When Malcolm Mitchell announced his retirement a few weeks ago, there was a name that I just couldn’t get out of my head: Robert Edwards. Not since Edwards have Patriots fans had a player show so much promise his rookie year, only for his Patriots career to be taken from us due to injury. Clearly, the two injuries were much different, but the lost opportunity was the same.
The feel for Patriots fans of finding a player at a huge position of need, only to have his talents taken away from us far too soon. Edwards is a guy who is looked back on in sadness by older Patriots fans — a player who we loved right away, who never got to reach his full potential. In a way, Malcolm Mitchell might become this younger generation’s Robert Edwards.
I decided that the best way to tell Mitchell’s story was to tell Edwards’ story as well. Not only his time with the Patriots, but everything that has happened since. The former first-round draft pick was kind enough to speak to me for this, and, as you’ll see, just like Mitchell, his story isn’t one of sadness and loss, but of inspiration.
It was 1998, Curtis Martin had just left to go to the hated Jets to join Bill Parcells. Because Martin was a restricted free agent, the Patriots got first and third round draft picks for him. The first rounder was used on the guy who could potentially replace the future Hall of Famer, Robert Edwards. A running back who had suffered a few injuries in college, but had still run for 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns in his final two years at Georgia.
Edwards was an instant success with the Patriots, setting an NFL record by rushing for a touchdown in each of his first six games as a pro. He would finish the season with over 1,000 yards rushing and nine scores to go along with 35 receptions and another three receiving touchdowns. If it weren’t for Randy Moss’ ridiculous rookie season, Edwards would . have probably won Rookie of the Year honors.
Then, he was asked to play a game of beach football at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. It was supposed to be a fun event — on the play where his life was changed forever, Peyton Manning was actually playing cornerback, and everyone was having a good time. Until Edwards, R.W. McQuarters, and Charles Woodson all went up for a pass. Woodson and McQuarters landed on Edwards while his knee was at a weird angle, and in an instant, not only his football career, but his leg, was in jeopardy.
Edwards had torn his ACL, MCL, and PCL, had partially torn his LCL, had suffered nerve damage, and had sliced an artery in his leg. If the bleeding from the artery couldn’t be stopped, doctors feared they may have to amputate his leg. Thankfully, the doctors didn’t have to amputate his leg, but they assured him that his playing career was over. Edwards decided he wasn’t going to accept that fate, so he decided to change it.
“I just wanted to fight against the odds,” Edwards said when I asked him what kept him going during his rehab, “Prove to myself that I could overcome the injury.”
He fought the odds and won, and, two years after his horrible injury, was in training camp trying to make the Patriots roster again. Unfortunately, a groin injury derailed his attempt to get back in the league. “No matter how much you believe in yourself, you gotta have someone believe in you on the other end,” he said when I asked him about trying to come back in the NFL. “When you have an injury history, teams shy away from you.”
It took another season, but Edwards made the Dolphins in 2002. He even scored two touchdowns in his first game back, but they would be his only two scores of the year, and he would only touch the ball a total of 38 times that season. Eventually, he was cut by the Dolphins and never played in the NFL again. “You fight for your dreams, but you need someone else to fight for them too,” Edwards told Pats Pulpit.
His NFL career was over, but his football career was not: after a few years off, he went to Canada to play in the CFL. In his first two seasons with the Montreal Alouettes, he was an All-Star. Edwards rushed for over 1,000 yards in each season, and had 25 total combined touchdowns those two years. Unfortunately, he was cut after his second season, and spent one final year in Toronto before retiring from football for good.
After his career was over, he decided that he wasn’t done with the game just yet. Edwards stayed in the game by becoming a high school football coach in Georgia. He thought his experiences could help the kids playing the sport today: “I’ve experienced every part of the sport you can experience,” he said, when talking about how he tried to relate to his players. “I’ve been on top, in the middle, and on the bottom.”
That means every kid, from the great athlete who’s going on to play in division one, to the one who has to fight through injuries, to the one who will never play college ball, can learn from their coach and his life experiences. I asked him if he had any advice for Malcolm Mitchell now that he has retired from the sport — also after finding success during his rookie year only to saw injuries derail his career.
“Find the next phase of your life. Make that new aspiration to leave your mark. Use your story to make someone else successful,” Edwards said. Mitchell, it seems, is already well on his way to doing this through his Read With Malcolm initiative. With that, and his book, “The Magician’s Hat,” he’s out changing the lives of children everyday.
That’s another thing that Edwards and Mitchell have in common: trying to change the lives of the youth around them by using their experiences. Mitchell draws a lot of his inspiration from discovering a love of reading later in life, but something tells me he’s going to use his story from the game of football to inspire as well.
Guys like Edwards and Mitchell are always doing that, as Edwards said: “It’s not about what happens to you, it’s about how you respond to it.” It’s their response that makes Edwards and Mitchell special people. That’s just one more thing that links these two former Patriots together, and why, even after all these years, people still remember Robert Edwards. Something tells me Patriots fan won’t soon forget Malcolm Mitchell either.
Pat is a co-host of The Patriot Nation Podcast
Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats