“I’ve been through some crazy-ass f------ times in my life. But you don’t get this far just to get this far.”
That is what Julian Edelman told me in late June of 2017, as he navigated a black Aston Martin Vanquish through traffic on I-405 in Los Angeles. Edelman was four months removed from the Catch That Changed Everything, the one he made between three defenders, using the leg of one and the arm of another, plucking the ball half a millimeter from the turf. He was the hero of Super Bowl LI, his name etched forever alongside David Tyree’s and Lynn Swann’s and Dwight Clark’s. The subsequent offseason had been a whirlwind—late night TV appearances made, endorsement deals signed, documentaries in Mexico filmed. But he was far from satisfied, refusing to even watch the catch with me when I pulled it up on my iPhone.
“There’s an old saying for that, bubs,” he said then. “The past, it’s just like an old newspaper. What do you do with an old newspaper? You put it in the f------ bird cage and it just gets s--- on. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
Edelman’s life had followed an implausible plotline, the quintessential underdog story. Nothing had ever come easy, but gradually, then rapidly, everything had come. He had risen to a stratum that few do and yet still he was compelled to keep rising.
So that’s why we were driving on that June afternoon, after Edelman had finished his second full-length, full-intensity workout of the day. (He allowed me to watch both, with one stern directive: “Just don’t f--- with my workout.”) And it’s also why the next day I sat down with him and Assaf Swissa at the West Hollywood branch of Soho House. Friend, business partner, creative collaborator—he and Edelman are Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas with significantly more guile but similar reserves of decorum. They’re brothers at a frat house, sitting around, scheming new ways to take over the world.
The pair walked me through everything that was coming next in Edelman’s life. They had new merchandise possibilities to add to the booming JE11 brand and they were brainstorming potential names for their nascent multimedia production company. There were multiple book projects in the works and TV pilots they were in the process of writing. They even had a meeting with a prominent TV director the next day where they would pitch their sitcom idea based on Edelman’s NFL career; it was tentatively titled Mr. Irrelevant and they already had a six-episode arc sketched out.
At this moment, Julian Edelman was at the apex. Two months later came the nadir.
On August 26, the day the news broke about the Injury That Changed Everything—a torn ACL suffered during the Patriots third preseason game the day before—I sent Edelman a short commiserating text. His response came seconds later, in typical Edelman fashion:
“Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”
Almost exactly two years to the day after our car ride in L.A., Edelman is now sitting in a black Mercedes sprinter van, stopped in deadlocked Manhattan traffic. He looks and talks just about the same, regularly responding to questions with pithy aphorisms—like a (frequently profane) fortune cookie personified, with exceptional hair.
So much has changed in the past 24 months. Yet Edelman is back at the apex—with Swissa still right beside him—and still striving even higher.
Again, Edelman is the Super Bowl hero. But this time, he’s also the Super Bowl MVP—his 10 catches for 141 yards securing him that rarified distinction—and in discussion as a potential NFL Hall of Famer. Again he’s amid a whirlwind offseason, promoting his Showtime documentary, 100% Julian Edelman, that details his journey back from injury. The documentary was produced by Edelman’s and Swissa’s company Coast Productions—the name was picked because both men were born on opposite coasts—and with it the pair plans to retake everything that a snapped knee ligament temporarily stole from them.
After the ACL tear, all of their world takeover plans were held in abeyance. Their scripted TV show had been sold… until the cable network pulled the offer after the injury. There is clearly still lingering pain there as they talk about the deal falling apart. But, also, a bright side:
“It’s always better when you eat a little sh-- before you get to eat some sandwiches,” Swissa says.
Edelman quickly corrects him: “The sandwich tastes better after you eat sh--.”
Swissa and Edelman first met at a Boston salon where Assaf’s father has cut the receiver’s hair since 2009, when the Patriots drafted him in the seventh round. Back then Swissa was the chief creative officer for Unreal candy, a startup that he says raised $45 million in VC money and then turned into a “complete f------ failure.” (The company relaunched in 2014.)
After Swissa was let go in 2012, Edelman approached him. Here was a backup receiver, No. 5 on the depth chart, declaring he wanted to build a brand. A couple of years earlier, after his rookie season, Edelman approached his own agency with the same idea—one day he’d be a superstar; they might as well begin planning for that day now—but nothing ever came of it. Swissa, however, saw Edelman’s vision, and they’ve been working together ever since.
For Edelman, branching out was not an impetuous decision. Even when he was a nobody, he planned on being a somebody. He saw the bigger picture and then thought even bigger.
He first appeared in a commercial nine years ago, a TV spot for Re/Max real estate, back when he was still just a punt returner and backup receiver. Wearing his number 11 jersey tucked awkwardly into dress pants, his feathered hair evoking Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, pointing and tilting his head to accentuate his lines, Edelman was so uncomfortable that, well, he made viewers uncomfortable too. But afterward he studied the commercial like game tape, searching for ways to refine his acting chops, making sure not to mumble his lines, losing the canned school-picture-day smile.
