By Robert Cocuzzo | October 6, 2015 | People
Patriots receiver Julian Edelman talks about his improbable rise to Super Bowl champion and why Boston sports fans are the best in the world.
Jacket ($2,795), T-shirt ($275), and pants ($725), Ermenegildo Zegna. Copley Place, 617-262-0099. Watch, Edelman’s own
Everything you need to know about Patriots star receiver Julian Edelman can be summed up in 10 seconds.
It’s third down and 14 and the Patriots are trailing by 10 with 11 minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX. “We need a championship drive,” Tom Brady tells his huddle. The quarterback takes the snap and Edelman breaks off the line. He jukes the pants off Seahawks cornerback Tharold Simon, then sprints across the middle of the field. Brady steps up in the pocket and targets Edelman with a bullet. The 5-foot-10-inch, 198-pound wide receiver makes the catch but is instantly demolished by Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor. The hit echoes like a clap of thunder over television sets across the country. Chancellor has five inches, 30 pounds, and a truckload of momentum on Edelman, but miraculously the undersized receiver not only hangs on to the ball, but he flat-out refuses to go down. He absorbs the hit like a spring and continues sprinting downfield. The referee marks him down at the point of contact, but Edelman has gained enough ground for the first down, keeping the team’s Super Bowl dreams alive. By the time blue and red confetti was falling from the rafters 11 minutes later, Edelman had made nine catches for 109 yards, including the winning touchdown. Most agree that if Brady hadn’t been named Super Bowl MVP, it would have been this 29-yearold, whose very presence on the field was something of a miracle.
Five months later, Julian Edelman is sitting in a penthouse on the 37th floor of the Ritz-Carlton for a photo shoot. This isn’t his pad overlooking Boston, but with a couple more seasons like the one he just had, it very well could be someday. His blue eyes glimmer in the light from the window like two expensive timepieces as he stabs salad and grilled chicken into his mouth. It’s been an action-packed off-season for the newly ringed Super Bowl champion, shooting commercials, hopping back and forth between Boston and LA, making a trip to Israel, appearing at charity camps, and training, training, training. Two days earlier, he made a surprise visit to Massachusetts General Hospital. This morning he was catching passes from Brady. It’s a demanding routine, but when he’s asked what it’s like to be 29, single, and a Super Bowl champion in a city that worships its athletes, a grin cracks across Edelman’s scruff that makes it clear: It’s good to be king.
“I never really thought it would happen,” he says of his career, with a Northern California twang in his voice. “There were always other guys that were supposed to do it. Not me.” Edelman is the poster boy for every athlete this city has ever loved. That’s to say, you’d hardly expect to find him on a poster. He looks like a regular guy from the neighborhood who somehow snuck onto the field and surprised everyone by dominating. He’s gritty, hardworking, tough, and relentless as a jackhammer. “That’s what Boston is,” he says, studying the skyline out the window. “I didn’t really know it until I came out here, but it felt comfortable. I was always an outcast in a lot of places because I was so competitive. But that’s what Boston is, and that’s why I love it here. This city is the epitome of what I strive for: Blue collar. Old school. Dirt in the fingernails. I came up from that.”
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Worlds away from this penthouse, Edelman was raised in Redwood City, in Northern California, where he watched his father, Frank Edelman, log 13-hour days as a mechanic in a garage. “My dad grew up on the other side of the tracks,” he says with unmistakable pride. “His dad died when he was real young. His mom was in and out of areas, moving a lot. He was always the tough kid. Back in those days, he got in a lot of fights. He was a hard-nosed dude. And that’s how he brought me up.”
Weighing less than 100 pounds and standing four-feet-and-change, Edelman looked more like a liability than a threat when he walked onto the field his freshman year of high school. “It was one of those things,” he says, “where I wanted to prove people wrong and have what my dad had, that grittiness.” When he decided to try out for quarterback, his father began instilling this grittiness as they practiced passing in the backyard. “He’d have me throwing footballs, and he’d have my sister throwing little pebbles at me,” Edelman remembers. “‘Don’t get mad; deal with it,’ he’d say. ‘I’m trying to make you mentally tough. That’s what the studs do.’”
So began Edelman’s improbable rise from undersized high school quarterback to superstar NFL receiver. He wasn’t recruited out of high school but played a year in junior college before being accepted by Kent State University, a Division I school with a small football program, where he had to beat out a “6-foot-5 prototypical quarterback” for his position. He went on to break Kent State’s passing record and rushed for nearly as many yards, but still he wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine come senior year. Instead, Edelman changed positions from QB to wide receiver and caught the attention of scouts at a Kent State pro day by running the short shuttle in 3.91 seconds, a faster time than anyone at the combine clocked that year. But despite his potential, no one believed he would ever make it in the pros. “He’s too small and unconventional,” his pre-draft scouting report read. “There’s questions about his durability and he’s an unknown.” But after the Patriots selected him in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, the world got a good long look at this undersized unknown when he ran back a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Minitron. The Incredible Man. Julian Edelman had officially arrived.
