Edelman’s blind belief in himself explains why he will carry a personal 15-game winning streak into the AFC Championship Game in Denver. He has gone nearly 14 months without experiencing defeat as an active player (his last loss was to Green Bay on Nov. 30, 2014), and if you think that’s something of a coincidence, think again. As much as this week has revolved around Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two lions of their craft, Edelman will be a third old quarterback out there who will have plenty to say about who wins and who doesn’t.
How did Edelman become the lost Wahlberg brother of Dorchester, a guy you could easily imagine chanting profane things about the Yankees from the cheapest Fenway Park seats?
The answers start in a Pop Warner league more than 3,100 miles from Gillette Stadium. Frank Edelman, a mechanic by trade, was the coach, and Julian was his star on a national-championship team. “I coached baby football and then some high school ball,” Frank said, “and I’d always tell my defensive line where I was running the ball. ‘We’re going through the 6 hole, now try to stop us.’ We’d run a play 20 times in practice to get it right, like the old Vince Lombardi sweep, and Jules got used to that.”
“His whole life was about execution, execution, execution, and the Patriots play execution football,” Frank continued. “They don’t have a Dez Bryant on the outside and throw up a 50-50 ball and hope he catches it. Every play has to be carried out the right way, and that’s how Jules always played. And then all of a sudden he ends up with Bill Belichick.”
In 2009, Julian Edelman was delivered to Belichick as a seventh-round draft pick who could not be coached any harder than he had already been coached.
Frank Edelman grew up without a father, without any money or any guidance in sports, and he started mowing lawns at age 9, busing tables at 14 and fixing cars at 15. He wanted something better for his three children, and Julian, the middle child, projected as a gifted, driven athlete who, in his father’s mind, wanted and needed constant drilling to max out his potential.
If the stories of Frank’s parenting aren’t already as legendary as those involving Earl Woods (Tiger’s dad) and Marv Marinovich (Todd’s dad), they’re close enough. Marinovich, a strength coach, was said to have used Eastern Bloc dieting and training methods on a quarterbacking son who quickly burned out; and Woods, a Green Beret, was said to have used what he called “psychological warfare” — coughing and dropping clubs and jangling car keys in Tiger’s backswing — on a golfing prodigy who did not. Among other things, Frank fired chin-music fastballs at Julian, inspiring one father-son brawl near the mound, and made him catch punts with one arm tied behind his back.
Asked where he thought he landed on the Woods-Marinovich scale, with Tiger’s father on the far more forgiving side, Frank said, “We’re obviously somewhere in the middle. I was hard on my son, and it was seven days a week, 365 days a year. But Jules bought into it and always wanted more.”
Actually the Edelmans gave themselves one week off in the summer, the last week in July, before football started on Aug. 1. They needed their youth baseball all-star team to lose early in the playoffs to earn that week of camping and boating at California’s Lake Camanche or Lake Tahoe. It was the one time in their lives that Frank and Julian Edelman were willing to accept — even embrace — something other than unconditional victory.
The kid wasn’t even five feet in height when he enrolled at Woodside High School. He used to cry to his father over a growth spurt that refused to come, but he finally shot up to 5-foot-10 by his senior year. Edelman wasn’t on any college staff’s watch list. His junior season had ended in disgrace when Woodside administrators forfeited the final two games on the schedule after some players (not including Edelman) chanted obscenities at their coach following a loss; the coach later resigned. At Frank Edelman’s urging, Woodside athletic director Steve Nicolopulos returned for a second go-around as head coach at the school, and he watched his dual-threat quarterback zigzag his team to a 13-0 record and a sectional state title.
“With Julian,” Nicolopulos said, “Frank could be very demanding. But he had every good intention in what he did with his son. There aren’t enough Franks in this world to make it a better place.”
The College of San Mateo took in the undersized running quarterback, and one record-shattering season later, Edelman was hoping for some Division I takers. Kent State coach Doug Martin, coming off a 1-10 season, sent his assistant, Pete Rekstis, to California to do a head-to-toe examination of every juco quarterback in the state. The Kent State staff kept hearing that the best available prospect at that position was a student at San Mateo and that the major colleges would be all over him if he happened to be four inches taller.
