PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Moses Brown School football coach Willie Edwards doesn’t mince words when discussing the role football’s played in his life.
“I don’t know where I would be without football,” said Edwards, who’s in his second year as the head coach and eighth overall on staff at the prestigious private school located on the city’s East Side. “It’s my life. It’s my passion. It’s who I am. It saved me. We weren’t handed anything in life. We had to work for what we wanted.
“I really believe that I’m blessed and that God intended me to be around this sport and for this sport to save me and to influence kids the way I do now.”
The chance that Edwards, who’s also the Director of Johnson & Wales University’s Down City Campus Fitness Center, would be where he is now as a youngster growing up in West Warwick is the equivalent of the distance between the Earth and the moon.
“In ’82, my parents wanted to get us out of Providence and had an opportunity to move to Echo Valley,” recalled Edwards. “But that was a tough area. There was subsidized housing. It wasn’t the easiest neighborhood. There were a lot of single-parent families. The streets raised us. All of those guys, who’re my life-long friends, lived there. We had to look out for each other.
“There were people coming through the neighborhood doing things they weren’t supposed to do. There were some drugs and some violence. There were things we saw at a young age that you thought you wouldn’t see in West Warwick. But they were there.”
One positive that came from Edwards’ years in Echo Valley was that he became interested in sports.
“All of my friends played sports together,” he said. “When it was football season, we played football. When it was basketball season, we played basketball. In baseball season, we played baseball. That’s how I started in athletics.”
Then, as Edwards was entering his sophomore year at West Warwick High, his parents decided to split up.
“We had a violent household just like everyone else in my neighborhood,” he said. “My mother (the since-remarried Dianne Richardson) tried the best she could raising us (Edwards plus his younger sister Diana) by herself. It was very tough. But she got her freedom again by not having my father around.
“She was trying to raise two teenage kids who were finding themselves and were being influenced by other things. It was a tough situation but she did the best she could and I commend her for it.”
Enter Ray and Kathy Dube, who were teachers at Deering Junior High in West Warwick.
“I met them in the seventh grade and Ray recruited me to play football,” said Edwards. “I had Kathy the next year as an English teacher. From there, the relationship flourished. If I got in trouble in her class or elsewhere, Ray would come find me.
“And it didn’t stop there. I had some trouble in high school and they were my life raft. They got me back on track. They propelled me to where I am today.”
Back on track notwithstanding, Edwards’ problems still weren’t exactly in the rear-view mirror.
“In my junior year, at home there were the normal trials and tribulations of a kid who was lost,” he said. “I really messed it up going into my senior year. I was a dropout and went to a group home in Newport and Ray and Kathy found out.
“They set up tutoring for me. Kathy and Lisa Centore tutored me and got me eligible to play football. But I still was lost and still had influences going on. It got to the point there they had to get me out of that environment and under their wing. I moved into their house and lived with them for five years.”
The Dubes weren’t the only people who helped Edwards get his life pointed back in the right direction. That was the case with the late Steve Alves, who was the Wizards’ head coach at the time.
“I played three years for him and they were three of the best years of my life,” said Edwards. “The best way to describe him was tough love. He didn’t give me anything. He was tough on me. But when I did something right, he loved me.
“He let the whole team know, ‘It was my way. We’re not doing it any other way. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to be here.’”
After graduating high school, Edwards spent a year at Connecticut’s Kent School.
Then he played for two years at Rhode Island before transferring to Merrimack College and eventually graduating from Johnson & Wales.
Kent coach Tom Marble and Merrimack coach Tom Caito picked up where the Dubes and Alves left off.
“In prep school, coach Marble played a role in my life and when I went to Merrimack, coach Caito took me under his wing,” said Edwards. “He’s a very passionate person like I am about football. But it was a small college and I was away from everybody.
“Coach Caito would invite me over to his house to eat. He went over and beyond to make me feel as comfortable as possible.”
The lessons Edwards learned while climbing up the ladder of life are among the things he tries to impart to the Quakers.
“The main thing I preach to my kids is getting better every day,” he said. “As each day goes by, you’re either going to get worse or you’re going to get better. There’s no in-between.
“We teach our kids that nothing’s going to be given to you. Everything’s going to be earned. Nobody’s going to hand you a championship. You’re going to have to fight for it. When you get knocked down, it’s how you respond. What are you going to do next?”