He improved gradually, then rapidly. In 2014, with Swissa’s help, he starred in the first of a series of Food Network parodies on YouTube called Smoothie Tyme. (“Our next ingredient is Silk milk. It’s spelled S-I-L-K, but the L is silent. I think that’s, you know, Romanian or something.”) That clip has more than 350,000 total views. They followed that with Burger Tyme, which has more than 500,000 watches. Then they shot a short digital buddy-cop comedy, PATS: Cleaning the Streets, in which Edelman and teammate Danny Amendola solved bogus crimes, played Ping-Pong shirtless and jumped fully uniformed into a pool. That one’s headed toward two million views.
They feel now that this documentary—with an A-list ensemble cast of cameos from Mark Wahlberg to Snoop Dogg, and a partnership with a premium television network in Showtime—is what their journey together has long been building towards.
“It’s the capstone to this whole experiment,” says Kyler Schelling, the film’s director who has worked with the pair for six years.
Swissa waited about four days after Edelman tore his ACL before broaching the idea of filming his recovery. Like most things the duo does, they viewed it as a way to showcase Edelman’s creative spirit, which Swissa often remarks the receiver doesn’t get enough credit for.
Since Edelman is not your typical athlete turned film subject, the group did not want to make the typical sports documentary. They certainly succeeded in that regard, as the film is refreshingly unusual and captures Edelman’s unique style and joie de vivre. The film—which premiered last Friday—is self-aware, constantly alluding to the idea that Edelman is not as famous as, say, Tom Brady and that just his name alone wouldn’t draw audiences. (The first scene has the actor Mark Wahlberg talking to the camera—after Swissa ushers him into a chair—and joking that he didn’t even know what he was there for: “What? This is about Jules? Didn’t Brady already do this sh--?”)
Then it cuts to a title card—Act I—and Edelman sitting on camera. “There’s an old saying,” the receiver says, as he so very often does. “If you die doing something you love, it’s not a tragedy.”
The documentary is, quite consciously, reminiscent of movies like The Big Short and Vice, with fourth-wall-breaking interludes to explain different concepts. For instance, at one point the chef Guy Fieri is in a kitchen snapping celery and chopping steaks to explain what an ACL tear is; at another, the rapper Snoop Dogg is sitting on a couch, smoking a blunt, reading the NFL’s suspension letter to Edelman and explaining performance enhancing drugs (which Edelman was suspended four games at the start of last season for using).
Swissa and Schelling maintain that Edelman had significant creative input throughout the movie-making process—including one scene in particular where the receiver fought hard for there to be an accompanying song, then chose and sourced the track, and “executive produced the sh-- out of it,” in Swissa’s words. As Edelman puts it: “They come up with the meat and potatoes and I put over the peas and carrots. Sometimes everyone wants those side dishes. Like creamed corn. Spinach. Mac and Cheese.” (Schelling maintains that Edelman is “the salt, he just makes the flavor that much better.” Eventually Edelman will decide that he is, in fact, “the ketchup.”)
The movie also pairs the rehab footage with a look into the past at Edelman’s origin story, which often reads like The Labors of Hercules. And—as anyone who knows the Edelman family could have predicted—the real star of the film is Julian’s father, Frank. The most effective and emotional scenes of the movie detail the relationship between father and son. It is, in a part, a love story between the two, because Frank molded Julian into the affable, borderline psychotic he is today—throwing baseballs at the kid’s head to test his mettle and making him catch passes with one arm tied behind his back, or one eye covered.
Frank’s own father died when he was three; at the age of 10, Frank was running the streets of Redwood City, Calif., bouncing tennis balls off the walls of the bars his mother frequented. When he got older he vowed that his kids would get a better life, that he would be the ideal father—but he had no real sense of what that meant. When he started having his own children, he started trying to figure it out. If a new challenge arose for one of his kids he would sit in his office, take out a notebook and jot down his own sayings, creating a sort of guidebook to life. Then he’d corner his kids at home and reel off what the family would come to call Frankisms.
At first father had to force son to listen, but as the years went on Julian began looking forward to his dad walking into a room, notebook in hand. Eventually Julian began reciting the sayings himself. Nowadays, they comprise most of Julian’s answers to interview questions.
Back in the sprinter van in New York traffic, Edelman is talking about his journey over the last two years—from the top, to the bottom, and now back again. He doesn’t want to talk much about his heroics last year—again invoking the old news, bird sh-- saying, a classic Frankism. Nor does he have much to say about the coming season because the team “hasn’t even practiced in pads yet.”
Yes the injury may have temporarily broken him, but he believes in the aftermath he emerged stronger. He says he’s matured, that his post-Super Bowl celebration was relatively tame this time around; “it wasn’t the debauchery of the first two,” Edelman claims. Swissa, for his part, also says he has grown from his experience with Edelman’s injury, saying it has allowed him to live more in the present and not constantly plot their future.
The pair is again shopping their sitcom idea around town; and now they are also writing a romantic comedy “set in the world of pro football…with Julian-inspired themes.” Everything that they had once lost, they have regained—and here they are again, striving ever higher. But now Edelman understands how quickly things can change.
“I’ve been here before,” he says. “And all a sudden it’s all gone in one play. If you get your hopes up, you get your feelings hurt. That’s what my dad used to say.”
“But,” Edelman continues with a wink, “you don’t get this far, just to get this far.”
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