Entering the 1998 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots were a team in transition.
One season removed from the abrupt departure of Bill Parcells after Super Bowl XXXI, the Patriots were very much still a contending team in 1997. Winning 10 games and a playoff game under new head coach Pete Carroll, but the team was thrown for an unexpected loop when star running back Curtis Martin entered free agency the following offseason and signed with the rival New York Jets, coached by Parcells.
Martin’s departure from Foxborough was filled with controversy when the Jets and Parcells discovered a free agency loophole that prevented the Patriots from matching their offer. In response, the Patriots filed a complaint with the NFL that claimed the Jets offer violated the terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement at that time. The league agreed with the Patriots and as compensation, the Pats were given the Jets first and third round picks in the 1998 draft.
Now armed with the Jets pick at 18th overall, the Patriots and Carroll began the replacement process for Martin heading into 1998 and beyond.
On draft day, April 18th 1998, two running backs were taken before the Patriots selection, Curtis Enis of Penn State University went to the Chicago Bears at five and Fred Taylor of The University of Florida went ninth to Jacksonville.
At 18, the Patriots selected University of Georgia running back Robert Edwards. Edwards was coming off a strong senior season where he set a school record with five rushing touchdowns in one game. However, Edwards battled injuries throughout his college career that prevented him from ever playing a full season, but the Patriots took a chance and took advantage of his decreased draft stock.
Edwards would have an immediate impact on the 1998 Patriots, scoring at least one rushing touchdown in seven of the teams first eight games during the teams 5-3 start. Edwards set a rookie record for most consecutive games (six) with a touchdown to start his career.
At the seasons midway point, Edwards rushed for 580 yards, and seven touchdowns to go along with an additional 17 receptions for 169 yards and a receiving touchdown.
The 1998 Patriots settled for a wild card spot and a 9-7 record at the conclusion of the 1998 season. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a broken finger in the final two regular season games and was replaced by backup quarterback Scott Zolak, who went 1-1 in relief.
Edwards meanwhile would continue to be a reliable weapon the remainder of the season, finishing 1998 with 1,115 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns to go along with 35 receptions for 331 yards and three receiving touchdowns. He started 15 of the final 16 regular season games.
Highlights courtesy @fearthe_beard11
Although the Patriots would be eliminated in the wild card playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Edwards was rewarded for his successful rookie campaign with an invite to Hawaii for the annual rookie flag football game during Pro Bowl week.
In what was intended to be a fun conclusion to his first professional season quickly turned into a nightmare.
Edwards, while diving to breakup a pass, dislocated his knee in a gruesome fall to the sand.
WARNING: Graphic Video.
Video courtesy jfstoyaz
“It was discovered that Edwards’s anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments were all completely torn. A fourth ligament was nearly shredded. In addition, he suffered severe nerve damage and a severed artery that had to be repaired immediately. One doctor said it looked as though Edwards’s knee had been hit by a hand grenade” as told by David Naylor in a 2005 feature on Edwards in Toronto’s The Globe And Mail.
“In 24 years as the Patriots’ team doctor, it is one of the worst injuries I’ve ever seen,” Patriots team doctor Bertram Zarins told Naylor. “But he was very determined to get back and worked harder than anyone I’d ever seen.”
NFL Commissioner Paul Taligabue cancelled all future beach events at the Pro Bowl in response to the injury.
Edwards was fortunate enough to escape any amputation on his knee, but his future in New England was in serious doubt.
Edwards would miss the entire 1999 and 2000 seasons while rehabilitating his knee. He returned to the practice field in June of 2001 and participated in the Patriots mini-camp.
Unfortunately his hard work wasn’t enough, and Edwards was waived by the Patriots at the end of training camp in late August 2001.
“This in no way detracts from the remarkable accomplishments Robert has achieved through two years of dedication and commitment,” Bill Belichick said in a statement. “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.”
In speaking with The Globe And Mail, Edwards has no regrets for what happened with the Patriots.
“I think my story has helped a lot of people,” Edwards said. “There’s situations I’ve talked to kids or different people, people who call and say my son needs some inspiration, will you please call him. And I don’t think it’s done yet. It’s yet to be finished.”
“I was always taught that no matter how bad something is, something good has to come of it if you have faith.”
In November 2001, Edwards made significant gains in his rehab and returned to New England to try and win his job back, it didn’t happen.
“I think they were in shock that I went through the workouts like I’d never been hurt,” he said. “I felt like I was back.”
Edwards didn’t give up hope and returned to Foxboro during 2002 training camp, but suffered another setback when he endured a groin injury unrelated to his knee and was cut for a second time.
His 2002 season proved to be his last in the NFL, but managed to earn a spot and play in 12 games for the Miami Dolphins, scoring a rushing and receiving touchdown in his debut. For his efforts, Edwards was awarded the Pro Football Writers Association Halas Award for his comeback.
Edwards would go north of the border to the Canadian Football League from 2005-2008, splitting time with the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonaunts but finding a resurgence in the process.
Edwards was the Alouettes leading rusher in his first two seasons and was named a CFL Eastern Division All Star both times, his CFL career would end in January 2008 following a release by the Argonaunts.
Presently, Edwards can be found in his home state of Georgia coaching high school football in Greene County.
When asked if he ever thinks about what could have been with coach Belichick and the Patriots, Edwards told The Globe and Mail;
“I’m happy for [the Patriots].”
“But God had different things for me, so I continue to think that way. I know I missed out on a lot of big contracts. I just stay humble and continue to work hard and go out and do the best I can.”
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