How Julian Edelman made himself into the perfect Patriot

Preparation key to Edelman's success (1:43)

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman talks about being fearless over the middle and what it takes to click with Tom Brady. (1:43)

Father and son looked over a map of the United States and arrived at the joint conclusion that many NFL games are played in bad weather, especially when they matter most.

"So let's go play in the cold and snow," Frank Edelman told his boy, Julian.

The kid had finished one season of junior college ball at San Mateo in California, about eight miles from his Redwood City home, and his only firm Division I offer came by way of Kent State. Julian Edelman wanted to be Deion Sanders as a boy, and then as a 5-foot-10 college quarterback, he wanted to be Doug Flutie. More than anything, he wanted to end up in the NFL somehow, somewhere, someway.

His old man figured a starting quarterback's job in the pros was a long shot, but he also figured that if Julian ran and threw the ball a combined 50 times on any given Saturday -- and managed his fair share of challenging weather along the way -- some NFL scout would notice.

Some NFL franchise would find him a position to play.

That was 10 years ago, and yet the decision to attend Kent State -- rather than go through with a second year of juco ball and wait for more attractive offers -- opens a small window on the evolution of Julian Francis Edelman as the perfect New England Patriot. He wanted to accelerate the process of realizing his zillion-to-one childhood dream, and he thought he could force his way into the pros as a receiver, cornerback, return man, Wildcat option or whatever by competing in a mid-major conference and dominating a position ruled by passers a half-foot taller at the heavyweight schools.

Edelman's blind belief in himself explains why he will carry a personal 15-game winning streak into the AFC Championship Game in Denver. He has gone nearly 14 months without experiencing defeat as an active player (his last loss was to Green Bay on Nov. 30, 2014), and if you think that's something of a coincidence, think again. As much as this week has revolved around Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two lions of their craft, Edelman will be a third old quarterback out there who will have plenty to say about who wins and who doesn't.

How did this happen? How did Edelman spend his formative football years in California and Ohio and morph into the quintessential Bostonian and bearded face of last winter's parade in the days after he caught the winning Super Bowl pass -- dancing atop a duck boat, spiking his sweater and dismissively tossing an oversized photo of Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman to the street?

How did Edelman become the lost Wahlberg brother of Dorchester, a guy you could easily imagine chanting profane things about the Yankees from the cheapest Fenway Park seats?

The answers start in a Pop Warner league more than 3,100 miles from Gillette Stadium. Frank Edelman, a mechanic by trade, was the coach, and Julian was his star on a national-championship team. "I coached baby football and then some high school ball," Frank said, "and I'd always tell my defensive line where I was running the ball. 'We're going through the 6 hole, now try to stop us.' We'd run a play 20 times in practice to get it right, like the old Vince Lombardi sweep, and Jules got used to that."

"His whole life was about execution, execution, execution, and the Patriots play execution football," Frank continued. "They don't have a Dez Bryant on the outside and throw up a 50-50 ball and hope he catches it. Every play has to be carried out the right way, and that's how Jules always played. And then all of a sudden he ends up with Bill Belichick."

The same Bill Belichick whose own high school coach in Annapolis, Maryland, believed in mastering one basic offensive formation and a small handful of core plays and then challenging opposing defenses to stop them.

In 2009, Julian Edelman was delivered to Belichick as a seventh-round draft pick who could not be coached any harder than he had already been coached.

Frank Edelman grew up without a father, without any money or any guidance in sports, and he started mowing lawns at age 9, busing tables at 14 and fixing cars at 15. He wanted something better for his three children, and Julian, the middle child, projected as a gifted, driven athlete who, in his father's mind, wanted and needed constant drilling to max out his potential.

