- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The receiver was running at half speed.
The quarterback, Julian Edelman, simply could not stomach that.
Edelman had warned his Kent State teammate before. Run precise routes. Don't go through the motions. Do your job, even though the team had nothing left to play for but pride.
"But the kid just wasn't listening,'' former Kent State coach Doug Martin said.
The receiver was tired of Edelman riding him. He tuned out the diminutive QB, the know-it-all perfectionist who challenged coaches, baited teammates, kept pushing, pushing, pushing everyone to the brink.
"A lot of the guys didn't like him,'' former Kent State safety Brian Lainhart admitted.
They didn't understand how tirelessly Edelman worked for this opportunity, how many programs looked right through him like he wasn't there, even after dominating in high school, junior college and Kent State.
He was too small, barely 5-foot-2 through his first two years of high school. He had the ability, the drive, but he was manhandled by boys who had already reached puberty. His father Frank assured him, "The Edelmans are late bloomers. Wait 'til you are their size. It won't be fair.''
His father drilled him every day, seven days a week, season to season, football to basketball to baseball, before practice, after practice, on weekends. It was agility drills, conditioning drills, then 200 spirals or 200 jump shots or 200 ground balls.
"No more!" his mother Angie protested. "We're on vacation!"
But the father couldn't stop. He invented conflicts, challenged Julian mentally, reduced his son to tears. "I'm 12 years old and he's in my head,'' Edelman said. "I'm over there crying and he says, 'You have to master this part of it,' and finally I'd get so ticked off I'd battle him back.
"Keep on competing. That's all I knew.''
The Kent State receiver was messing with the wrong undersized, underappreciated football player. So when Edelman launched a pass and the kid didn't make the extra effort to haul it in, the option quarterback sprinted downfield, pinned the receiver to the ground and pummeled him with a flurry of fists.
"It was a brawl,'' Martin said. "But that was Julian, the most fiercely competitive kid I've ever had.''
Five years later, Edelman (now listed as 5-10, 198 pounds) is no longer a quarterback. He's a receiver, a punt returner, and, two seasons ago, when New England's secondary was depleted with injuries, a makeshift defensive back. Edelman will line up against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night as the most dangerous receiver in Tom Brady's arsenal, a player with more than 100 catches and 1,000 yards, who couldn't persuade a single NFL team to surpass the incentive-laden $716,000 the Patriots are paying him this season.
"I may have overreacted with that receiver at Kent State,'' Edelman said, "but I like to do things the right way. I was a fiery guy. I still am.''
In preseason, when players are vying for roster spots on the Patriots, skirmishes are frequent, heated, particularly among the receivers and the secondary.
"It's Edelman,'' Patriots DB Devin McCourty said. "If you are looking for someone in the middle of it, it's almost always him. There's no love lost between the DBs and Julian in training camp.''
"It's an everyday occurrence with him,'' corner Kyle Arrington confirmed. "He's an extreme competitor. He came out with that chip on his shoulder, a small guy from a small school. The chip's still there.''
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui marvels at how Edelman bounces to his feet after crushing hits, still talking, still taking everyone on.
"It's every day,'' Hoomanawanui said. "It doesn't matter if it's big or small, Julian has something to say about it. It will be 'Why did you run that way?' or 'How come I didn't get the ball on that play?'
"The fire is always burning with him. Little man's syndrome, I guess.''
* * *
Frank Edelman lost his father when he was 3 years old. He was small but naturally gifted, and when his mom frequented the local taverns, he tagged along with his baseball mitt and a tennis ball. He played baseball in the back, designating a brick as his home run target. Sometimes he'd borrow his mother's hair spray cap and kick imaginary field goals.
When Frank was a freshman cornerback in high school, he got beat on a deep route.
He quit. He had no father to encourage him to go back and try again.
Regret can be a powerful, lingering, aching sentiment. Frank Edelman's dreams ended when he went to work at an automotive shop to support his mother. He became consumed with making sure his sons fulfilled their potential.
"I was very athletic without any coaching at all,'' Frank explained. "I figured if my kids had a little help, maybe it would get them over the hump.''
So he put Julian in a pair of glasses with one eye plugged up with tape and threw him a football. He forced him to dribble left handed while his right hand was tied behind him. He threw him fastballs, right near his head.
