The Real Thing

Braylon Edwards is the best wideout in the nation and the unquestioned leader of resurgent Michigan. But it took four years for his head to catch up to his talent
October 24, 2004

Braylon Edwards sits in the backseat of a friend's taupe Chevy Avalanche, kneading his left shoulder and rocking back and forth as a voice crackling on his cellphone taunts, "You're gonna be hurting this Saturday. Shut down in the Big House. Three picks. No catches. It's gonna be all pain, no Braylon." ¶ A Minnesota fan somehow got Edwards's number and bombarded his voice mail. Edwards hasn't checked his messages until now, after the game, in which Michigan came from behind with less than two minutes left and put away the unbeaten Golden Gophers 27-24 on Oct. 9.

And Edwards? He did have his worst day of the season so far: 10 catches, 98 yards, one touchdown. Of course, his worst performance is what 99% of the wide receivers in college football would call a career day.

At this tailgate party--a regular Edwards extended family affair, complete with oil-drum barbecue grill and a dozen kids playing touch football in the street--Braylon, 21, listens to the Minnesotan's rants and shakes his head, holding up the phone so that relatives can hear a Wolverine-hater make a damn fool of himself.

But Braylon is hurting. He's rolling his neck, rubbing that shoulder and wincing. Not in pain, he insists, but in annoyance at his mom, Malesa, who leans into the car with one elbow on the open door and the other on the roof, her number 1 jersey creating a barrier that keeps the world away from her boy. "Baby," she asks, "did they hurt you?"

"No, Mom," Braylon says, clucking his tongue. "It's just a cold."

"Oh, my God," she says. "You have the flu. Is it the flu? I know you have the flu."

"It's not the flu," he says. "It's a cold."

"Flu!" she says.

"Cold! I'm sick, O.K.?" Braylon erases the phone message and moves to the next one.

"Braylon," it says, "you're going to suffer. You're going to be shut down. You have no game."

That fan is wrong for many reasons. First and foremost: Braylon has mad game. He's already Michigan's alltime leader in catches, with 208, is second in receiving yards, with 2,992, and is tied for second in receiving touchdowns, with 32, just five behind Anthony Carter. That number 1 jersey Edwards asked for and received after his sophomore season has previously been worn by Carter, David Terrell and Derrick Alexander, all of whom put up huge collegiate numbers, starred in the NFL and have pushed Big House expectations of Edwards to Heisman levels. Edwards has not let them down: After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2002 and 2003, he's having another monstrous year. Following last Saturday's 30-19 victory over Illinois, he has 53 catches for 781 yards and eight touchdowns for the 6-1 Wolverines. Big Ten defenses have struggled to adjust to him, futilely double-teaming him and jamming him at the line of scrimmage.

"Braylon is the third-strongest guy on our whole team," says receivers coach Erik Campbell. "We've taught him how to fight through those picks. You can't outphysical him."

At 6'3" and 208 pounds, Edwards is big enough to snatch deep outs from shorter cornerbacks, and with his sub-4.4 speed in the 40 he can outrun most Big Ten safeties. When Michigan goes to the ground, as it did against the Illini last Saturday, Edwards's size and strength make him one of the game's most lethal downfield blockers. "Braylon's dirty like that," says former Wolverines wideout Desmond Howard, the 1991 Heisman winner. "That's the Michigan tradition: When you don't have the ball, you do everything else to win."

NFL scouts compare Edwards's combination of physicality and speed with that of Randy Moss, and Edwards considered leaving Michigan as a junior last year to go pro. "If I had been the top one or two at my position," he says, "I would have gone." But the 2004 draft was the deepest in years for wide receivers--seven went in the first round--and by staying in school Edwards has probably played himself into the top wide receiver spot in 2005.

Michigan, where clouds of dust once followed three-yard plunges, is fast becoming Wide Receiver U. Edwards is the latest--and possibly greatest--Wolverines wideout, a position that may one day be as storied as Miami quarterback or Southern Cal tailback. Since 1990 Howard, Alexander, Terrell, Tai Streets, Amani Toomer, Mercury Hayes, Marquise Walker and Marcus Knight have been Ann Arbor game-breakers. When Edwards goes over 1,000 yards this season, it will be the seventh straight year that a Michigan wide receiver has passed the millennium mark. "Our offense is based on getting the ball to our playmakers," says coach Lloyd Carr, "and that means getting the ball to Braylon."

That's quite a statement coming from a man who last year publicly worried that he and his star wideout were "not on the same page" after the junior was late for a team meeting. That was the catalyzing event in a series of run-ins between the two that was played out in the media. "I wasn't reaching him," says Carr. "I was concerned about the chemistry of this team. If you have one set of rules for one group and another set for another group, that will lead to chaos and failure. I had to make it clear that there would be no compromise on this issue."

