I can’t remember exactly when, but it was late in the Patriots' star-crossed 2019 season when I sidled up to Julian Edelman’s locker. He was dressing slowly. Gingerly.
I asked how he was feeling. He smirked and shook his head a little. Then he tugged the collar of his shirt to the side and showed me the top of his shoulder. There was an angry, red, softball-sized lump. It looked like he was growing a second head. Unfortunate.
“The hell?” I said.
Edelman shrugged. Or shrugged about as well as someone sprouting a second head could shrug. And he smirked. It’s suggested that, when something hurts, it’s a good idea to “embrace the pain?” Julian Edelman made love to it.
On this, the day of Edelman’s retirement announcement, we can debate his Hall of Fame credentials and discuss where he stands on the list of all-time Patriots. We can point out that you can’t tell the history of the NFL without mentioning Edelman’s name on multiple occasions. We can remind people that, for a time, he held the mantle of the most explosive punt returner in NFL history. We can argue that, while there were things that Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins could do that Edelman could not, the converse is also true. In a different way, he was just as hard to defend at pivotal moments.
You want to fight about that? As my friend George Chahrouri pointed out on Twitter this evening, that we could even have that fight about a converted, seventh-round QB from Kent State who didn’t get a sniff of a starring role until 2013 is testament enough to his greatness. That Edelman did pretty much all his damage from 2013 to 2020, missed all of 2017 and played 15 games combined between '15 and '20 means he was really only a full-time NFL wideout for six seasons. Six seasons. Three Super Bowl wins? Read the fine print and it's hard to not conclude he was an all-timer.
Now doesn’t really seem the time to squabble about Edelman as much as it’s time to appreciate him as a football player, a guy who was emblematic of what the franchise was about, a truly funny person and someone who – as he’s gotten into his 30s – has used his status and platform in some really positive ways.
Do I have a dog in the fight? I guess to a degree. In a six-week whirlwind in the spring of 2017 I wrote his memoir Relentless. It sold pretty well but I got paid a flat rate to do it so it’s not like I’m collecting royalties. Still, he’s a friend. So are his parents. I don’t stay in regular touch with Julian. He doesn’t text or call. When we see each other we have great conversations. But he’s no open book.
In that way too he is a little bit of a perfect Patriot. He may be out there as a brand but his football business isn’t. And he sure as shit isn’t giving up any state secrets about the team. So it’s a professional friendship we have.
I will divulge here, though, that I slept in his bed. Yeah. Weird. See, the deal with the book was this: Edelman got paid and then he paid me an agreed upon amount and the expenses.
I of course needed to visit Redwood City, California where Edelman grew up (bizarrely, just 10 minutes from where Tom Brady grew up). Edelman’s father, Frank, handles some of Julian’s off-field business stuff and this fell under Frank’s umbrella.
So when we were making plans for me to go out there, Frank told me he wasn’t paying for a hotel room when the house was perfectly fine. So I was staying at the Edelmans. I wasn’t over the moon about that but what am I gonna do?
But they put me up in Julian’s room. Which was, near as I could tell, pretty much unchanged since high school. So there I am, 49 years old and going to sleep in Julian Edelman’s twin bed staring at the ceiling trying to block out reality. But Frank and I wound up spending the whole weekend together, breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday morning basketball. I’d call him a close friend.
The upshot is that, what made Julian Julian was growing up with Frank who was basically a feral child in Northern California. Frank didn’t have little guidance. He kinda had none. It’s all in the book. Anyway, Frank grabbed himself by the scruff of the neck in high school and developed a toughness, work ethic and self-belief that is in the top one percent of people I’ve met.
And when Frank and Angie Edelman had Julian, he became the receptacle of all Frank’s life lessons on toughness, discipline and work ethic. Julian soaked them up. There were fights. There is, on Frank’s part, regret for the manner in which he sometimes coached and parented.
I remember saying to Frank as we drove around Redwood City and he was beating himself up for being too hard on Julian, “It wasn’t like you had a handbook on how to do it.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But it was just too much.”
Maybe. Probably. Who am I to say.
But in reflecting on the end of Edelman’s career, I’m really thinking about the END of Edelman’s career.
After the Super Bowl 51 win over Atlanta and the catch that will live forever, Edelman and I wrote the book. Then on August 25, 2017, before Edelman’s memoir was even released, he blew out his ACL.
Edelman’s reaction that night? “F***. It’s over. Who’s going to want a 32-year-old wide receiver coming off an ACL?”
And yet? He came back and caught 74 passes for 850 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games in the 2018 regular season. He missed the first four games with a PED suspension (dummy him) and then caught 26 passes for 388 yards in the three playoff games leading to the Patriots final Super Bowl win when he was MVP.
In 2019, when the Patriots offense was stripped down to Edelman and James White, Edelman caught 100 passes on 153 targets for 1,117 yards and six touchdowns. Did he lead the league in drops? Yup. With one separated shoulder, the head sprouting out of the other shoulder, cracked ribs and a knee that was intermittently locking up on him. At 33. When every defensive coordinator, linebacker and defensive back knew where Tom Brady was going to go on those “gotta have it plays.” Edelman just kept feeding himself into the wood chipper.
Edelman had a chunk of meniscus floating around in the back of his left knee for years. It was probably traceable to a game against Kentucky back when he was at Kent State and tore his PCL. That never healed and, over the course of time, the knee was getting more and more balky. For a player like Edelman who thrived on practice and a heavy workload, that little chunk and the havoc it was wreaking was becoming a problem. Then, against the Niners last season, another little chunk came loose and his left knee really locked. And that was kinda the death blow. The knee got cleaned up but it’s beat. And now it’s over. Or at least the football’s over.
It’s ironic that, while we’re out here in New England, taking up arms to fight for the Edelman’s right to enter Canton and the rest of the country shouts us down, I just get the feeling -- maybe it’s a hope -- that Edelman is kind of over it.
Julian Edelman is 34 and he’s got – God willing – about five decades on the planet to go, give or take. He very publicly showed what he was all about as a player. What wideout this century spent more time in prime time than him? Everybody knows who he was and what he was about. He doesn’t need a yellow jacket. It would be nice if he got one. But he’s got nothing left to prove.