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“At every level, I’ve always been so focused on the immediate goal, and it hasn’t steered me wrong yet,” Edelman says six years later. His live-for-the-next-play mentality meshes seamlessly with the style of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “We just worry about what we have to do in the present,” Edelman says, echoing the words of his coach, words that for seasons have tormented reporters seeking insight from the enigmatic Belichick. “Take advantage of every day. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. Let’s try to get consistently better each and every week, and if you continually try to improve each and every week, that’s usually when good things happen.”
Even after signing a four-year contract worth up to $19 million and snagging partnerships with Ermenegildo Zegna and Puma, Edelman still competes with primal ferocity, as if each play could be his last. Whether he’s returning punts—he holds the Patriots team record for most punt returns for touchdowns—or catching passes across the middle, he has earned his place in a no man’s land where giants roam and want nothing more than to take his head off. Even the greatest receivers often shy away from making catches in the middle of the field for fear of getting brutally blindsided. “If you’re going to get hit, you’re going to get hit,” Edelman says. “I don’t really fear it. I guess I’ve got a couple screws missing or something, but sometimes I actually like getting hit. It wakes you up. Clears out the cobwebs.” He laughs. “I’m scared of bears and stuff—not going across the middle.”
Jacket, John Varvatos ($1,698). Copley Place, 617-236-8650. T-shirt ($275) and pants ($725), Ermenegildo Zegna. Copley Place, 617-262- 0099. 40mm Milgauss steel watch, Rolex ($8,200). Sidney Thomas Jewelers, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-0935
While he may not be afraid, many others are concerned for his safety. The hit he took from Kam Chancellor in the Super Bowl has been written about everywhere from Sports Illustrated to The New Yorker, the consensus being that Edelman was concussed by what looked like an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit and shouldn’t have been allowed to play the rest of the game. “I don’t have a comment on that,” he says when pressed about it. “We did all the protocols. We handled it the right way. We passed it. I scored on the next drive. That’s all you need to remember.”
Perhaps. But one only need remember Edelman’s predecessor Wes Welker to appreciate what the ultimate cost of this selfless style of play can be. After a record-breaking career in New England, Welker moved on to the Denver Broncos, where concussions put him on the sideline. Now, despite claiming to have a clean bill of health and plenty of gas in the tank, Welker can’t convince a team to let him play. “Welk has had a good career,” Edelman says, starting to sound vaguely annoyed with the topic. “I can’t worry about what’s happening to other people. I need to worry about what’s happening to me right now. Of course you need to be a little smart and start thinking about down the road, but that’s not the way I’m wired. I’m wired to go out there and go 120 percent at all times and try to win.”
When it comes to winning, Edelman has found the perfect partner in Brady, whom he considers one of his best friends. Both came up the hard way—doubted, undervalued, driven by an indomitable will to win and prove people wrong. “He’s been the ultimate help for me to watch how to be a professional, how to take care of yourself, how to lead, and how to treat people,” Edelman says. “The guy has never done anything wrong in his life. He’s just a prime example to learn from in every facet.”
Cardigan ($1,795), shirt ($375), pants ($725), and sneakers ($495), Ermenegildo Zegna. Copley Place, 617-262-0099. Gent’s Carrera Chrono steel watch, TAG Heuer ($5,500). Sidney Thomas Jewelers, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-0935
Despite their underdog similarities, Brady and Edelman are different kinds of champions off the field. Brady seems to exist in the rarefied circles of supermodels and mansions with moats, while Edelman comes across as a working-class hero. He counts regular guys from Charlestown, Southie, and East Boston among his closest friends in the city, and he has been known to drop in on Harvard sorority parties every now and again. Standing on the roof of a duck boat during the Super Bowl parade, braving arctic temperatures in an undershirt and a pair of Ray-Bans, Edelman looked like any number of guys from the city who had finally made it to the top.
When the photo shoot wraps, Edelman takes the elevator to the street and waits outside the Ritz for his car. “Julian!” a woman says after spotting him. He extends his hand. “I’m so proud of you,” she continues, beaming. “The way you play. We’re just so proud of you.” He thanks the woman graciously. It’s the kind of exchange you might imagine having with your mom’s best friend after you’re accepted into college. Does that ever get tiresome? “No,” he says. “I mean, I can hide if I want to. I’m a 5’10” white guy in Boston.” True, but once he puts on a Patriots jersey, Julian Edelman is impossible to miss. Unless, of course, you’re trying to tackle him.
Styling by Faye Power. Hair by Pini Swissa and makeup by Tavi de la Rosa. Videography by Ian Travis Barnard. Photo assistance by Lili Boxer. Shot on location at the Ritz- Carlton Residences in Boston Catering by Davio’s