HE HAS ALWAYS BEEN UNDERSIZED AND OFTEN UNDERVALUED, BUT JULIAN EDELMAN NEVER CONSIDERED HIMSELF LESS THAN A SURE THING. NOW THE SLOT RECEIVER IS PAYING OFF IN A HUGE WAY FOR THE PATRIOTS
THE LITTLE MAN feigned innocence. It was past midnight and into early Sunday morning, with a warm, windblown rain still falling outside Gillette Stadium, and the Patriots' locker room was nearly cleared. A last wave of cameramen and reporters remained clustered around LeGarrette Blount, the reborn running back who had scored four touchdowns in New England's 43--22 divisional playoff win over the Colts. A smaller group quizzed guard Logan Mankins, who had helped open the yawning holes through which Blount ran. Attention was turning in real time to next week, to a then unnamed opponent that would unsurprisingly become the Broncos less than 24 hours later, with a Super Bowl berth in the balance this Sunday in the Rockies.
And here 5'10" Julian Edelman parried a question about his most significant moment on Saturday. It came with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter, after the Colts had drawn to within six points. On a third-and-eight from the Indianapolis 22, Edelman had drawn a pass interference call against cornerback Josh Gordy, leading to a first-and-goal and the touchdown that choked off the Colts' rally. The PI had seemed less than obvious, clinched by Edelman's theatrical fall to the turf. Sold that one, it was suggested to Edelman. "Sold it?" the receiver said, squeezing off the faintest of smiles. "That was a back-shoulder throw. Obvious call." More smiling.
Back home in Redwood City, Calif., Edelman's boys would have loved his performance. These are the boys he quarterbacked to a Pop Warner national championship at age 11, when just a few years before, Edelman was so small that his coach-father had considered putting quarters in his kid's pockets to ensure he'd make weight. The boys he led to a 13--0 record as seniors at Woodside High. The boys who watched Edelman get overlooked by every Division I program, then followed him as he tore up the field in junior college and at Kent State before he slipped into the NFL as New England's seventh-round choice in 2009 and lived on the fringes of job security for four seasons. The boys who have been hearing him voice the same challenge as long as they can remember: Bet against me.
"You could be talking about anything," says Spenser Garrison, a boyhood friend of Edelman's and a receiver on his Woodside team. "Trying to eat one more burger. Or video games or H-O-R-S-E. Or [Edelman's] making it to D-I or the NFL. Jules would always look at you and say the same thing: 'Go ahead, bet against me.' And you never want to do that." Sandro Oyola, another friend and former teammate, says this "goes back at least 10 or 15 years. Bet against me. Or sometimes, Bet I won't. That's Jules."
That's Edelman, indeed. "Everything is a competition," he says. "That's my whole life."
These Patriots are the unlikeliest AFC finalists of the Bill Belichick era, a team that went 12--4 despite being steadily thinned by personnel losses (injuries and otherwise) from June into January. No position incurred deeper cuts than receiver, where quarterback Tom Brady lost his top five targets from 2012, including Wes Welker, the most productive slot man in NFL history. Into that void surged Edelman, 27, who caught 105 passes—fourth in the league, 50 more than any other Patriot and seven fewer than Welker's average in New England—for 1,056 yards. He also finished fourth in the league in punt return yardage (374). It's perilous to suggest that these Patriots wouldn't have survived further attrition (Brady excepted), but it's also difficult to imagine them in Denver without Edelman.
Yet Edelman's breakout performance comes after an off-season of free agency during which no team offered him more than New England's incentive-filled, one-year, $716,000 contract. Consider that just another hurdle in Edelman's unconventional career. There's no easy path to NFL stability, but Edelman's was more challenging than most. "I've always gone on the back roads," he says, "because I wasn't good enough."
JULIAN EDELMAN is generously listed at 198 pounds. As a youngster he was undeniably little: just 4'11" as a high school freshman. Yet he was driven with oversized pressure by his father, Frank, who says his own dad died when he was three. "Not having a dad, I missed a part of my life," explains Frank, who for 27 years has run an auto repair shop south of San Francisco. "When I had kids [Julian is the middle of three], I went way overboard. I abused Jules, no doubt."
Frank worked 12-hour days in the shop and drilled Julian at night. They worked out on vacant high school fields and in rented gyms, three sports a year (football, basketball and baseball) with no break. When Julian was a teenager, Frank became angry at his son's complacency during batting practice and buzzed two fastballs behind his ear. Julian charged the mound, throwing haymakers. "Dad put me in my place," says Julian. "Never happened again. And I owe my pops everything."
There were high moments. Frank recruited kids from all over the peninsula to build a Pop Warner team that won the 1998 national championship, with Julian as the star running back and linebacker. As a tiny Little League shortstop Julian hit tape-measure home runs. In high school Julian stayed small longer than most, but his attitude was huge. "Loudest kid on the football field," says Oyola, "even when he was the littlest." He finally grew to 5'8" as a senior, when he passed for 2,237 yards and rushed for 964 as the quarterback of an undefeated team. "He matured, he was a leader, and he was incredibly competitive," says Woodside coach Steve Nicolopulos. "But he still looked like a little kid in the team picture."
