Palm trees flicker through the LA sunshine as a black SUV hangs a right onto Olympic Boulevard. Behind the tinted windows, Braylon Edwards sits in the backseat, excited about the day ahead. This May morning is about opportunity. He has meetings with some of Hollywood's top players, a group who may just hold the ticket to his big-screen dreams.
The SUV pulls into the parking lot at the Film 44 office for the first meet and greet. Edwards steps out in his dark suit, turquoise shirt, paisley tie. The 25-year-old Browns receiver's ensemble was carefully designed, he says, to show he's professional and fun. Even his fragrance, Bond No. 9, serves a higher purpose. "It's my war cologne," he says. "It's a strong, masculine scent. I wear it when I'm trying to show confidence or be dominant."
Edwards knows what supremacy can lead to on the field. His 80 catches, 1,289 receiving yards and 16 TDs last season earned him a rep as one of the game's best young receivers, along with his first Pro Bowl trip. Now he's trying to figure out how to convert that gridiron success into Hollywood capital. He sees himself as a guy who could play any role—action hero, romantic lead, pitchman. But he's the first to admit he's not in the same league as fellow Cleveland star LeBron James, whose mere name opens up doors that Edwards has to kick in and whose presence in the same city Edwards plays in is a constant reminder of the ways athletic success can lead to so much more. "When I see LeBron having these huge posters all over Cleveland or doing Saturday Night Live—he deserves all the respect he gets," Edwards says. "I'd like to be the King of Cleveland because I'm doing the exact same things consistently, like he's been doing. I'm trying to get to that level."
Rolling with him this morning is the crew Edwards believes can get him there. He's flanked on one side by his best friend and business manager, Hayes Grooms. On the other is his marketing agent from CAA, Howard Skall, who is doubling as his driver today. As they stroll through the Film 44 office, Edwards shakes hands with employees, most dressed in shorts or Dockers. He smiles the whole time, pleased because he's the best-dressed guy in the building and surprised that so many people recognize him. His smile grows into a full-blown grin when he's introduced to his hosts, Friday Night Lights executive producers Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey. The whole group sinks into two plush couches, and the powwow begins. First Berg and Aubrey give Edwards an overview of how FNL is put together. When they're done, Edwards, who's been taking notes, hits them with questions. Where do your plot ideas come from? How is the TV show different from the movie and the book? How did you choose the actors? What's in store for this season? (Sorry, no spoilers here.)
Two hours later, Edwards stands up, thanks Berg and Aubrey for their time and walks out with a little more swagger in his step. "They taught me a lot," he says.
Edwards has to learn fast. In late April, a week before his LA trip, Skall arranged for his client to appear on HBO's Costas Now as part of a panel discussing bloggers and athletes. In case you haven't seen the infamous YouTube clips, Edwards didn't get one word in for six straight minutes as author Buzz Bissinger (the guy who wrote Friday Night Lights) cussed out Deadspin editor Will Leitch. When Edwards did get his turn, he spoke too fast and lacked that all important quality: presence.
Skall believes it's only a matter of time before Edwards masters the nuances of being an entertainer. He sees the potential there. Two years ago, Edwards competed for a cameo on General Hospital as part of a Fox TV special put on by the NFL Players Association. Although Edwards didn't get the gig (it went to Giants receiver Sinorice Moss), his relaxed vibe impressed one of the brains behind the audition: Skall, then a marketing VP with the NFLPA. The two crossed paths again last winter when Edwards was looking for a new agent who could fulfill his off-season agenda: pushing the Braylon Edwards brand. Skall joined CAA shortly after casting Fox's special. Looking for talent himself, he sold Edwards on the company's entertainment connections and A-list sports division (Peyton, LT and Tony Romo are all clients). Edwards signed shortly after this year's Super Bowl. "The biggest challenge to people connecting with our guys is that they play with helmets on and their faces are covered," Skall says. "Our job is to get them exposed."
Beyond the Costas appearance, Edwards recently was featured in a CBS Mother's Day special with his mom, Malesa Plater, served as a guest analyst on ESPN's NFL Live and made an appearance on Best Damn Sports Show. It was on the latter where you could see Edwards' charisma shine. He bantered effortlessly with hosts Chris Rose and John Salley, and won them over by declining to include himself on his list of the five best receivers in the game.
Yes, it pays to be humble, a lesson Edwards learned the hard way. The Detroit native grew up in a middle-class, Cosby-meets-Brady family. His mom and his dad, former NFL running back Stan Edwards, divorced when Braylon was 2. Plater and Edwards each married new spouses shortly afterward, and both sides of the family helped raise Braylon. But for all the support Edwards received as a child, Plater says, the kid was "always challenging everybody." It proved a tough habit to break.
