He always popped up at important moments.
Nudging away from a defender, dropping a deadly side-step into space. His worn, well-worked hands seemed to just attract the ball at the most vital of times, like magnets willing the quarterback to trust in him.
Not too many players in NFL history can retire with a blazing legacy of being a play-offs specialist. In Julian Edelman’s case, he most certainly can – everything he did was blockbuster, underlined by grit and rugged determination.
When seeing the New England punt returner/ wide receiver play, it doesn’t surprise how unorthodox his origin story was as an NFL superstar. From humble beginnings in Redwood City, California, Edelman shone as a severely undersized quarterback in high school and college. In his final year at Kent State University, he begged for his coaches to give him opportunities in different positions when NFL scouts attended games. Most college footballers envy the quarterback; in Edelman’s case, he was aware enough to veer away from the coveted position in order to give his future the best chance at flourishing in the elusive NFL system.
Of course, this down-to-earth take on America’s game resonated deeply with the great Bill Belichick. The Patriots coach, despite being in the throes of multiple Super Bowl wins, caught wind of the name Edelman during 2009. A story of the college quarterback refusing to give up when trailing 48-3 in a game appealed directly to the master coach’s philosophy. Keeping his cards close to his chest, the Patriots selected a soon to be five foot ten Edelman with pick 232 in the 2009 draft. The Californian kid hadn’t even been invited to the Combine, but now he had a chance to forge an NFL career.
Despite his willing nature to adapt and try new positions, it was never smooth sailing for Edelman. Much like his soon-to-be fellow heroes in Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, nothing was handed to Edelman on a platter at his time in New England. His first assignment was becoming a punt returner – a unique skill with a high amount of difficulty attached to it. Reading the trajectory of a high-reaching kick, and adjusting for various spins and weather conditions, makes catching the leather a tough task. When the first part is complete, reading the opposition’s defensive coverage and picking gaps in an unrewarding position is just as difficult.
Years later Belichick would name Edelman as the only player he has seen who adapted immediately to punt returning despite having no college or junior experience in the position. But it wasn’t ever that simple – New England crowds booed Edelman in 2009 during practice matches when he continually fumbled catches and botched returns. In the next three years, he would feature intermittently as the team’s leading punt returner, eventually building the trust of his roster to carry out the duties regularly.
But players can’t rely on one minor spot if they want to become a valuable asset to an NFL franchise. Ever aware of this, Edelman began an arduous process of becoming a talented wide receiver. Also gaining minutes as a defensive back, Edelman slowly made a name for himself when he began registering punt return touchdowns that broke New England records for length. It took until 2012 for the now bearded and muscular runner to break out as a star.
Having played in New England’s 2011 Super Bowl XLVI upset loss to the New York Giants as a punt returner, Edelman took it upon himself to become the Patriots’ main receiver. Since settling in Boston in 2009, Edelman had sat behind the famous Wes Welker in the pecking order – Welker’s record and familiarity with Brady meant they created an intimate thrower-catcher partnership.
But in 2012 new opportunities gave Edelman the perfect chance to explode. With a firm base of hard work behind him and his trademark tough mentality, he slowly took the matter into his own hands. Unfortunately, an optimistic start was ruined by numerous injuries – another hallmark of his arduous career. At season’s end he was offered a one-year lifeline contract. 2013 became do-or-die.
Of course, with his back against the wall, Edelman produced his best work. 2013 was a breakout season, with the pacey running receiver starring as a primary option in the Patriots’ offense. New England would go on to reach the AFC Championship game and lose a chance at another Super Bowl to Denver, but Edelman’s whirlwind season was a shining light for the Patriots. All of a sudden, they had uncovered another gem from the seventh round of the NFL draft.
Now on a four-year deal, the next few years became Edelman’s golden period. A first Super Bowl win in 2014 was sealed in dramatic fashion, as Edelman’s first touchdown of the 2014 play-off series came with just over two minutes left on the clock in Super Bowl XLIX. The reception and touchdown proved to be the game’s final score, as he put the Patriots in front. With Malcolm Butler famously intercepting Seattle’s last drive, New England held on for a memorable win and Edelman clinched his first ring.
The good times kept coming – constant success resulted in another trip to Super Bowl LI in 2016. Having already surpassed Wes Welker with 70 post-season touchdown receptions to register the most in New England history early in the play-offs, Edelman entered the Super Bowl in ripe form. When faced with a 28-3 deficit, he was one of the most vocal, telling teammates it would be “a helluva story” when they came back. Staying true to his word, he led the offensive side back into the game.
In the tense final stages, Edelman snared the greatest catch in Super Bowl history, jamming himself between three Atlanta players after Brady’s throw was tipped. Bobbling around, Edelman managed to secure the catch just millimetres from the turf. New England went on to score, and ultimately win the greatest Super Bowl in NFL history in an overtime special.
If Edelman’s renaissance as a fiery receiver needed any more success, he got it in 2018. He was suspended without the chance to appeal an illicit substance ban in the opening four matches, but was soon reinstated to lead New England’s receiving bunch. Now at the peak of his powers, Edelman held a remarkably perfect passer rating for the intermittent times he got to fling the ball on trick plays. Upon reaching another Super Bowl, Edelman seemed to be the only offensive player thriving in the dour, defensive game.
His 10 passes for 141 yards eclipsed anyone on the field – he just consistently popped up to thwart the LA Rams – and it gave him the Super Bowl MVP title. Having endured many injuries to his knees, shoulders, ankles, ribs and head, Edelman entered NFL Hall of Fame calculations with a third Lombardi trophy and an MVP award from the biggest game of the year.
It’s a shame that Edelman’s career was cut short by injury. Instead of flocking with Brady and Gronkowski to Tampa Bay, Edelman ardently tried to convince them to stay, underlining his loyalty to the franchise that believed in a short and skinny quarterback who struggled to catch punts. He was the perfect competitor and teammate, extracting every last bit of effort from a well-worn body, and with an ounce of big-game swagger that created some of the NFL’s greatest ever play-off moments.
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