Casey Wolf, then Martin’s director of football operations, picked up Edelman at the airport. Wolf remembered seeing a film of the recruit and thinking he looked just like Josh Cribbs, the Kent State quarterback who had become a return specialist for the Cleveland Browns. On the ride back to the airport, Edelman turned to Wolf and said, “I’m not coming here to sit.”
In between, Edelman sat with the head coach and told him the same thing. “He had a great swagger about him,” Martin said, “and we needed that in our program.” In the early hours of summer workouts, Edelman looked over at the incumbent quarterback, a 6-foot-6 pocket passer and former draft pick of the Atlanta Braves named Michael Machen, who was practicing his punting (Martin was a fan of the quick kick) during a seven-on-seven. Eyewitnesses offer slightly different versions of what Edelman told the incumbent, but it went something like this: “You might as well keep working on that, because that’s all you’re going to be doing while I’m here.”
Edelman wasn’t the easiest guy with whom to share a field or a locker room. One day, he warned a talented receiver named Sam Kirkland that he had better start running his routes harder, or else. The next time Kirkland ran what the quarterback thought was an indifferent pattern, Martin said, Edelman “flew down the field, tackled Sam and started throwing punches before we all ran down and broke it up. Julian and Sam ended up being great friends.”
Kirkland, who would sign with the Washington Redskins and make a brief stop on the Patriots’ practice squad, declined to comment on the incident. But he wrote the following of Edelman in an email to ESPN.com: “No question, he’s the best competitor I’ve ever been around, and I’m not surprised one bit at the success he’s had at the next level. I learned a lot from him watching his practice habits and fierce work ethic at Kent, which helped me better myself, as well. He’s just one of the guys that every team has that you know if you don’t match or exceed his level of effort each and every day, you’ll never be great. He set the bar, and I have nothing but much respect.”
Edelman ended up rooming with Brian Lainhart, a safety who would sign with the Cincinnati Bengals, and Cobrani Mixon, a linebacker who would sign with the Detroit Lions. Both felt the full depth of his inner rage.
“Julian would piss people off, because he wouldn’t put up with anyone cutting corners,” said Lainhart, now the head coach at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati. “If you’re a person who accepts mediocrity, you won’t get along with Julian. He won’t associate with people striving to be average. He won’t talk to you in a bar if you give an average effort, even if you’re a starter, and that did rub people the wrong way.”
Edelman, Lainhart and Mixon took turns ripping one another for mistakes made on the practice field and in games, holding themselves more accountable than the coaches did. “Even when you played a Tiger Woods golf video game with Julian,” Lainhart said, “it would turn into a UFC match by the seventh hole.”
Mixon, now Lainhart’s defensive coordinator at Walnut Hills, called Edelman “the most self-motivated person I’ve ever met.” They had contests to see who could wake up the earliest to start a day of workouts, and sometimes 4 a.m. wasn’t the winning score. The first time Mixon met Edelman, the linebacker was about to finish a breakaway off a steal in a friendly pickup basketball game before Edelman charged and blasted him with the kind of no-layup foul you might see in a Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
“Who the hell is this guy?” Mixon asked a teammate.
“Don’t worry,” the teammate said. “That’s just our new quarterback.”
Before the draft, Mixon recalled Edelman rising long before dawn, fixing himself breakfast and then jumping into his beaten-down Chevy pickup (the heat didn’t even work) for the 80-mile round-trip drive to Cleveland to work out with prospects who, unlike Edelman, were slotted near the top of many draft boards. “And then he’d drive to Akron to learn how to be a receiver with Frye, and then he’d come back and run some more routes at Kent,” Mixon said. “It was a 12- or 14-hour grind, day in and day out.”
“I knew if Julian made it into somebody’s camp, it would be impossible for anyone to cut him,” Martin continued. “And the Patriots were a perfect fit; he embodies everything they’re about.”