FOXBOROUGH -- Hank Poteat was driving his wife's silver Acura MDX from his home in Bear, Del., to a friend's new home in Odessa, Del., last Monday around 6 p.m., when he got The Call.
It was the one from Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli beckoning him back to the NFL. It's the call that any out-of-work NFL player dreams about getting, but it's one that Poteat has become accustomed to receiving when New England gets desperate for a defensive back.
It's the third straight season the Patriots have called upon the 5-foot-10-inch, 195-pounder to serve as a human tourniquet for a bleeding secondary.
So there he was Sunday, lined up in the slot against motor-mouth Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson on the first play from scrimmage in what would be a 38-13 Patriots victory. Seven days earlier, he'd been watching Johnson play against the Pittsburgh Steelers and his Patriots teammates play Denver, sitting on the couch of his father's Mount Holly, N.J., home.
Poteat acquitted himself well. Playing as a nickel back for New England, he finished with two tackles and a pass defended.
``I know how the system works as far as being in their system," said Poteat, who was officially signed last Wednesday. ``They always bring back the guys they had around, especially if you play well for them, they'll bring you back.
``It's funny. The night before they called me, I did have a dream that I was playing for the Patriots."
The Patriots first turned to Poteat in the 2004 playoffs, picking him up six days before their divisional matchup with Indianapolis. The University of Pittsburgh product and Steelers third-round draft choice (2000), then recorded two tackles and a pass break-up in New England's 41-27 win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
After cutting him at the end of training camp last year, New England picked up Poteat Oct. 19. He played in 10 games, making one start, and recorded a career-high 24 tackles. This year, the Patriots gave Poteat his walking papers again, setting him loose Aug. 29.
He briefly hooked on with the Jets, playing in their final preseason game, before getting released again and going home to Delaware, where he worked out five days a week, helped a friend in real estate renovate a home in Philadelphia, and played doting husband and father to his pregnant wife, Jasmine, and daughters, Ariana, 5, and Sierra, 1.
All three were in the car when Poteat received his summons back to New England.
After all the yo-yoing the Patriots have done with Poteat, you might expect him to be bitter, but it's just the opposite.
``I'm always happy whenever I come back," said the 29-year-old, who has been property of the Patriots, Jets, Buccaneers, Panthers, and Steelers in his tumultuous seven-year career. ``There's so many guys playing in all different leagues just trying to get to this league. I have a lot of friends that played semipro and Arena 1 and 2 ball just to get film to get to this league."
Poteat said being out of the league has given him an opportunity to work on his weaknesses.
``When you're out, you always realize what you didn't do," he said. ``It's helped me be a better student and understand the game."
One reason Poteat, who sat out the 2004 regular season after breaking his thumb in preseason with Carolina, may be out of work so often is that he's still looking for his first career interception, despite playing in 53 regular-season games.
But what he lacks in playmaking skills, he makes up for in instincts, said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
``I think it starts with Hank being a smart guy," said Belichick. ``He's experienced in the league, and he's been in a couple of different systems, but now he's been around here for quite a while and he knows what we're doing.
``He has good instincts. He's been able to get thrown into the fire, pick it up in a hurry, and basically execute it at a pretty competitive level. We were fortunate that he was still available and we were able to get him back on the roster here."
One thing Poteat has never adjusted to is being an NFL vagabond, and he never will, but he's said he's better for the experience.
``I have another child on the way, and to have to keep relocating and bringing my family back and forth, you don't want to have to do that," said Poteat. ``Putting all that stress on my wife.
``It's always nice to know you don't have to fight every year to make a roster, but it keeps you hungry. It definitely humbles you.
``This whole experience, I can't say it's been a negative. It's made me a better man, a better husband, and a better father."