'C' meant to do No. 1. But with the Giants, 'C' meant No. 2. See? So I had to adjust to it, and sometimes it would be wrong."
With a new contract and a lack of impact on a lagging offense, Shiancoe felt pressure. His focus was off, at least.
"When you think, think, think, think, think, think, think, think, it kind of impedes your natural abilities," coach Brad Childress said recently. "Am I doing the right thing, you know? So, when you're flowing, you can't be thinking about what you're doing. The game's being played."
Shiancoe, who called himself a "very out-there personality," is hard to categorize. His mother is from Liberia, his father is from Ghana, and he lived in England for a bit. He grew up in Maryland with aspirations of becoming an artist or a chef, then majored in information technology at Morgan State. He said he didn't realize until his senior season that football could become his career.
"It was shocking to me. I was like, 'OK, I guess I can do it,"' said Shiancoe, who totaled 52 catches, 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns in college and was drafted by the Giants in the third round.
Also holding an interest in psychology, Shiancoe took some time to write a journal last year. Well, at least to organize his thoughts while he was struggling to contribute to the cause.
"I had to find something," Shiancoe said. "You had to write down some things to think about, or some goals and stuff like that. Stay sane. You've got to just try to be yourself and just somehow get away every chance you get."
Shiancoe lost a fumble in Friday's preseason game, one of five turnovers by the Vikings. But Childress piled a compliment on top of muted criticism for the miscue.
"By and large he has had a very good training camp," the coach said, adding: "They did a nice job putting a hat right on it, and he was a little loose with the handling. He will catch a lot more balls in that spot, and we expect him to hold on to them first and foremost."
During practice on Monday, Shiancoe appeared to be hanging onto the ball more tightly.
Has he cured himself of the problem?
"Time will tell," Childress said, smiling. "Time will tell."
His impact this year is also yet to be revealed. Shiancoe changed his diet and dropped some fat, showing up this summer with a leaner look. He made reception after reception during spring workouts. Childress praised him earlier in camp for being "more willing to push" through normal aches and pains. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said he's on that always-important "same page" with his tight end.
"He is making the big plays, making the hard catches," Jackson said. "I feel like it's night and day from last year to this year."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press