This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 27 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
JULIAN EDELMAN IS hesitant, at first, to break out his Bill Belichick impression. He is well aware that even a playful needling of his head coach, the closest thing the NFL has to a Tywin Lannister, carries a certain amount of risk. But he cannot resist.
He's sitting in the back of his favorite Los Angeles sushi restaurant, Sushiya on Sunset Boulevard, chomping on a second plate of edamame and re-creating the moment when Belichick called him to say the Patriots were drafting him in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft. Edelman's impression is less an accurate rendering of his boss than it is a vocal marriage of Dick Cheney and Kermit the Frog, but it works because there are hints of genuine affection in it. Edelman commits to the character in full, adding a half sneer and a furrowed brow: "I pick up the phone and he says to me, 'Eeeeeeedelman, I don't know what we're going to do with you, but you're a hell of a football player.'"
The Patriots knew they were taking a flier on Edelman. A quarterback out of Kent State, he'd never played any of the positions -- wide receiver, punt returner, cornerback -- Belichick was contemplating for him. The team certainly had no intention of making him a Brady backup. But that phone call set in motion one of the most unique career arcs in recent NFL history. Edelman spent his first four years toiling on the margins, almost getting cut one year to the next, before exploding for 197 receptions over the past two seasons. He attained full New England folk hero status by catching the go-ahead score in this year's Super Bowl.
After fighting and clawing just to stay in the NFL for most of his career, it's safe to say that Edelman, 28, is enjoying his moment. Over the past three months, he has paraded through Disneyland, presented at the Grammys and become a fixture on the talk show circuit. He partied atop a duck boat during the Pats' Super Bowl parade, beating his chest, taking off his sweater in a mock striptease and punching out a giant picture of Richard Sherman. He popped up on a red carpet looking like Daniel Craig's James Bond and appeared in a blurry video lifting up his shirt for a flock of admiring females at a Harvard keg party. He, of course, screened the Entourage movie, in which he has a cameo, with Mark Wahlberg, Justin Bieber and Rob Gronkowski. He might have even passed Gronk as the team's Good Time Charlie when he showed up in a picture, either asleep or passed out in bed, posted by a woman on the dating app Tinder, alongside the caption, "Just f---ed Julian Edelman, no lie!" Gossip sites rejoiced. Edelman laughed it off.
But for Edelman, things aren't as carefree as they seem. After all, it was just three seasons ago, he says, that Belichick called him into his office and told him he was no lock to make the team. The Patriots are notoriously ruthless and unsentimental, and Edelman -- who's spent most of his career playing at the league minimum -- knows it. There are rules, and you break them at your own risk. You don't talk about injuries, especially concussions. (Edelman declined to discuss the apparent blow to his head during the Super Bowl.) And you're allowed to be playful and goofy only while you're at the top of your game.
"As long as you're doing your job on the field, you can have fun," Edelman says. "But if you start slipping, you're going to start hearing s---. Everything is about football with Bill. I love the guy to death. He's the man who gave me the opportunity. But I know the day I start slipping, the day I'm not producing enough and there is somebody cheaper, I'm gone. That's just Coach."
Which is why, despite what his extended post-Super Bowl tour de fiesta might have you believe, Edelman is living the life of a football monk. A mere 40 days into his offseason -- a time when most players are still recovering from the grind of a long year -- he insists on eating nothing but edamame and drinking ice water (with lemon) for lunch while he chats.
"I'm actually on this crazy little diet right now," he says. "I try to pack all my nutrients into a smoothie right when I wake up. I'll go out to restaurants at night sometimes, but I count pretty much every calorie."
If it seems strange that the receiver could live simultaneous lives of excess and asceticism, the explanation is simple: He understood, long ago, that all of this could be gone tomorrow.
PART OF EDELMAN'S calculus this offseason has been trying to figure out how to maximize his time in the spotlight. In the era of Chris Borland, every NFL player is thinking more about his future, and over the past year, Edelman has put in motion a calculated business strategy, literally designed to capitalize on his moment in the spotlight.
Turns out, he knows what he's doing. Two years ago he teamed with a Boston marketing firm called Superdigital to build and grow his Internet stardom. And lately, their efforts have kicked into overdrive. He films comedy sketches to post on YouTube, and although higher-profile stars have more followers, Superdigital claims that fans interact with Edelman on social media at a higher rate than any other NFL player outside of J.J. Watt. Whether or not that's true, it's hard to find a pro athlete who leverages his digital brand more deliberately than the Pats receiver.
"I think Jules has always approached his career with a small-business mentality," says his father, Frank Edelman, a mechanic and the owner of A-1 Auto Tech in Mountain View, California. It's a month after the Patriots' Super Bowl triumph and, dressed in a blue shirt with his name stitched above his heart, Frank is looking up at the pictures of his son plastered across his office walls. "No one wants to hear you complain. They want you to get the part they need, and they want you to fix their car.
"Every day," he adds, "your job is on the line." Frank Edelman's own dad died when Frank was 3 years old. He spent much of his childhood living in a trailer park, playing very few sports. To support himself, he learned to fix cars and became a certified mechanic by 19. After opening his shop in 1987, he would come home each day and drag Julian and his older brother, Jason, to the park. He would hit them ground balls, pitch to them or have them work on throwing a football until it got dark. Even when they hated it. Even when they tried to refuse. "I think my dad still needs shoulder surgery from all the batting practice he threw us," Edelman says. "He wanted to live through us a little."
Sports came naturally to Julian. "A total daredevil and a ball of energy," says his mother, Angie Edelman. "He'd go up the slide, then jump off instead of slide down. His whole life, you had to watch him closely." His Pop Warner team, coached by his father, won the youth football Super Bowl with Edelman playing tailback and linebacker. His father didn't let him lift weights, but every day they worked on agility drills. Pushups. Situps. Changing directions like a squirrel running for its life. Sometimes, when firing another endless string of passes, Edelman would pretend he was Tom Brady, a local kid starting for the Patriots who'd played high school football at Junipero Serra in San Mateo, just 9 miles from Redwood City.
Edelman was a small kid, but that was hardly reason for his dad to go easy on him. Once, during a session of batting practice when he was in eighth grade, Edelman accused his father of throwing inside once too often and warned him not to do it again. Frank, not one to back down or be mouthed off to, fired the next pitch even closer to his son. Edelman charged the mound and leaped into the air in a rage, his fists whirling, but his father was ready. He caught him in midjump and slammed him to the ground. Frank laughs as he tells the story. "Jules jumps up and tries to head-butt me. I kind of pin him down, and he's kicking and screaming, and he cuts the inside of his lip because he'd just gotten braces that day. There was blood all down the front of his jersey. People were looking at us like we were lunatics. By today's rules, they'd probably have put me in prison. It wasn't all peaches and cream."
Going into his junior year at Woodside High School, Edelman was still barely 5 feet tall and less than 100 pounds. "Kids would tease him all the time, and he was getting into fights," Frank says. "He'd come into my room and just cry and say, 'Dad, when am I going to grow?'"
The growth spurt finally happened, and Julian grew 7 inches in less than a year. His senior year of high school, he quarterbacked Woodside to a 13-0 record.
"I thought to myself, 'OK, now it's on,'" Frank says.
IT STILL TOOK years for Edelman's ambitions to take shape. He wasn't recruited out of high school, so he spent a juco year at the College of San Mateo, then transferred to Kent State. He won the starting quarterback job right away, but it didn't exactly prepare him for a future in the NFL. Despite setting a school record for total offense, he wasn't even invited to the 2009 combine. He wondered if, after graduation, he could find work as a firefighter. "I started checking out firehouses in Cincinnati," Edelman says. "I didn't know what I was going to do. I was starting to get scared."
It was in preparing for the NFL draft that he first decided to train as if his football survival depended on it. Every day he'd wake up at 5 a.m., climb into his truck and drive 50 minutes in the freezing cold to Cleveland, just so he could run routes and catch passes from former Browns quarterback Charlie Frye. The truck's heater didn't work, so most of the time he'd wrap himself in blankets for the drive. When he came home, he'd catch passes from a Jugs machine for an hour, trying to suppress any feeling that it might all be for naught. "I did that every day for three months," Edelman says. "I really grew up. I started to get addicted to the Jerry Rice mentality. I can get up before anyone else does. I can outwork anyone." At Kent State's lightly attended pro day, his time in the shuttle drill was faster than that of anyone else who'd attended the combine that year. The Patriots decided he was worth the late-round gamble.
"The day I'm not producing enough and there is somebody cheaper, I'm gone."Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman
He was a mess during his first training camp. During a break for Wes Welker, Edelman was thrown in with the starters, and he dropped his first pass. At another practice, he lined up on the wrong side of the formation, and Belichick snarled at him, asking if he'd even bothered to study his playbook. "I thought I was studying so hard," Edelman says. "I had flash cards I'd go over constantly, but it was like going from junior high to getting your Ph.D. in terms of complexity." He'd often stay late at the facility, sometimes just staring at his helmet, trying to soak it all up in case he got cut the next day.
He was convinced that his chances of making the team were so thin, he kept from the medical staff that his groin was in agony. He believed the team would simply give him an injury settlement and release him. "I was an idiot, but you feel like you don't have a choice," Edelman says. It wasn't until the year was over -- 37 catches for 359 yards in 11 games -- that he found out he'd just played through multiple sports hernias. "Julian is a tough kid," Belichick told reporters recently. "We knew that right from the beginning."
