New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman went six full NFL seasons without ever showcasing the arm that threw 30 touchdown passes at Kent State University in Ohio. But when the Patriots trailed the bitter playoff rival Baltimore Ravens 28-21 late in the third quarter of their Jan. 10 AFC Divisional Round matchup, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided to turn back the clock.
Edelman caught a screen pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, set his feet and delivered a strike to fellow wide receiver Danny Amendola for a game-tying 51-yard touchdown. New England went on to win the game 35-31, with Edelman also contributing a team-leading eight receptions. This versatility was essential in Edelman’s rise from unheralded, undersized college football quarterback to a key cog in a Patriots offense that will face the vaunted Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX.
“He volunteered to do everything. He wanted to do punt returns, kickoff returns,” Laing Kennedy, emeritus director of athletics at Kent State, said. “We didn’t want to put him at risk because our depth at quarterback was not great, and one of Julian’s issues was he just played with such enthusiasm and such reckless abandonment, he would get nicked up during the season. He would play through injuries. He’s the ultimate team player.”
To describe Edelman’s rise to NFL stardom as unlikely would be an understatement. Standing just 5-foot-10 and weighing less than 200 pounds, he lacked prototypical size to play quarterback in college. Edelman didn't receive a single scholarship offer to play Division I football, according to ESPN. Instead, the Woodside, California, high school star shipped off to the College of San Mateo, a junior college in his home state.
Edelman lasted just one semester at San Mateo, where he starred for the Bulldogs football team, before he caught the eye of Kent State coach Doug Martin. Kent State football had found its new leader.
“Coach Martin, after the visit, came into my office and said, ‘I think we have a quarterback,’” Kennedy said. “He was just a phenomenal young man, very energetic, very passionate and so committed to be the best and do whatever it took to turn out to be a winner.”
Edelman didn’t waste any time making his presence known on the Kent State football team, said Brian Lainhart, his close friend and teammate for three years at the university. Then a college sophomore, Edelman walked right up to the team’s presumptive quarterback and told him he was taking his job.
“We’re doing a 7-on-7 pass drill in the summer time, players only, just a bunch of us getting together. The starting quarterback for the last two years, he was punting the football, just messing around before we started. I bet we were on campus a week or two weeks. Julian walked right up to him and said, ‘You better get used to punting, that’s the only way you’ll be on the field,’” Lainhart said.
Edelman won the starting quarterback job outright and never relinquished it. Over the next three years, he amassed more than 7,000 yards from scrimmage. His best season came as a senior, when he threw for 1,820 yards and led all Division I quarterbacks with 1,370 rushing yards, according to Sports Illustrated.
The same intensity that ingratiated Edelman to Kent State’s coaching staff rankled some of his more laid-back teammates. He dedicated himself to changing the team’s culture -- anything less than full effort was unacceptable. The no-holds-barred attitude inspired fierce loyalty in some and led to more than a few skirmishes with others.
“He was absolutely a leader. He was two totally different guys [on and off the field]. Everyone says they flip a switch, but he was a [expletive] on the field, and he was probably one of my one or two best friends. Me and him would get into fistfights at practice. He fought receivers for not running the right route or being lazy,” Lainhart said. “He wasn’t your typical quarterback mentality. He was like a linebacker-safety mentality playing quarterback.”
But the same size concerns that limited Edelman’s scholarship offers in high school made it highly unlikely that he would be able to play quarterback in the NFL. So Edelman applied his hustle and raw athleticism to other positions. He started returning kicks during games attended by NFL scouts and served as the personal protector on Kent State’s punt unit. If the team needed it, Edelman was willing to do it.
As he neared graduation, Edelman decided that wide receiver, not quarterback, was his path to the NFL. He worked tirelessly to improve his technique ahead of the 2009 NFL Draft. He stood out at Kent State’s NFL Pro Day, recording a 4.51 40-yard dash and the short shuttle time so fast that scouts asked him to repeat the drill, SI noted.
Edelman caught of the eye of Bill Belichick, head coach of the Patriots and the man who would become one of his mentors in New England. The franchise selected him in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft, with no clear idea for how they planned to use him. “I don’t know what we’ll do with you, but we’ll find something,” Belichick told him at the time, according to ESPN.
The climb to the Patriots’ starting lineup was slow. Edelman caught 37 passes as a rookie but was barely used on offense in each of the next two seasons. Instead, Edelman contributed on special teams -- primarily as a punt returner -- while learning from Wes Welker, a five-time Pro-Bowler and Brady’s preferred target on offense. From 2009 to 2012, Welker never caught fewer than 86 passes and twice led the NFL in receptions.
All the while, Edelman rode the bench, stepping up to fill any role Belichick required of him. When injuries depleted the Patriots' secondary ahead of Super Bowl XLVI, Edelman played nickel cornerback, covering some of the New York Giants' top receivers.
Edelman’s persistence and patience finally paid off in 2013. The Patriots allowed Welker to walk in free agency and signed Amendola to replace him as the team’s slot receiver. But injuries dogged Amendola all season, and Edelman took full advantage of his opportunity. He became Brady’s new safety valve, catching 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.
It’s a role that Edelman has maintained ever since. He led the Patriots in receptions this season, catching 92 passes despite missing two games due to injury. And on Feb. 1, the former junior college transfer who was “too small” to play big-time football will attempt to win his first Super Bowl ring.
“A lot of people say, what drives Julian?” Lainhart said. “It was moreso, 'To hell with everybody, look what I can do now.'”