Parents drove by and yelled out the window, "Frank! Why are you throwing bee bees at your 10-year-old son?"
"It was so bad,'' Frank lamented. "I was so possessed. We'd drive around and find a local baseball field and I'd hit him grounders, just enough not to ruin his arm. It was wrong.''
And, yet, the results were striking. Julian led his team to a 12-and-under national championship in Pop Warner. In basketball, he was the go-to guy for the last shot. He was a vacuum at shortstop, a .500 hitter.
He was the best athlete in his class -- until all those kids he ran circles around started growing. Edelman entered Woodside (Calif.) High at 4-foot-11, 70 pounds. Suddenly everyone was taller, bigger, stronger.
For years, Edelman had been chiding Sam Alipape, a talented but marginally motivated football teammate. Suddenly Alipape had 75 pounds on Edelman, so when Julian barked, "Move your lazy butt!" Alipape grabbed him and slammed his head into the locker.
"It was a rough three years,'' Frank said. "These kids he had been dominating wanted some payback.''
Julian Edelman finally grew his own 6 inches between junior and senior year. He led Woodside to a 13-0 mark with 2,237 yards and 29 touchdowns passing, and 964 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing.
He waited for the scholarship offers, but no one came calling, so he visited the College of San Mateo with his parents. Coach Bret Pollack proudly gestured to the photos of the All-Americans on the wall behind his desk. Edelman studied them, then asked Pollack, "Coach, where are you going to put my picture?"
Pollack was a physical education teacher and a fine badminton player. Edelman had never taken a swipe at a shuttlecock in his life, but declared, "I can beat you.''
The first game was 15-1. The next one was 15-2. Twenty games later, Edelman was only losing by a 15-9 margin, but his coach finally shut him down. "Kid," he said, "I've got to go home.'' Edelman desperately persisted. He couldn't handle "no."
"He gets a little fiery, but you can't take it personally,'' Pollack said. "He just wants to get something done.''
Pollack charted out each football practice, assigning points for a poor throw or a crisp route or a successful scramble. Edelman was the only player who kept track during workouts.
"I'd grade him on a slant route and he'd say, 'That was the receiver's fault. I should have two points here,''' Pollack said. "My other coaches said, 'Aren't you bothered he's questioning you all the time?' I said, 'Hell no. He's paying attention.''' Edelman stayed at San Mateo only one semester, just long enough to throw for 1,312 yards and rush for a school-record 1,253 yards. Martin, scouring talent in the Bay area, liked the kid's spunk and offered him a spot on his team.
Martin already had a quarterback, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Baylor. Edelman had never met him, so when he showed up for 7-on-7 drills in the summer, he strode toward him.
"What are you doing?" Edelman asked.
"Practicing my quick kicks,'' the QB answered.
"Keep on practicing those, because pretty soon that's all you'll be doing,'' Edelman said. "I'm taking your job.''
He did, throwing for 4,997 yards and 30 TDs and rushing for 2,483 yards in three seasons at Kent State.
"He changed the culture of our whole program,'' Martin said. "He wasn't going to stop until he proved everyone wrong.''
Edelman roomed with Brian Lainhart, a safety with pro aspirations who shared his competitive nature. They became best friends, even though they were on opposite sides of the ball. Because he was the quarterback, Edelman wore the "no contact" red jersey in practice.
"So one day I pick off one of his passes,'' Lainhart said. "I'm jogging into the end zone. He's got the red jersey on, but he comes at me full throttle and sends me sprawling. He hits me so hard I do a flip. This is my best friend, my roommate, a groomsman in my wedding, and he's taking me out at the knees.
"We went at it. I'm screaming, 'You're wearing the red jersey, Julian!' and he comes back with, 'You should have known I wasn't going to let you score!'''
Edelman and Lainhart competed in darts, Xbox, games of H-O-R-S-E in the backyard. When Edelman lost, he kicked the ball into the woods.
"He's like a 12-year old,'' Lainhart said, "but it's his best trait. Julian's still playing like a little undersized kid that nobody thought would make it.''