Driving his silver Chevy Blazer down State Street toward Ann Arbor's Briarwood Mall on a recent Sunday, Edwards reflected on Carr's criticisms. "Coach said when we first got here that you live in a fishbowl if you play for Michigan. Coach is a stickler about teaching us how to deal with the media. But I never thought it would be Coach going through the media at me."

No one ever doubted Edwards's athleticism, his speed, his talent. What Carr was getting at was the issue that had been dogging Edwards since high school. "He would run around being the village idiot," says George Sahadi, Edwards's coach at Detroit's Bishop Gallagher High. "The teachers were complaining, saying he couldn't sit still for two seconds. He was disruptive; he was breaking other kids' pencils. He was always looking for attention."

Despite Edwards's intelligence--he scored more than 1,100 on his SATs on his first attempt--and his athletic ability, Michigan was scared off by his reputation as a prima donna. "That killed him," says his father, Stan, a star tailback at Ann Arbor from 1977 to 1981 who played six NFL seasons with the Houston Oilers and the Detroit Lions. Stan, a track coach, began training his son when he was nine. By the time Braylon was 14, he was among the fastest high school sprinters in Michigan. "I knew what we had," says Stan, "but as a father I couldn't go to Coach Carr and [try to convince] him."

When Wolverines defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann, who recruits Michigan's Catholic schools, finally took a serious look at Braylon, he told Sahadi, "Don't let anyone talk to him before me." Sahadi told Herrmann he was too late. Michigan State, UCLA and several other colleges had already called.

Herrmann called Braylon at home, and Malesa hung up on him. "I was just so mad that Michigan hadn't recruited him sooner," she says. "No one insults my boy."

Still, when Carr offered Edwards a scholarship, he took it on the spot. "This is Michigan," Braylon says, gesturing at the suburban expanse but really trying to take in the whole tradition, the 111,000 fans packed into the Big House on a fall Saturday, even his own genealogy. "How could I not come?"

Turning his car into the mall parking lot, he slides in a CD of his favorite pregame track, Jay-Z's Real Niggaz, and starts rapping along: On the road to riches and diamond rings, real niggaz do real things.

"The biggest thing after Coach called me out was, how was I going to react? After Coach's comments, after we lost to Oregon [in 2003]--I'd had 13 catches, 144 yards--in postgame interviews I was saying I'd torn some ligaments. Then the media was writing how I was making excuses [for dropped passes in the game]. I didn't start the next week against Indiana. I felt terrible. I called my mom." Malesa asked her son what he liked most in the world.

"Football," he said.

"Then you have to show that love," she told him. "Don't talk about it, just do it. If you just keep balling, you're gonna have fun. If you have fun, nobody can stop you."

Edwards shuts down the engine. "Real niggaz do real things," he says. "What I do matters, not what I say. I began coming to every meeting early, every workout early, every practice. Nobody practiced harder. Real things."

Carr agrees. "Braylon became a leader," he says. "I have never questioned his character, only his maturity. He did some growing up. I've said he's become the best player in the country. Now all he has to do is prove me right."

Becoming the leader of the Michigan offense has only increased the burden on Edwards. "I knew that if I came back, I would have to step up again," he says. Running back Chris Perry and quarterback John Navarre, the nucleus of the offense for the 2004 Rose Bowl team, are gone. Besides number 1, the offense now features a freshman running back, Michael Hart, and a freshman quarterback, Chad Henne, who has thrived thanks to his favorite target. "You just put the ball in Braylon's general area," says Henne, "and he will go get it."

As Michigan's playmaker Edwards absorbs a secondary's attention, loosening it up for the Wolverines' ground game--Hart rushed for 234 yards against Illinois--and freeing the other wideouts and the tight ends for big plays. "This is such a great opportunity for me," says Edwards. "It's the seniors who have to step up, to provide leadership. That's the Michigan way. Real things."

He strolls through the mall, stopping off to pick up a new cellphone, bowing his head a little as he accepts compliments. This humility, he will tell you, is new. So is the maturity. "The program will be here long after I'm gone," Edwards says. "It's bigger than me or any other player. You can't fight it."

That's not resignation, he quickly adds. That's finally understanding that when he walks the walk, he doesn't have to say a word.

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty COLOR PHOTOTODD ROSENBERG NO. 1 SON Malesa and Stan are fiercely protective of Braylon--and he's lived up to their expectations with stellar catches.

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