ROBERT EDWARDS couldn't immediately perceive what had happened to him as he lay on Waikiki Beach days before the Pro Bowl after the 1998 season. Seconds earlier he had been living his dream. The New England Patriots had drafted him 18th overall out of Georgia that year, and he'd rushed for 1,115 yards. That earned him an invitation to Hawaii to play in a beach four-on-four flag football game with other top rookies, including Peyton Manning. But as he leaped to defend a pass, Edwards landed awkwardly. He felt no pain at first as he lay crumpled on the white sand. All he knew was that something was very wrong with his left leg. It was the sensation of his dream dying.
This is an article from the July 14, 2008 issue
The pain began in the ambulance on his way to Honolulu's Straub Clinic & Hospital—excruciating pain, "like dislocating your finger, times 50," Edwards would later say—but even that did not compare to the agony that overwhelmed him when he awoke from surgery that night. That's when he learned that he'd suffered what Georgia's Director of Sports Medicine, Ron Courson, who treated Edwards during his rehab, calls "the worst knee injury I've ever seen." Edwards had torn three of his left knee's four major ligaments—the ACL, MCL and PCL—and had partially torn the fourth; he had damaged a major nerve; and, most serious of all, he had sliced the artery through which blood reaches the lower leg. His doctors told him that if the sutures in the artery didn't hold, they'd be forced to amputate below the knee. "You'll never play football again," the doctors said, "and if you walk again, you will use a cane for the rest of your life."
As Edwards wept in his Hawaii hospital bed, his fellow 1998 rookie John Avery didn't realize that his NFL career was also nearing its end. The two had met as rival SEC running backs (Avery attended Ole Miss), and they bonded at the '98 Senior Bowl and the NFL combine. By the time the Dolphins selected Avery 29th in the '98 draft, he and Edwards were close friends. But while Edwards was a bruising 5'11" and 220 pounds, the quicksilver Avery was just 5'9" and 190, a feature back in a scatback's body. He rushed for 503 yards in '98 as a backup for Miami and was ninth in the league in kick-return average, but the 16 games he played that year would constitute the bulk of his NFL career. "I wanted to be an every-down back," says Avery, a Richmond native, "but nobody wanted me to be."
Jimmy Johnson, then Miami's coach and general manager, decided he didn't want to pay a first-rounder's salary to a part-timer. During the '99 season Avery was shipped to the Broncos, where he was buried behind Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary; Avery played in just six games and had five rushing attempts in '99. Before the 2000 season the Broncos cut him, and it appeared his football career was over. "Some days I wish I hadn't been so talented at football," he says. "Then maybe football wouldn't have broken my heart."
But broken hearts and broken knees can be mended, and Edwards's and Avery's paths would converge, against all odds, in the backfield for the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts.
Not only did Edwards keep his leg, but after two grueling years of rehab he had regained most of his speed and agility. His comeback attempt began in Patriots training camp in 2001, but he was cut by Bill Belichick after one month. The following season Miami signed him, and this time he made the roster. In his first game since 1998, on Sept. 8, 2002, against the Lions, Edwards scored a pair of touchdowns in a 49--21 victory. "There's your comeback player of the year already," said Manning, who had watched Edwards's knee explode on the beach 3 1/2 years earlier.
Edwards played in 12 injury-free games in 2002, but that would be his last NFL season. After two seasons of fruitless workouts with NFL teams, he signed with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes in '05 and he became a star, rushing for more than 1,000 yards in each of his two full years and scoring 25 touchdowns. "The CFL didn't look at me like a guy who was injured," he says gratefully. "They looked at me as a player."
Edwards was following a trail Avery had already blazed. After washing out of the NFL, Avery was the leading rusher in the XFL—the joint venture of NBC and the World Wrestling Federation—in 2001, its lone season. He moved north in '02 to play for the Edmonton Eskimos, becoming the only back to top 1,400 yards rushing as a first-year CFL player. After a stint back in the NFL with the Vikings in '04, he returned to the CFL that season, spending four years in the backfield for the Toronto Argonauts. When the Argos signed Edwards in August '07, the circle was completed. Avery invited Edwards to live in the basement of his Toronto home. "John and I, we're like long-lost brothers," says Edwards. "We can relate to each other's struggles."
The cost-cutting Argonauts released both Edwards, 33, and Avery, 32, last January, and the players know their twinned journey through pro football may be over. Both say their CFL success has allowed them to look to the future without regrets about the NFL. Avery is a stand-up comic—he spends seven hours a day writing material and performs at clubs in Toronto. He also hosts a weekly Internet show, Avery Day Gossip, on thatchannel.com and has written 16 episodes of a sitcom he'd like to produce. It's about an NFL star who is forced to join a low-budget football league in the Great White North. The working title: CFL: Cash Flow Low.
Edwards, meanwhile, has returned to Georgia, where he grew up. He's planning a career in coaching and has written a series of yet-to-be-published children's books entitled Team Players, which he reads to his daughters, Journee, 8, and Justice, 3. The books deal with a theme both he and Avery know well: how to overcome adversity.
Catch up with more 1998 NFL draft picks at SI.com/WATN.