When the NFL announced recently that Pro Bowl festivities would be capped by a Sunday series of flag football games between NFC and AFC stars, Robert Edwards had only one piece of advice:
“As long as it’s not in the sand.”
It is not. Sunday’s games will be held inside Las Vegas’s Allegiant Stadium, on the Raiders’ home field. Not on a beach, where it was the last time Pro Bowl week included flag football, back in 1998 in Hawaii. That was a fateful day for the former Patriot, whose invitation to participate in the rookie “Beach Bowl” at Waikiki turned life-changing when he suffered a devastating knee injury after landing awkwardly in the sand.
It was the moment Edwards’s life story became one of “before” and “after,” from a standout rookie season in which he’d gained more than 1,000 yards rushing, to an emergency room and the operating table, where doctors were maybe 10 minutes from amputating his leg because his kneecap had severed a vital artery. That was in addition to the four knee ligaments that were torn.
Never mind playing football, doctors told Edwards he’d be lucky to walk again, and if he did, it would be with a cane.
But a few seconds that permanently altered a future did not turn a man bitter.
No, Edwards doesn’t want football played on the sand. But he does want to see football thrive, just as it did when he worked through two-plus years of grueling rehab to make it back to the NFL, just as it did when he moved on to three productive years in the Canadian Football League, and just as it does when he coaches the team at Washington County High School, his Georgia alma mater, whose charges benefit not only from his knowledge of a playbook but from his experience overcoming adversity.
“Every time I think about it, I always wonder ‘what if,’ how my life would have probably been different,” Edwards recalled this week. “Because of the way I was raised, once doctors told me I’d never play again, that I would have to use a cane for the rest of my life, that I wouldn’t walk normal, in that moment I thought, ‘They don’t know who they’re talking to.’
“The way I was raised, don’t take no for an answer, don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do. I made it a mission to prove what they said I couldn’t do.”
“It was an incredible amount of work,” recalled Ron Courson, the director of sports medicine at the University of Georgia, Edwards’s alma mater, where he would return to extend a rehab process that began with the Patriots.
“It basically became his full-time job. It was all he focused on. He had what we call drop knee, which comes with the peroneal nerve being torn, so he had to get the nerve function to come back just so he could pick up his foot.
“He really tore all four major ligaments. First, he had to learn how to walk again, then he had to learn how to run, then how to cut, then get his strength, power, and range of motion back.
“It really was a catastrophic injury.”
Returning to Georgia helped. He was around the support of his parents and his two brothers — one of whom, Terrence, was just beginning his own record-setting receiving career at Georgia — and the girlfriend who would later become his wife and mother to their three children.
“It was just grueling,” Terrence said. “People take this stuff for granted, not being able to lift your ankle, your toes, not being able to have control of your foot. You could hit his foot with a hammer and he didn’t feel it.
“Learning how to move it, to walk, to run — the hours turned to days to weeks to months to two years of rehab for him to get back to playing football again. That was a tremendous feat in itself. Most people would have quit, taken their ball and gone home. But Robert wouldn’t let it dictate his outcome.”
It was Terrence who alerted Robert to the return of flag football at the Pro Bowl, even tweeting out to the NFL, commissioner Robert Goodell and Peyton Manning that Robert should be invited to this year’s game.
I think Peyton Manning and the @NFL should invite @Robertd3rd to the pro bowl flag football game because we all know what happened the last time the NFL played a flag football Game. @GeorgiaFootball let’s retweet this tweet as much as possible. @nflcommish make this right!— TEwracademy (@TEwracademy) January 17, 2023
Manning, who is coaching the AFC team, also was a participant in that ‘98 Beach Bowl, alongside other standout rookies such as Charles Woodson and R.W. McQuarters, the two players sandwiched around Edwards when the injury occurred. That Manning will have fun facing his brother Eli, the coach of the NFC, is a reminder of the strength of a sibling bond. Terrence just wants to remind the football world of what his brother endured.
“Robert is the most gentle, kindest person you’d ever meet,” Terrence said. “If someone says they don’t like Robert, there’s something wrong with them. He’s non-confrontational, is going to do right by everyone. Him having hate in his heart over what happened, that’s not who he is.
“Of course he’s human, he questioned why, but as time passed, questioning and feeling sorry for himself was not in his DNA. He still loves football, he’s around kids, he’s making an impact in kids’ lives, but I don’t want it to get lost.
“I wish the NFL would send a crew down and interview him, bring him to the game, and everyone could remember what happened.”
The NFL Players Association as well, which Robert said has denied four attempts to have his rehab years be vested, which would help him financially.
The unique circumstances of the situation hurt Edwards’s case, with appeals denied because of the existing definition of credited seasons/benefits, which did not cover players on reserve with a non-football injury.
The Patriots did continue to pay Edwards, who had chosen rehab over a potential insurance settlement at the time of the injury. He justified that faith in himself when he returned to Patriots training camp in 2001, a walking advertisement for perseverance. Though he wouldn’t end up playing another down for the Patriots — he had a hamstring injury early in camp — new coach Bill Belichick seemed sad to part ways.
“This in no way detracts from the remarkable accomplishments Robert has achieved through two years of dedication and commitment,” the coach said 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.”
But Edwards hadn’t. He caught on with the Dolphins, scoring a touchdown in his very first game. But they cut ties after a season, and in the injury-wary business of the NFL, that proved to be the end of the road, eventually pushing Edwards to Canada. But not to a place of bitterness.
“I think the opportunity to change or encourage somebody with my story is why this happened,” he said. “People say all the time they don’t know why things happen, but sometimes when they do, it’s not for you but for the people you’re connected to.
“What happened to me is for me to be talking to you right now or someone to read this or get something from it. Something big or small, a way to help, that is my purpose.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.