At Michigan, Edwards struggled at times to get along with coach Lloyd Carr. Although the receiver left on good terms after a huge senior year, his name took a hit during his first two seasons with the Browns. The media criticized Edwards, the No. 3 pick in the 2005 draft, for his lavish living (he bought a Bentley even before signing his first contract) and brash opinions (he told reporters his second year that the team needed to open up the offense). Things reached a nadir in November 2006, when he helicoptered to a Michigan-Ohio State game, then arrived late to a team meeting. "Cleveland is a blue-collar-type town," Edwards says. "So it was like, Who does he think he is?"
As Edwards courts his second career, he's intent on not making any more rep-tarnishing mistakes. The Browns are set for five nationally televised prime-time games in 2008, the most ever for the resurgent franchise. Edwards knows putting up big numbers in those games will blow up his Q rating. He's adamant that his play do all his talking, too. "You won't catch me doing end zone dances like Chad Johnson or TO, because at the end of the day, it always ends up negative," he says.
The road to Hollywood isn't paved with losing seasons, either. Edwards says he's set on making sure the Browns pull off what last year's 10–6 team came up one game short of doing: reaching the playoffs. Despite his off-field ambition, he says football is the priority. "A lot of people try to cross over and forget what got them to that point," Edwards says. "They don't work as hard, and their game suffers. Then all those other dreams, aspirations and relationships fall by the wayside. That won't be me."
Of course, cultivating the right image as a player is only half the battle. He also wants to be seen as a guy who can fit into all kinds of environments and relate to all kinds of people when he takes off his uniform. At the Super Bowl in Arizona, Edwards modeled in a charity fashion show, played in a celebrity golf event, attended an awards show honoring him for his charity work, pressed the flesh at an NFL-sponsor-laden cocktail party and hosted a game-day party at the Fox Sports Grill. At times it felt like a grind, but Edwards rarely complained. "You've got to play it cool so everybody knows you're a nice guy," he says.
But who says nice guys can't have fun? Edwards is a magnet for girls and good times, often hiring drivers to chauffeur him, Grooms and a rotating cast of friends around any city he visits. As they bounce from restaurant to club, they chat about the best suit fabrics, Italian shirt brands, colognes, cars, politics, you name it. Want to put a smile on Edwards' face? Tell him how well-rounded he is. Want to make his day? Compliment his fashion sense. At a lean 6'3", 215 pounds, Edwards is like a giant version of a Ken doll: He can pull off almost anything he puts on, be it a suit or even Army fatigues (which he wore during a visit with military personnel while at the Pro Bowl). "A suit is like a uniform," he says, "and any uniform I put on, I turn into that person I'm supposed to be."
Fashion inspiration can strike him at any time. As Skall pulls out of the Film 44 parking lot and heads crosstown to meeting No. 2, Edwards whips out his iPhone and calls his tailor. Edwards has an idea for a suit, and he wants to brainstorm the concept. No time for idle chatter, though. Skall pulls up to the production lot where Entourage is taping its fifth season. Edwards is psyched; it's his favorite show. Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly and Jerry Ferrara (Vinnie Chase, E and Turtle, to you) all give their visitor a "What's up?" Then Edwards takes a seat next to executive producer Stephen Levinson, from which he watches the cast work on a scene. During breaks, Edwards and the boys kick back on a balcony and shoot the breeze. Turns out, they have as many questions for him about the NFL as he does for them about Hollywood. "It was hard to leave," Edwards says.
Alas, Skall has to whisk him away early for his final round of meetings: one with Spyglass Entertainment, where he learns about script development; the other with a group of CAA writers, who explain the art of script rewrites. By the time the day is done, at around 6, Edwards is ready to get back to his hotel, the Century Plaza.
But he's far from calling it a night. At 7, as the sun is about to set, Edwards saunters into the hotel lobby and orders a soda from the bar. He has ditched his suit coat and untucked his shirt. This morning's perkiness is gone—until he settles into a chair outside on the patio and starts recapping the day. "Outside of a Super Bowl ring, my definition of success is making more money after football," he says, then rattles off most of the full names of the execs, producers and writers he met. He can list the movies and shows made by each place he visited, too. He's learning how to play this game, and he's going to take it slow. Maybe score a high-profile endorsement this summer. Hopefully land a TV
or movie cameo next off-season. And yes, keep producing for the Browns, to boost his marketability. "It's the same in sports as the movie business," he says. "It's who you're shaking hands with, who you've been a friend to, who's been on your side forever. These are the people who get the roles."
Suddenly, from its place next to his drink, Edwards' iPhone flashes to life with a text message. It's Matt Leinart, sending his thanks for Edwards' having defended him on the Costas Now episode. After a few words about the NFL brotherhood, Edwards goes silent for a moment. He slowly rotates his phone in his hand.
"The Entourage guys want to hang out while I'm in town," he says with a megawatt smile. "I thought, Wow, they want to hang out! Okay, that's cool."
So obviously Entourage would be his first choice of TV show to cameo on, right?
"Oh yeah, that's No. 1," he says.
He leans back, still gazing at his phone.
"Or wait—maybe Oprah is No. 1."