NOT SURPRISINGLY, EDELMAN spent his first few years with the team in quiet awe of Brady, hoping the quarterback might invite him to work out during the offseason when they were both back in their native California. They shared an agent and grew up near each other, so it seemed like a possibility. The first offseason, Brady called just one time.
As the years went on, the calls became a bit more frequent, even as Edelman's playing time diminished. In 2010, his second year, Edelman caught just seven balls. In 2011, the year the Patriots went 13-3 and played in the Super Bowl, he had only four catches and moonlighted as a corner to help hold on to his roster spot. Yet Edelman obsessed over what routes Brady liked best -- the nuances, like where he preferred to place the ball on certain throws and the way he could convey his intentions with a presnap nod. One year, Brady called to throw while Edelman was at a family barbecue. "I ran so hard, I puked," Edelman says. "He ran me to death." But it paid off: A friendship began to emerge. "He's like a big brother," Edelman says. "He taught me everything about how to be a professional. We'd throw three times a week, then we'd go have lunch at his house, and at first it was surreal for me. Just me and Tommy, hanging out. Is this for real? But then it became just normal. I stopped being scared of him."
Edelman was still a journeyman type in the eyes of everyone else, though, including his head coach. In 2013, when Welker signed with the Broncos, Belichick brought in Danny Amendola from the Rams as his replacement. Edelman trusted, however, that the countless hours he'd invested with Brady would be his secret weapon. When Amendola had trouble staying healthy, Brady started firing darts Edelman's way. By the end of the year, he'd caught more passes (105) than he had his entire career. As a free agent following the season, he might have gotten more money elsewhere, but he re-signed with the Pats because he wanted to keep playing with Brady. "Julian and I share the same work ethic and commitment to the team concept," Brady says. "It's been great watching him grow as a person, as a player and now as one of the leaders of our team."
Watching the way Brady handled his business, both on and off the field, also pushed Edelman to think about a life outside of football. Leading up to the 2013 season, a mutual friend set up a lunch meeting with Assaf Swissa, the creative director for Superdigital. As Edelman's profile grew, Swissa persuaded him to star in a series of playful -- and surprisingly funny -- YouTube videos in which the wide receiver hosts a fake talk show, shares his favorite smoothie recipes and conducts bumbling mock interviews like he's a slimmed-down Zach Galifianakis. "SmoothieTyme" and "BurgerTyme" soon racked up some 250,000 views each.
"It's fun. You get to show the fans a little bit about you," Edelman says. "It's kind of a way to say, 'Hey, I like Dumb and Dumber too.'"
Edelman's Facebook page has grown to 621,000 followers, Instagram to 465,000 and Twitter to 392,000. A parody of the Growing Pains theme song, "Growing Pats," that was posted to Edelman's YouTube page just before the Super Bowl, has 1.6 million views to date. All of it raises his profile -- and might give him more career options when the NFL is done with him.
"Videos and social posts and cool T-shirt designs, this is the new Rolex watch for athletes," Swissa says. "This is the new cool thing you get to show off."
And so when Edelman threw a surprise 51-yard touchdown pass in the Patriots' AFC divisional playoff win over the Ravens, a pass that helped his team erase a 14-point deficit for the second time, Swissa knew exactly what he needed to do. He left Gillette Stadium around midnight and didn't get back to his house until nearly 1 a.m., but he immediately sat down in front of his computer and started designing a T-shirt with a silhouette of Edelman throwing the touchdown to Amendola. He finished the design around 4 a.m., sent it off to production and got the shirt up for sale on Edelman's website by 10 a.m. Within hours, Swissa says, Patriots fans were flooding the site with orders for the $29.99 shirt.
Back on the field, Edelman had been so focused all these years on surviving in the NFL, he'd forgotten how good it felt to uncork a touchdown pass. As he walked to the sideline, high-fiving Brady, Amendola and the rest of his teammates, he was briefly transported in his mind to the park near his parents' house in Redwood City, throwing footballs with his dad.
Weeks later at the Super Bowl, with under three minutes to play, Edelman ran a perfect route, shook free from Seahawks defensive back Tharold Simon and caught a touchdown from Brady to give the Patriots a 28-24 lead. But there was no time for reflection. When Brady came over to praise him on the sideline, Edelman growled back, "It doesn't mean s--- unless we win."
When New England prevailed, Edelman stood on the platform during the trophy presentation and scanned the crowd until he finally spotted his father, and the two locked eyes. I love you, Edelman messaged in sign language, a gesture they'd often used growing up. Frank signed the same words right back, and Julian began to cry.
Months later, as he pops edamame, Edelman's nostalgic mood has passed. There will come a day, he says, when he'll try to let the unlikeliness of his career sink in. But he's not there yet. If he's learned anything from Frank Edelman and Bill Belichick, it's that every day your job is on the line. His next moment is yet to be earned.