If the stories of Frank's parenting aren't already as legendary as those involving Earl Woods (Tiger's dad) and Marv Marinovich (Todd's dad), they're close enough. Marinovich, a strength coach, was said to have used Eastern Bloc dieting and training methods on a quarterbacking son who quickly burned out; and Woods, a Green Beret, was said to have used what he called "psychological warfare" -- coughing and dropping clubs and jangling car keys in Tiger's backswing -- on a golfing prodigy who did not. Among other things, Frank fired chin-music fastballs at Julian, inspiring one father-son brawl near the mound, and made him catch punts with one arm tied behind his back.

Asked where he thought he landed on the Woods-Marinovich scale, with Tiger's father on the far more forgiving side, Frank said, "We're obviously somewhere in the middle. I was hard on my son, and it was seven days a week, 365 days a year. But Jules bought into it and always wanted more."

Actually the Edelmans gave themselves one week off in the summer, the last week in July, before football started on Aug. 1. They needed their youth baseball all-star team to lose early in the playoffs to earn that week of camping and boating at California's Lake Camanche or Lake Tahoe. It was the one time in their lives that Frank and Julian Edelman were willing to accept -- even embrace -- something other than unconditional victory.

The kid wasn't even five feet in height when he enrolled at Woodside High School. He used to cry to his father over a growth spurt that refused to come, but he finally shot up to 5-foot-10 by his senior year. Edelman wasn't on any college staff's watch list. His junior season had ended in disgrace when Woodside administrators forfeited the final two games on the schedule after some players (not including Edelman) chanted obscenities at their coach following a loss; the coach later resigned. At Frank Edelman's urging, Woodside athletic director Steve Nicolopulos returned for a second go-around as head coach at the school, and he watched his dual-threat quarterback zigzag his team to a 13-0 record and a sectional state title.

"With Julian," Nicolopulos said, "Frank could be very demanding. But he had every good intention in what he did with his son. There aren't enough Franks in this world to make it a better place."

The College of San Mateo took in the undersized running quarterback, and one record-shattering season later, Edelman was hoping for some Division I takers. Kent State coach Doug Martin, coming off a 1-10 season, sent his assistant, Pete Rekstis, to California to do a head-to-toe examination of every juco quarterback in the state. The Kent State staff kept hearing that the best available prospect at that position was a student at San Mateo and that the major colleges would be all over him if he happened to be four inches taller.

Casey Wolf, then Martin's director of football operations, picked up Edelman at the airport. Wolf remembered seeing a film of the recruit and thinking he looked just like Josh Cribbs, the Kent State quarterback who had become a return specialist for the Cleveland Browns. On the ride back to the airport, Edelman turned to Wolf and said, "I'm not coming here to sit."

In between, Edelman sat with the head coach and told him the same thing. "He had a great swagger about him," Martin said, "and we needed that in our program." In the early hours of summer workouts, Edelman looked over at the incumbent quarterback, a 6-foot-6 pocket passer and former draft pick of the Atlanta Braves named Michael Machen, who was practicing his punting (Martin was a fan of the quick kick) during a seven-on-seven. Eyewitnesses offer slightly different versions of what Edelman told the incumbent, but it went something like this: "You might as well keep working on that, because that's all you're going to be doing while I'm here."

Edelman wasn't the easiest guy with whom to share a field or a locker room. One day, he warned a talented receiver named Sam Kirkland that he had better start running his routes harder, or else. The next time Kirkland ran what the quarterback thought was an indifferent pattern, Martin said, Edelman "flew down the field, tackled Sam and started throwing punches before we all ran down and broke it up. Julian and Sam ended up being great friends."

Kirkland, who would sign with the Washington Redskins and make a brief stop on the Patriots' practice squad, declined to comment on the incident. But he wrote the following of Edelman in an email to ESPN.com: "No question, he's the best competitor I've ever been around, and I'm not surprised one bit at the success he's had at the next level. I learned a lot from him watching his practice habits and fierce work ethic at Kent, which helped me better myself, as well. He's just one of the guys that every team has that you know if you don't match or exceed his level of effort each and every day, you'll never be great. He set the bar, and I have nothing but much respect."

