One canny way to make an NFL roster is to be a good punt returner. It takes a special player to learn: Fielding punts is more like playing center field than most of what happens on a football field, and tracking the flight of the ball is as important, if not more important, than the return itself. It’s a hard skill to pick up, and most good punt returners in the NFL had a lot of experience doing it in college, if not high school. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of reps to understand the myriad ways that different types of punts travel through the air and the environmental factors at play. After fielding a punt, a returner needs to process coverages quickly and make quick cuts through those coverages to create big plays. Success at the job tends to go unapplauded; failure tends to be humiliating.
In 2018, a series of injuries put the Patriots in the tricky position of finding a punt returner on the fly early in the season. During an interview at the time, Bill Belichick explained the nuances of the job and why it’s so difficult to teach, and I asked him for an example of someone who had successfully picked it up despite a lack of pre-NFL experience at the position.
“Julian Edelman,” he replied, without missing a beat.
Edelman’s 12-year career in New England is full of examples of him doing things he’s not supposed to be able to; learning to return punts was perhaps the earliest among them. He entered the NFL having returned six punts in college as an undersized quarterback at Kent State, but those reps came after he begged his coaches to let him try to show off his versatility in front of NFL scouts in his senior year. He was, effectively, a beginner in New England, and it showed—fans booed Edelman during his first Patriots training camp after muffing multiple punts in practice. He refused, however, to stop trying. Returning punts was Edelman’s primary job for the Patriots from 2010 to 2012 before earning Tom Brady’s eternal trust with a 1,056-yard receiving season in 2013. Edelman has returned punts for the Patriots throughout his career, amassing 1,986 yards and four touchdowns on 177 returns.
On Monday, after weeks of deliberation, Edelman announced his retirement in a video posted to his social media accounts. He did so after New England terminated his contract with the designation of a failed physical, which means he’ll become eligible for an injury protection benefit as part of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, through which he can collect up to $2 million. Edelman played six games in 2020 before undergoing season-ending knee surgery; he’s been rehabbing this offseason, but his decision to retire was motivated in part because the pain in his knee has not subsided. (And lest you think Edelman will unretire and end up in Tampa, like former Patriots teammate Rob Gronkowski, NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran reported that Edelman’s retirement is final.) It’s a poignant end to a career that, until now, was marked by a refusal to stop.
“Nothing in my career has ever come easy, and no surprise, this isn’t going to be easy either,” Edelman said in his retirement announcement. “Now, I’ve always said, I’ll go until the wheels come off. And they finally have fallen off. Due to an injury last year, I’ll be making my official announcement of my retirement from football.”
The Patriots drafted Edelman out of Kent State in 2009. He’d been lightly scouted, to put it politely, but Belichick was impressed when he’d seen that Edelman hadn’t stopped trying late into a 48-3 loss against Ohio State as a junior. He had little business making the roster, but wound up as one of the team’s longest-tenured players. His retirement at 34 comes after 620 catches for 6,822 yards and 36 touchdowns; 58 rushing attempts for 413 yards; 21 tackles and two quarterback hits from his part-time gig as a slot cornerback in 2011; and six completions on six passing attempts for 128 yards, a touchdown, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
“Few players can match Julian’s achievements, period, but considering his professional trajectory and longevity, the group is even more select,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. “It is historic. This is a tribute to his legendary competitiveness, mental and physical toughness and will to excel. Day in and day out, Julian was always the same: all out.”
That was never more apparent than in the playoffs, in which Edelman ranks second in NFL history with 118 postseason receptions, behind only Jerry Rice, who has 151. He’s tied with Michael Irvin for second all time among wide receivers with six playoff games of at least 100 receiving yards. (Rice is first with eight.)
He caught nine passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in New England’s Super Bowl XLIX win against Seattle. He was Super Bowl LIII MVP: In a game that seemed allergic to offensive production, Edelman caught 10 passes for 141 yards. Above all else, Edelman will be remembered by many for the inconceivable catch he made, diving to the ground to snatch a ricocheting football centimeters above the turf to help the Patriots come back from a 28-3 halftime deficit and beat the Falcons in overtime in Super Bowl LI.
Edelman was 5-foot-2 for two years of high school and has always been undersized for his chosen profession. The game has taken its toll on his body: He’s fractured an arm, a hand, and both feet, separated a shoulder and, in 2017, tore his ACL. His full injury history is longer than that, full of thigh bruises and sprained ankles in addition to the breaks and tears, yet he’s played at least 11 games in eight seasons. He has had at least three concussions.
He has played, at times, with reckless abandon. He has started brawls with his relentless goading, including one in training camp 2017 with his notoriously unflappable teammate Stephon Gilmore. There’s a through line in the most recognizable aspects of his career: his success, his demeanor, the love his coaches have for him, and the fear he’s invoked in friends and fans who watched him routinely give his body up in games. He’s never known when to say stop. On Monday, he finally had to.