Passing the torch
Welker substitute Edelman shows a burning desire
FOXBOROUGH - Want to know just how much confidence Julian Edelman has? He once challenged his offensive coordinator at the College of San Mateo to a game of badminton. Edelman didn’t know how to play. The coordinator taught a badminton class at the college.
When Bret Pollack accepted Edelman’s challenge, he didn’t expect a marathon match. Pollack won the first game and the second and the third.
“He would not stop,’’ Pollack said. “He’s a horrible badminton player, No. 1, but his competitive desire wouldn’t let him stop.’’
About 20 games and nearly five hours later, the contest ended without a victory for Edelman. It may be the only thing Edelman has been unable to conquer.
“I’ve learned to never bet against him,’’ Pollack said.
A seventh-round draft pick out of Kent State, Edelman is expected to make his debut in the NFL playoffs as a starter Sunday against the Ravens. Yesterday, the Patriots placed Wes Welker on injured reserve after he hurt his knee in the regular-season finale. Replacing the NFL leader in receptions (123) may present Edelman, a former college quarterback, with his biggest challenge yet.
“The thing about him is, the bigger the spotlight and the bigger the game, the better he’ll play,’’ Kent State coach Doug Martin said. “He really embraces those types of opportunities. He’s not Wes Welker. He’s Julian Edelman, and he’ll be just fine.’’
Edelman grew up in Northern California, near San Mateo, where Tom Brady was raised. Edelman led Woodside High to a 13-0 record as quarterback before graduating in 2004. When college coaches were looking for quarterbacks, they passed on Edelman, often referring to his height. The Patriots list Edelman at 6 feet, but his for mer college coaches refer to him as 5 feet 10 inches, which may be giving him an inch or two.
Either way, it wasn’t enough of a reason to deter Edelman. Without many options for college, he stayed local and listened to a pitch from the College of San Mateo in a room decorated with photos of All-Americans. When the session ended, Edelman was asked if he had any questions. He had one.
According to Pollack, Edelman said, “Are you going to put my picture up there when I get All-American?’’
In one season at the junior college, Edelman threw for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns. He rushed for a school-record 1,253 yards and 17 touchdowns and was the Most Valuable Player in the region. His picture is on the wall.
So much confidence can leave a bad impression, but Pollack said the key is to understand Edelman.
“It’s figuring out where it comes from,’’ Pollack said. “If it comes from cockiness, it’s bad. If it’s from confidence, then that’s what he really believes. You have to be careful that you don’t squelch that because that’s what makes him good. It’s that intangible.’’
As a result, Edelman rarely backed down from anything. He took on playground-like challenges, such as trying to hit the goal post from 40 yards or completing a difficult pass.
“He would get so mad if he couldn’t do it, but if he did, he’d let you know if he did it,’’ Kent State safety Brian Lainhart said.
But there was no denying Edelman’s ability to lead. Lainhart and Edelman were roommates and became close friends. Edelman had the respect of his teammates for his leadership and skills, Lainhart said.
“We always joke around on defense that he was more of a linebacker in a quarterback spot the way he played,’’ Lainhart said. “He’s so intense you could hear him yelling on the sideline. He’s a fiery kind of a guy - a linebacker in a quarterback’s body.’’
That element of Edelman’s game was displayed in the last game of his college career. Against Mid-American Conference rival Buffalo, Kent State needed a first down to seal the victory. On third down, Edelman was stumped 3 yards shy, but he broke free with a spin move and picked up the first down.
“He broke three tackles and ran over four people,’’ Martin said. “He did whatever he had to do to make that play. I told our coaches, ‘That play sums up his whole career.’ ’’
Edelman ended his senior year with 1,820 passing yards, completing 153 of 275 attempts. He tossed 13 touchdown passes. He also led the team in rushing with 1,551 yards on 215 carries, adding 13 rushing touchdowns.
“Julian’s ability was overall as a player,’’ Martin said. “You look at his total yardage and his impact on this team and he was far and away the best player in the league.’’
Edelman’s versatility made him an ideal fit for the Patriots. Larry Owens, the head coach at San Mateo, said he wasn’t surprised when New England picked him.
“He was one of those kids that you could put him anywhere and he would perform,’’ Owens said. “He was going to make something happen on defense or offense.’’
“It’s pretty remarkable what he’s done as a former quarterback, which I don’t know how he was a former quarterback because he can’t throw at all,’’ said Brady, with a smile. “He tries to tell me, ‘Yeah, I threw for 2,000 yards.’ I’m like, ‘Man, you can’t hit that wall over there.’ And he somehow was playing. I’m glad he plays receiver and not quarterback anymore, for his sake and our sake.’’
However, Edelman’s experience at quarterback has helped him adjust faster, Brady said.
“He was a running quarterback, so that helps him with running routes,’’ Brady said. “But he plants really well and plants off one foot, and he’s obviously got great hand-eye coordination.
“He’s a smart kid. He loves football. We grew up in the same area, Julian and I, and he’s just a good player. He’s just really smart, instinctive.
“And I think all those things that maybe as a quarterback he saw, he uses those as a receiver - things that I’m looking for, spots that he needs to be in. For him to play college quarterback and then now be pretty much a starting receiver in the NFL less than a year later, it’s really a credit to him and his hard work.’’
After Welker left last Sunday’s game, Edelman stepped in to catch 10 passes for 103 yards. After the loss to Houston, Edelman said he would “do a lot of studying and just prepare like I did all year. All I can do is work hard and take the coaching that we’ve had and go with it.’’
Earlier this week, Lainhart said, he had the chance to speak with Edelman.
“I mean, he’s preparing like he always has,’’ Lainhart said. “He downplays everything. That’s the way he’s always been. He still feels like he has to earn his spot, so he’s going to be ready. I’m sure he’s working his tail off.’’
No matter what happens, Lainhart said, Edelman can be proud.
“I really respect the kid,’’ Lainhart said. “Everybody said he couldn’t do it, and he’s doing it.’’
Monique Walker can be reached at email@example.com.