Edelman ended up rooming with Brian Lainhart, a safety who would sign with the Cincinnati Bengals, and Cobrani Mixon, a linebacker who would sign with the Detroit Lions. Both felt the full depth of his inner rage.

"Julian would piss people off, because he wouldn't put up with anyone cutting corners," said Lainhart, now the head coach at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati. "If you're a person who accepts mediocrity, you won't get along with Julian. He won't associate with people striving to be average. He won't talk to you in a bar if you give an average effort, even if you're a starter, and that did rub people the wrong way."

Edelman, Lainhart and Mixon took turns ripping one another for mistakes made on the practice field and in games, holding themselves more accountable than the coaches did. "Even when you played a Tiger Woods golf video game with Julian," Lainhart said, "it would turn into a UFC match by the seventh hole."

Mixon, now Lainhart's defensive coordinator at Walnut Hills, called Edelman "the most self-motivated person I've ever met." They had contests to see who could wake up the earliest to start a day of workouts, and sometimes 4 a.m. wasn't the winning score. The first time Mixon met Edelman, the linebacker was about to finish a breakaway off a steal in a friendly pickup basketball game before Edelman charged and blasted him with the kind of no-layup foul you might see in a Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

"Who the hell is this guy?" Mixon asked a teammate.

"Don't worry," the teammate said. "That's just our new quarterback."

A new quarterback who would immediately turn a 1-10 Kent State record into 6-6, who would set school records with nearly 5,000 passing yards and nearly 2,500 rushing yards over three seasons, and who would make as many ankle-breaking moves on opponents as Allen Iverson ever did.

Edelman ran for 135 yards on 24 carries in a road loss to Kentucky, while secretly finishing that game with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee. "They just couldn't tackle him," Martin recalled, "and as Julian walked off the field, the Kentucky fans near that end zone gave him a standing ovation. I've never seen that before."

The quarterback made fans and believers out of an entire schedule of opponents. An accomplished Miami University pass-rusher named Joe Coniglio, now a defensive line coach at the University of Rhode Island, called Edelman the best player he ever faced. "He was a bear to handle, the hardest guy to tackle we ever saw," Coniglio said. "I had five or six opportunities to sack him and never did. They ran a speed option once, and I hit him as hard as I could hit anybody, and he just got up and said, 'Hey 51, is that all you got?'"

After Edelman's senior season was complete, Jim Fleming, the defensive coordinator at Kent State's rival, Akron, told colleagues on the Kent staff that Edelman had given him about four heart attacks. Now the head coach at Rhode Island, Fleming remembered walking into his field house to find former Akron and then-NFL quarterback Charlie Frye throwing passes to a receiver who looked unfamiliar from a distance. Someone told Fleming that Frye's receiver was Edelman, who was preparing for the 2009 draft.

"Hey," the defensive coordinator suddenly shouted, "somebody catch that m-----f-----, because we never could."

Before the draft, Mixon recalled Edelman rising long before dawn, fixing himself breakfast and then jumping into his beaten-down Chevy pickup (the heat didn't even work) for the 80-mile round-trip drive to Cleveland to work out with prospects who, unlike Edelman, were slotted near the top of many draft boards. "And then he'd drive to Akron to learn how to be a receiver with Frye, and then he'd come back and run some more routes at Kent," Mixon said. "It was a 12- or 14-hour grind, day in and day out."

The Patriots showed the most pre-draft interest; of course they did. Edelman had spent his entire football life, from Pop Warner on up, as if Belichick had been shouting "Do your job" into his ear hole. He wasn't invited to the scouting combine, but he did kill it in his speed and agility drills at his pro day.

Martin had used Edelman as a personal protector and decoy on punts and allowed him to return six punts as a senior, hoping some NFL team would see him as another Cribbs. "Some teams sent in a single scout to look at him," Martin said, "but nobody did what the Patriots did. They must've had four or five coaches come in and work out Julian, make him catch punts and passes, and put him on the grease board to diagram plays. That's probably why the Patriots are what they are.

