From one second to the next, Robert Edwards’ life was changed forever. Before he jumped up to defend a pass in a four-on-four flag football game leading up to the NFL’s 1999 Pro Bowl, he was a star in the making: the New England Patriots had drafted him with the 18th overall selection just ten months earlier and he immediately had an impact on a team that had to replace lead running back Curtis Martin, who had left for the New York Jets.
Serving as the Patriots’ new top option in the backfield, the Georgia product saw action in all 17 of his team’s games that season and quickly showed why a first-round pick was invested in him. Edwards touched the football 346 times during his rookie campaign, by far the most on the team, gained 1,507 yards and scored a combined 13 touchdowns on the ground and through the air. In short: he was pretty good in 1998.
So good, in fact, that the NFL sent him to Hawaii to participate in the lead up to the Pro Bowl. No, he was not picked to actually play in the game, but as one of the season’s outstanding rookies, the league invited him to partake in the so-called “Rookie Beach Bowl” alongside other top draft picks like the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning or the Oakland Raiders’ Charles Woodson. Woodson, in fact, was on the same team as Edwards.
Just like the Patriots’ back, he too jumped up to defend Charlie Batch’s pass intended for wide receiver R.W. McQuarters. Woodson and McQuarters got back up, Edwards did not. He landed awkwardly and did not feel any pain right away — the pain would come later. After he was carried off the field under applause and placed on a buffet table for initial evaluation. The pain started in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Edwards had not only torn three ligaments in his left knee — the ACL, MCL and PCL — and partially tore his LCL tendon as well, he had also suffered major nerve damage. On top of all this, and most serious of all his injuries, he had sliced the artery in his left leg. That is when the then 24-year old was told that his leg might have to be amputated if the blood flow was not sufficiently stopped or the sutures in his artery did not hold.
His dream of playing football again was over either way, according to the doctors, and even if his leg was saved the injury might still severely impact his ability to walk in the future. One year into Edwards’ professional career, it was all but over again. Except that it was not: not only was his leg saved and he was able to walk again, Edwards also returned to the gridiron two years after his gruesome injury.
In the summer of 2001, he attempted a comeback with the Patriots but a groin injury suffered during training camp set him back again. Ultimately, New England — now no longer led by Pete Carroll but by Bill Belichick — moved on and released its former first-round pick with an injury settlement. “This in no way detracts from the remarkable accomplishments Robert has achieved through two years of dedication and commitment,” said Belichick at the time.
“He has our lasting respect and admiration and his story will always be an inspiration to everyone. We just reached the point where we ran out of time,” continued his statement issued by the team. In March of the following year, a month after New England won its first ever Super Bowl, the Miami Dolphins gave Edwards another chance at continuing his NFL dream — one that actually worked better.
He made Miami’s roster as a change-of-pace back and appeared in 12 games during the 2002 season, touching the football 38 times for 233 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While it was not the same level of production, it was still a tremendous accomplishment three years removed from a serious injury. After leaving Miami, Edwards would go on to continue his career in Canada before stepping away from football for good in 2008.
Looking back, Edwards’ career was one of untapped potential but also one of perseverance and strength — an inspirational tale of overcoming the odds. However, it also is still a relatively fresh wound in New England’s memory on its 20th anniversary. With the Pro Bowl coming up later today, it serves as a reminder of just how quickly the NFL dream can die and how athletes are not the superhuman beings they are oftentimes portrayed to be.