There were no Division I offers, so Edelman went to the College of San Mateo, a junior college near his home. He passed for more than 1,300 yards and rushed for more than 1,200. Dozens of Division I teams reached out, encouraging him to switch from quarterback to slot receiver and stay a second year. Edelman said no thanks. Kent State coach Doug Martin, coming off a 1--10 season, needed a dynamic quarterback to run a spread option attack, preferably a mature junior college transfer. "I called people in California," says Martin, now the coach at New Mexico State. "They all said Julian was the best quarterback in the state. And he was."
Edelman brought shoulder-length blond hair and a ton of attitude to Ohio. In his first fall camp he saw fellow junior college transfer Michael Machen practicing quick kicks and told him, "Keep kicking, because I'm going to be playing quarterback." Golden Flashes teammates nicknamed Edelman Sunshine, after the California quarterback from the movie Remember the Titans. "He did everything 100 miles an hour," says Brian Lainhart, Edelman's roommate. "That's the way he played, practiced and talked." (Edelman's bravado is reminiscent of another undersized Northern California high school star who went on to college and NFL success: Pat Tillman.)
Edelman led Kent to a 6--6 record in 2006 that included a five-game winning streak in the middle of the season. "He changed the mentality of our program," says Martin. "He rubbed some guys the wrong way, but those were guys we didn't want on our team anyway." Kent didn't get much better, winning just seven of 24 games in Edelman's junior and senior years. But Edelman passed for nearly 5,000 yards and rushed for nearly 2,500 and built a dazzling library of YouTube videos highlighting his work. Martin could never get him to run out-of-bounds or slide. "I tried," says Martin. "No chance." Even so, Edelman's highlights weren't enough to get him invited to the 2009 NFL scouting combine.
Undeterred, Edelman remade himself into a receiver in three months. He knew that NFL quarterback Charlie Frye often worked out in the indoor facility at his alma mater, Akron. So Edelman went there to find Frye. "One day he walks in and says, 'Hey, can you throw to me?' " says Frye, who played in the NFL from 2005 to '09, mostly with the Browns. "Can you imagine the balls he must have had? He doesn't know anybody at Akron. It's his rival college. But he was good. Quicknesswise, he was like a cat. And I was surprised at how good his hands were."
Edelman kept showing up. After sessions he and Frye would go across the street to Subway, where Edelman would eat a turkey sub with vegetables. No cheese, no mayo. "He was cocky, and he was like a sponge," says Frye. "The dude knew he had a small window, and he went at it 100% every day."
Nine teams worked out Edelman. His short-shuttle time of 3.91 seconds was so fast that scouts repeatedly asked him to do it over again. The Patriots sent three coaches—running backs, receivers and special teams—to Kent to evaluate Edelman, a testament to the franchise's diligence. Belichick told him, "I don't know what we're going to do with you, but we'll think of something."
Before this year Edelman had gained traction in small, uncertain steps. His 37 catches as a rookie were a career high before 2013; his career low came on Halloween night in '11, when he was charged with indecent assault and battery stemming from an incident in a Boston nightclub. (The charges were dropped.) He broke his arm in '09, his foot in '12. He was made a punt returner in '10, and while he took his first return to the house, he struggled for consistency in fielding kicks; in '11, Belichick used him as a defensive back, sometimes effectively. But through it all, Edelman has slowly grown into the job that he so vigorously pursued.
In the off-season he sublets an apartment in Los Angeles so that he can work out with Brady. Every morning during the season he catches 200 balls—not 199, not 201—from John Jastremski, a Patriots assistant equipment manager. The flowing blond locks, which endured for three years at Kent State and his rookie season in New England, are long gone. He says his nightlife has been curtailed. "Had to grow up at some point," says Edelman. "Be a professional." He earned a $250,000 bonus for reaching 70 catches in 2013 and as a free agent again at the end of the season will most likely be richly compensated. On Sunday the mountain air will be thick with comparisons between Edelman and Welker, who now lines up as Peyton Manning's slot receiver, but there is little doubt as to which one had the better year.
Questions remain about Edelman: Can he deliver on the game's biggest stages? Can he back up this year with more like it? Go ahead, bet against him.
THERE'S NO EASY PATH TO NFL STABILITY, BUT EDELMAN'S WAS MORE CHALLENGING THAN MOST. "I'VE ALWAYS GONE ON THE BACK ROADS," HE SAYS.
New England ran the ball 46 times last Saturday—its highest rush count all season. Is this a new pound-it-out Pats team? Or was Bill Belichick just playing the matchup game? Greg Bedard explores at TheMMQB.com
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CROWN JULES After re-signing with New England because no team wanted him more, Edelman had a breakout, 105-catch season and is within a game of the Super Bowl.
DAVID BERGMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BLOUNT)
RUNNING RAMPANT Blount (29) barrelled his way to four touchdowns against the Colts, while Stevan Ridley (22) added another pair of scores to set up a rematch with the Broncos, against whom Edelman caught two TDs in Week 12.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RIDLEY)
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ELISE AMENDOLA/AP (EDELMAN)
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