ATLANTA — The first player on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field was Julian Edelman, his face colonized by a bird’s nest beard, his reputation protected by the mores of his sport. At 3:15 p.m. Sunday, more than three hours before Super Bowl LIII, Edelman settled at the 15-yard line, wearing black Spandex shorts and a red T-shirt, a blue New England Patriots cap and headphones perched on his head.
A Patriots staffer helped Edelman run through warm-up drills. Over and over, Edelman pumped his fists, stuttered his feet, bobbed his head outside, turned inside and caught a pass from the staffer. Then he’d rifle it back underhanded. Then he walked to the other hash mark and repeat — pump, stutter, bob, catch, over and over. Then the staffer zinged passes from seven yards away at Edelman’s shins. He caught them in an infielder’s crouch, then with his hips facing the right sideline, then the left, plucking the ball a few inches off the turf. At 3:27 p.m., he fist-bumped the passer and trudged into the tunnel.
Hours later, as midnight approached, Edelman was one of the last players to leave the Patriots locker room. “You going to Disneyland?” teammate Matthew Slater asked him. “Disney World?” Edelman had earned the trip during the Patriots’ 13-3 triumph, catching 10 passes for 141 yards and earning Most Valuable Player honors.
Eight of Edelman’s catches went for first downs. During the first half, Edelman constituted the brunt of New England’s offense, helping to keep the Patriots on the field even as they struggled to score points. On a Patriots offense with limited outside options, Edelman beat defenders constantly, sometimes by comical margins, especially when slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman attempted to cover him. Edelman finished runs after the catch with violence, twice plowing though tacklers for first downs.
“I’m getting to live out a dream, so it’s pretty surreal right now,” Edelman said. “I think everything happens for a reason. I was always taught as a young boy that you always just have to work hard. Work as hard as you can, put in the extra time and we will see where it goes.”
Change the sport, or alter the perspective of the fan base, and Edelman’s hard-work sentiment would elicit dubious eye-rolls, if not outright scorn. The NFL suspended Edelman the first four games of this season for using a performance-enhancing substance. Edelman, who was rehabbing from knee surgery last year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason, admitted to the offense, telling reporters during training camp, “I’m definitely accountable for that.”
The performance-enhancing drug suspension has been largely (but not entirely) absent in the discussion of Edelman’s excellence and, in some corners, his long-shot Hall of Fame candidacy. Try to imagine the difference in tone if theoretically a World Series MVP had been popped for PEDs and missed 40 games. It’s not even possible — MLB players busted during the season can’t play in the postseason. Baseball drug cheats are met with pitchforks. Football drug cheats are met with shrugs. They aren’t even really considered cheats.
Or consider the way those busted for drug offenses are treated at the Olympics. Every Russian in Pyeongchang last year was booed. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who had once been banned two years for taking amphetamines, was jeered every time his name was announced.
In Atlanta, the only reason anybody regarded Edelman as a villain is because he played for the Patriots.
Baseball record books are viewed as a sacred part of the game, while football record books are less relevant than who’s on your fantasy team. The Steroid Era in baseball is associated with artificially rearranging those records, while in football, nobody much cares about what goes in the record books.
The Olympics, at least on a competitive level, underneath corporate polish and exploitative practices by IOC and local officials, are perceived as an unadulterated distillation of athletic measurement, and drugs pollute that purity. Fans view football players as gladiators with cartoonish physiques who wear armor to play their game. And if one of them gets benched for PED use, well, is his backup available on the fantasy waiver wire?
However tainted or untainted, Edelman has built a unique legacy out of a Horatio Alger career path. He played quarterback at Kent State, and his quickness and toughness convinced the Patriots to draft him in the seventh round in 2009. He struggled to find playing time at first. In 2011, Coach Bill Belichick used him as a part-time defensive back.
“He was trying to get himself established,” said Slater, Edelman’s roommate at the time. “We just kept telling each other we got to keep working hard. We got to keep believing we can do this, and maybe one day it will work out for us. Here it is, 10 years later for him. We found a way.”
Now, Edelman will be remembered as an essential piece of the Brady-Belichick dynasty, a player who reinforced and redefined the importance of a slot receiver. Only Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski have caught more passes from Brady in the regular season.
Edelman’s place in NFL history, though, will be tied to his postseason performance. In the late stage of the Patriots’ reign, Edelman has showed up at the biggest moments. He threw a touchdown pass in a victory over an excellent Ravens team in a divisional game. He scored the game-winning touchdown against Seattle in one Super Bowl win, and he made an iconic, game-saving circus catch against the Falcons in another, plucking a ball inches off the turf.
Since 2013, the year Edelman replaced Welker in the slot, the Patriots are 11-2 in the playoffs when Edelman plays. In those games, Edelman has averaged 8.2 catches for 102.8 yards.
It would be hard to argue against Edelman’s case as the greatest postseason wide receiver in the non-Jerry Rice division of football history. Edelman had already caught more passes in the playoffs than anybody but Rice, and his 115 postseason receptions puts him within shouting distance of Rice’s 151. He increased his playoff receiving yards total to 1,412, moving past Cliff Branch and Michael Irvin into second place, still well behind Rice’s extraterrestrial 2,245 playoff receiving yards.
“It’s an honor to be put in the same sentence with Mr. Rice, Jerry Rice,” Edelman said. “But I’m just worried about now.”
Late Sunday night, now meant packing for the offseason. After a news conference, Edelman slumped on a chair in front of his locker, wearing the toll of taking and delivering so many hits. He took heavy breaths as he slowly peeled tape off his fingers. He chomped on an unlit cigar, a gift from owner Bob Kraft, who told him it had been aged for 50 years.
Edelman stuffed a small bag, a playbook and a notebook into a suitcase. He walked around the room, not leaving until he sought out Patriots equipment managers.
“Appreciate it, bro,” he said to one.
“Appreciate you, bro,” Edelman told another. “Thank you for putting up with me.”
Edelman slung a bag over his shoulder and walked toward the exit, toward a parade at Disney World, toward the offseason. He was not looking back, in part because his sport demands he does not.
“It was nice, Atlanta,” Edelman said, to no one in particular. “Nice doing business with you. See you next year.”