ATLANTA – The Gophers football team began the 2006 season with a trip to Kent, Ohio. On Aug. 31, the Gophers played Kent State, and freshman Eric Decker, who would become a star receiver in the NFL, made his first college catch.
Another future NFL star made an uncelebrated debut on that warm Thursday night. This one, an undersized high school quarterback from Woodside High in northern California, had failed to attract big-school scholarships and had played a season at the College of San Mateo.
Still short and skinny, the kid gave up on his dream of playing for a major-conference power and enrolled at Kent State for his final three seasons. He told the incumbent quarterback that he would be taking over immediately. And he did.
In his first game, against the Gophers, the kid completed seven of 13 passes for 150 yards and ran 14 times for 31 yards. He threw three interceptions and the Gophers won 44-0.
Sunday night, that skinny quarterback who got swamped by the Gophers was named the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl. Julian Edelman remembers every step that led to every catch.
“My first game was against Minnesota,” Edelman said late Sunday night. “And we lost.”
Did he foresee an NFL career as a receiver? “At that time, I didn’t,” he said. “I was just trying to go out and help Kent State win some ballgames.”
Sunday, as most of the Rams and Patriots played offensive football as if shackled by ankle bracelets, Edelman continued to build a postseason résumé that most Hall of Famers would envy. Making moves that had defenders staggering like punch-drunk boxers, he created swaths of space and filled them with 10 catches for 141 yards. He also rushed once for 8 yards. He gained 149 of the Patriots’ 408 yards.
Edelman would become the first player in Super Bowl history to have at least seven catches and 75 receiving yards in the first half, and by the end of the night he would rank second in postseason receiving yards to Jerry Rice. “It’s an honor to be put in the same sentence with Mr. Rice,” Edelman said.
This should be a sweet and simple success story, but because this is Edelman and the Patriots there are complications. New England’s fixtures, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, have been accused of football espionage, and Edelman, now built like an MMA fighter, missed the first four games this season after violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Under baseball’s rules, he would have been ineligible for the postseason. In football, he may have been the difference between the Patriots winning the Super Bowl and failing to qualify for it. “He just played the best game he has all year,” Brady said.
If you don’t believe that Edelman intentionally cheated or is still reaping the benefits of whatever he ingested, you can admire his pass routes and career path. He’s powerfully built and possesses remarkable quickness and agility. His shuttle-run time was one of the reasons the Patriots drafted a small-school quarterback in the seventh round in 2009 to play with Brady.
This week Edelman mimicked Belichick’s first conversation with him after the draft: “We don’t really know what you’re going to play, but we know you can play football,” Edelman said, daring to imitate his boss’ clipped speaking pattern.
This is how the Patriots win Super Bowls. They find smart, tough, adaptable, overlooked athletes, and if they bend a rule, they don’t dwell on it.
“I’m getting to live out a dream, so it’s pretty surreal,” Edelman said. “I think everything happens for a reason. I was always taught as a young boy that you had to work hard, put in the extra time and we’ll see where it goes. Worry about what you’ve got on your plate at that time. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
The Gophers didn’t know it on Aug. 31, 2006, but they were sharing Kent State’s modest stadium with a future Super Bowl MVP.