"I knew if Julian made it into somebody's camp, it would be impossible for anyone to cut him," Martin continued. "And the Patriots were a perfect fit; he embodies everything they're about."

British Columbia of the CFL wanted Edelman, but Edelman wanted the NFL. Belichick took him with the 232nd pick in the draft, 33 spots later than he took Brady in 2000. The Patriots coach didn't know if he was going to put Edelman on offense, defense, special teams or all of the above. Belichick just told Edelman that he knew his seventh-rounder could play the game.

The Patriots had Randy Moss and Wes Welker as their starting receivers; Welker doubled as a return man. But when the rookie Edelman returned a punt for a 75-yard touchdown in the preseason opener against Philadelphia, NFL Films caught Belichick asking his assistant, Ernie Adams, for the name of the Yankee who lost his job to Lou Gehrig.

"You ever hear of Wally Pipp?" an informed Belichick asked Welker on the sideline.

"Wally what?" Welker responded.

All these years later, Edelman has made the 2013 departure of Welker -- reason for region-wide panic at the time -- a moot development. Not only did Edelman win the Super Bowl ring Welker didn't win and catch the deciding Super Bowl pass Welker didn't catch, he also threw a 51-yard touchdown to Danny Amendola off a flea-flicker against Baltimore in last season's playoffs. It was Edelman's first NFL pass, and the fact his coach trusted him to wing it while the Patriots trailed in a win-or-else game said it all. Belichick had once claimed, after watching receiver David Givens throw an interception against the Jets in 2003, that he would never, ever, let anyone other than Tom Brady deliver a meaningful pass.

Amendola was given the big bucks to replace Welker a few years ago, and Edelman leapfrogged him, too. The brutal hit Edelman took from Kam Chancellor in the Super Bowl that may or may not have concussed him but didn't knock him out of the game, is indicative of the kind of punishment Edelman has long been willing to absorb.

He overcame a broken arm at Kent State and played through three or four sports hernias during his rookie year with the Patriots because he was afraid to get Wally Pipp-ed himself. Now Edelman exchanges Facebook jabs with Brady, trades rags-to-riches stories with the all-time great (a combined 429 players were taken before the Bay Area boys, Brady and Edelman, in their respective drafts) and, in his spare time, returns to Kent State as grand marshal of its homecoming parade.

"But no matter how much he accomplishes," Lainhart said, "Julian still says the same thing: 'I'm lower than whale s--- on Coach Belichick's totem pole.' "

From across the country, where he still grinds away in his auto repair shop, Frank Edelman thinks his boy ranks a little bit higher than that. The father was there on the Super Bowl field last February when his son reached down to him from the winners' platform and expressed his love and appreciation for all those endless days of drills in the sun. Julian Edelman would grow emotional in his postgame press conference while talking about everything his old man had overcome.

Frank believes the sacrifices were all worth it, times 10. When he watches his boy on TV, the picture is clear. "Jules is a bigger, stronger, faster Welker, is what he is," Frank said before agreeing that his California-born-and-bred son has the requisite passion and blue-collar work ethic to make him a natural in his adopted home town.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Frank, are you from Boston or New York?'" he said. "That's because we're direct; we don't BS you, and we tell people how it is."

And this is how it is right now: The Patriots probably can't beat the Broncos without a functional Edelman, who hasn't completely healed from broken bone in his foot in the first quarter of a Week 9 game against the New York Giants and yet still caught 10 passes for 100 yards in last week's victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Brady needs Edelman to get open in a flash, as usual, to neutralize the Denver pass rush. Look at what became of the New England offense after Edelman went down.

So Sunday won't only be about Brady and Manning and the titanic legacy battles they've waged. The third quarterback on the field, Edelman, could be the man who determines whether his team ends up in those parading duck boats again, and it makes all the sense in the world for this reason:

Nobody better defines who the Patriots are, and how they became what they became, than the mid-major afterthought who willed himself to stardom with high-major attitude and heart.