Mike Edwards sought this moment. Edwards wanted to stand up in front of a group of Black teenagers in his hometown of Cleveland, 75 boys only a few years younger than he is, and tell them not to play stupid. Stupidity, Edwards had to tell them, could hound them forever.
A star cornerback for the University of Hawaii, Edwards is now waiting for the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night. Strong, fast and athletic, he has football skills that suggest he should be a first- or second-round pick. But stupidity will cost him that chance, as well as the fat signing bonus that goes with it. No team will let him forget it either.
Halfway into his freshman season at Tennessee, Edwards and a couple of teammates decided it would be smart to take a pellet gun and rob people. That was his “I-can’t-believe-I-did-that” moment. As might be expected when a Black teenager puts his common sense in mothballs, he and his teammates were caught. They were charged with armed robbery.
“I thought I was one of those kids who couldn’t get into a situation that would change my life,” he says.
His life was turned upside-down and sideways, though a plea bargain kept him out of prison. Still, all that he wanted to be was lost – at least for the moment. But men find redemption when they want to find it, and Mike Edwards did.
He first found God; he became a doting father; and he took on a mentor’s role. Yet whenever Edwards interviewed with NFL teams, they wanted to steer the conversation to the moment he went rogue. Each team that asked about the robbery cheapened the value the organization placed on him. The conversations were costing Edwards hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a couple of million.
All the scouting services say he will be drafted, which should surprise nobody. Look at his YouTube videos and you discover straightaway the kind of talent he brings to the football field. His talent should outweigh the off-field baggage.
But Black football players – Black men, period – can never seem to shake loose of their past. Ray Lewis, despite all he had done as a football player and as a man, has continued to answer questions about a decades-old killing that he had no role in. Even during the Super Bowl build-up, people talked about it on the Internet and elsewhere.
Same goes for Michael Vick, who, even though he went to prison, will always be remembered more for dog-fighting than for his electric play on the field.
That’s where Edwards finds himself: in the same league with Lewis, Vick and other Black athletes who have made the mistakes of a young man (or of a boy) and have tried to move on. No one will let them.
That’s the message Edwards wanted this roomful of Black teenagers to come away with. He could have talked about the NFL Combines and about the private workouts he held, workouts that proved he was high-draft material. The teenagers would have liked hearing those tales. Some of them harbored NFL dreams like the ones Edwards had when he was a teenager. He’s not much more than a teen now; he’s just a young man hoping to see a dream take shape.
It should at some point this weekend. Will his dream unfold as NFL teams draft the cream of the college crop – strong, fast, athletic men with none of the character flaws that scare them away from Mike Edwards? Probably not then.
Edwards asks himself often when will a man’s past just be that – his past. He can’t be saddled with his yesteryear forever, not when his present shows all the signs that he’s not the man he used to be.
The sad part of it is that NFL teams don’t care about a Black man’s present when they have a past they prefer to explore. Edwards is aware of how those teams are judging him, but he’s not damning any team that sees him as less of a talent because of one stupid mistake.
It’s NFL reality; it’s life, really. And a man has to live with it – the good, the bad and the ugly of life.
Yet maybe it could be different this time. Maybe a team will see talent over stupidity of youth. If a team does, Mike Edwards could celebrate early in the draft. If not … oh well, that’s how life works, particularly as a Black man in a world that too often wants him on the margins.
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(Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)