When you've been to hell and back, as Bobby Joe Edmonds has, you
realize how lucky you are to get a second chance. You savor the
little things you took for granted the first time around. The
locker room banter. The stadium noise. "I get a kick every day I
come to work," Edmonds says.
He does, too, literally as well as figuratively, because he's
the guy who returns kicks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After
the first five weeks of this season Edmonds, 31, ranked third in
the NFC in average yards per punt return, at 10.7, and ninth in
average yards per kickoff return, at 21.4. But he's hands-down
No. 1 in the category of Most Amazing Return. Before appearing
in the Bucs' opener against the Eagles, Edmonds had been out of
the NFL since 1989. The only NFL player with a longer gap
between appearances is Ross Nagel, an offensive lineman who
played for the Chicago Cardinals in 1942 and resurfaced with the
New York Yanks in 1951.
Edmonds's hiatus can be traced to the drinking that began when
he was 13, around the time his mother, Jeannette, died in a car
accident, and continued until New Year's Eve 1992, when Edmonds
quit cold turkey. He says he can't remember anything about his
last drink, although he does recall the support he got from his
wife, Karen, then his girlfriend.
"While everyone was having their cocktails, I decided to never
have another," Edmonds says. "Enough was enough." Even today
Edmonds contends the drinking never affected his performance on
the field. During his college days at Arkansas, his drinking
escalated, especially after another car accident claimed the
life of his grandmother Canary Hendrix. Still he ranked third on
the school's career punt-return yardage list.
A fifth-round pick of the Seahawks in 1986, Edmonds had a
spectacular rookie season, leading the AFC in punt-return
average and earning a spot in the Pro Bowl. The next season he
became the first player since Les (Speedy) Duncan in 1965-66 to
lead the conference in punt-return average in consecutive years.
After signing with Detroit as a free agent in 1989, he was
waived on the final cut and caught on with the Raiders. But he
broke his ankle in October, and the Raiders released him in the
off-season. Nobody picked him up because of questions about his
ankle and whispers about his drinking.
At 26 Edmonds was washed up.
He began selling real estate, and he didn't do badly. "Those
were happy years," Edmonds says. "I met my wife, and I found
there is life after football." Nevertheless he wanted to play
again. "I knew the reason I wasn't playing was not that somebody
had beaten me out or I couldn't succeed," he says. He felt so
good mentally and physically after he stopped drinking that he
decided to make one more run at the NFL.
Edmonds believed Tampa Bay offered the best opportunity. The
special teams coach was George Stewart, who had been on the
Arkansas staff during Edmonds's days there, and defensive
coordinator Rusty Tillman had been Edmonds's special teams coach
in Seattle. He played so well in a preseason game against the
Bengals that the Bucs kept him on their roster.
"I'm better now than I was," Edmonds says. "My speed and
quickness are just as good as they were, if not better, and I'm
at the age when I should be in the prime of my career. But the
main thing is, I'm more mature."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The Bucs' kick-return specialist won a long fight against alcohol before he won back a job in the NFL. [Bobby Joe Edmonds]