In Edelman's senior season, Kent State was milking a lead over Buffalo in the final seconds. It was third-and-14 and a first down for Kent State would clinch it. "Julian has the ball and he's in trouble, but he runs over two guys, makes another one miss, and dives for the first down,'' said Martin. "That personified his career.''
Lainhart's lasting memory was against Akron when Kent State was down 7 and facing a 4th-and-31 with less than a minute left. Edelman retreated, cut, ducked, avoided a slew of would-be tacklers and scrambled for 64 yards. Then he threw a TD to tie the game.
Kent State lost in overtime. A disheartened Lainhart, who picked off three passes, asked rhetorically, "What else could we have done?" Edelman growled, "[Expletive]! We've got to do more.'' Edelman knew he had no future as an NFL quarterback. Martin allowed him to return punts on a day scouts were in the stands so they could be exposed to his versatility.
"Truth was, we muffed a few punts in previous games," Edelman said. "If things weren't going right, I'd go up to the coaches and say, 'Let me do it.' Coach Martin was the kind of guy who would actually let me.'' With the 232rd pick in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, the Patriots selected Julian Edelman, Kent State, quarterback, personal punt protector and resident agitator. When Bill Belichick called, he said, "I don't know what we'll do with you, but we'll find something.'''
Edelman's early attempts at punt returning were a series of misadventures. He was booed by the discerning New England fans and retreated to the film room, asked for extra reps after practice. Four years later, he's now one of the premier returners in the game.
The task of transitioning from quarterback to receiver was painstaking, at times demoralizing, and required the one thing Edelman did not possess: patience.
"People can criticize all they want, but he had never played receiver in his whole life," Frank Edelman said. "Now he's battling how to get out of press coverages. I'm so proud of him.''
Last season, Edelman was being groomed as a replacement for Wes Welker, his good friend and mentor, who was approaching free agency. But Edelman broke his foot and his narrative -- the little tough guy who can't stay healthy -- dogged him.
New England later signed injury-prone receiver Danny Amendola to a multiyear contract worth millions. Edelman received a tiny nibble from the Giants but returned to New England for short dollars.
"It was frustrating for Julian,'' Lainhart said. "It was frustrating for him going into camp. He had to rehab.
"Everyone else was in minicamp, OTAs, and all he could do was ride the bike.''
Amendola was billed as the able replacement for Welker, but that was wrong. The overlooked kid from Kent State and San Mateo and Woodside and Frank Edelman's backyard is the one who stepped up.
"One thing I've learned from everyone around here is be prepared for your opportunity,'' Edelman said. "Whether it's taking actual reps, or mental reps, or watching extra film, make sure you're ready.
"Sometimes it's gone my way and sometimes it hasn't. But I don't want to go back one day and say, 'I wish I had done this' or 'I wish I had done that.'''
Frank Edelman says he wishes he wasn't so hard on his son. He frets he did the wrong thing. Julian Edelman won't hear any of that.
"I wouldn't be here now without my father and the love of my mother,'' Edelman said. "It was a great balance. They are my foundation.''
He will not be overlooked this time in free agency. He and Brady are kindred spirits, establishing a solid connection from offseasons of "gentlemen's bets,'' tallying points for bad throws or missed catches. Edelman's leap in production from last season is stunning: from 21 catches to 105, from 235 yards to 1,056.
"As a competitor, I'm not shocked by what's happened, but as a New England Patriot, I'm groomed not to think about those accolades right now,'' Edelman said. "Maybe when the season is over you can take a look at what you did, but it's only going to get harder, because you have to do it again.''
He will not let up. He can't. How else could he have secured his photo above coach Pollack's desk? How else could he have changed positions on the fly, a seventh-round pick with the numbers of a first-round talent?
He still pushes and pushes and pushes, but as Hoomanawanui noted, "He's the first one here and the last to leave. He's a great example for everyone.''
The defensive backs who want to punch him in training camp now feed off his urgency, his fire. Edelman is a marked man in these playoffs, and he knows it.
Practice has been edgy this week in preparation for the Colts. There's a chance a punch or two has been thrown, though Arrington would only smile knowingly when asked for confirmation.
"That's Edelman,'' Arrington said. "Man, I love that guy.''
Julian Edelman's success no surprise to those who know him best.