Edwards is shining example of hope for Jaylon Smith

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Robert Edwards’ left knee stiffens up at times when he gets a little too sedentary, though never enough to the point that any of his Greene County (Ga.) High School football players would ever notice.

The 41-year-old head coach and Phys Ed teacher does have a scar, though, and the memory that goes along with it of a doctor telling him that while he was lucky enough 17 years ago to avoid amputation below the knee, Edwards’ football career was over and the best-case scenario was that he’d walk with a cane the rest of his life.

Peroneal nerve damage was smack in the middle of the doomsday prognosis for the running back, who was not only good enough to be taken 18th overall in the 1998 draft, less than a year before the injury, but to earn a Pro Bowl selection after his rookie season with the New England Patriots.

That is why he’ll root for a stranger named Jaylon Smith when the 2016 NFL Draft unfolds Thursday through Saturday in Chicago.

And if the former Notre Dame linebacker — whose future is shrouded by peroneal nerve damage in his own left knee — should reach out to the University of Georgia grad in the days that follow, he’ll be only too happy to share what it was like on the road back.

All the way back.

And from an injury with plenty of similarities to but far worse than Smith’s.

“A lot of players have called me over the years,” Edwards said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Sometimes they’re players from Georgia — Nick Chubb, Keith Marshall, Todd Gurley. Sometimes they’re people I’ve never met. But my message is the same: There’s hope.”

Smith’s injury, and the tsunami of speculation that ensued about what it will mean to his bank account and his NFL longevity, has unwittingly hijacked the most feel-good Notre Dame draft angle in more than two decades.

By most projections, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will lead things off Thursday night in what could be the largest Irish draft contingent in 22 years, with the Las Vegas product being the school’s first top 10 selection at any position since defensive tackle Bryant Young went seventh overall to the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.

And Stanley would be the first offensive lineman from ND to land in the top 10 since George Kunz went No. 2 overall to Atlanta in 1969, the same year Irish head coach Brian Kelly was finishing the second grade.

A minimum of seven players and as many as 11 in the 253 players from Notre Dame could be taken over three days and seven rounds, concluding with Super Bowl Champion Denver’s Mr. Irrelevant pick at some point on Saturday.

Somewhere in between, the pro and college football worlds will get an idea of whether the uncertainty in Smith’s medicals truly make him as radioactive as some have speculated. Or will it turn into a gigantic game of chicken where he ends up being selected no lower than when round three concludes Friday night.

Had Smith not landed awkwardly after a shove from Ohio State tackle and one-time Notre Dame recruit Taylor Decker, it was expected that the 6-foot-2, 240-pound consensus All-American from Fort Wayne, Ind., would have been the first Irish linebacker ever to be drafted in the top 10.

His $5 million loss-of-value insurance policy reportedly kicks in if he falls completely out of the first round, and would max out if he slipped beyond the third.

While Smith in ND’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State suffered a torn ACL and LCL, Edwards tore the ACL, MCL and PCL and partially tore his LCL. And beyond the nerve damage, he severed an artery in a 4-on-4 rookie flag-football showcase — that included QB Peyton Manning — in Hawaii that was part of the Pro Bowl festivities.

“A lot of people, I can tell them the story, and they’re like, ‘Ooh, for real?’ ” Edwards said. “But if they get hurt and they’re limited in what they want to do, and then you tell them the story, it means more.

“Nobody ever feels they’re going to get hurt. Nobody ever feels that they’re going to be that guy. I never felt like I was going to be that guy.

“I’ve been where they’ve been. I know what they’re going through. I know what their mind-set is right now. When they ask me questions, my answers are validated by what I’ve been through. My hope is that by telling my story, I’m going to give them confidence to believe they can make it back.”

A more recent example of a player recovering from an injury with many of the same details as Smith’s — including nerve damage — is current NFL linebacker Sean Spence, whose comeback with the Pittsburgh Steelers was so convincing, the former third-round pick parlayed it into a free agent signing last month with the Tennessee Titans.

Spence, injured in the final preseason game of his rookie year, missed one complete season while recovering from his knee injury and another because of a broken finger, before his comeback hit full stride.

The most encouraging potential parallel in Edwards’ saga was that the nerve damage began to reverse itself far sooner than expected.

“They first told me it would be six months before I started feeling anything,” he said. “But, through extensive rehab, it started to come back in two, two and a half months. And in three to four months, the healing was significant.

“I had drop foot, at first. And that’s from the nerves not being able to regenerate. They did a lot of shock treatment to try to jump-start the nerve. They put a machine up around the nerve and try to shock it.

“It sends some volts through your leg. It makes the muscle jump. It makes your foot jump, and they were trying to get it to generate and get the nerves active.”

That was 1999. By 2001, Edwards was ready for his second chance, but the NFL wasn’t ready to give it to him.

Bill Belichick had replaced Pete Carroll as the Patriots’ head coach during Edwards’ extensive rehab.

“Good for the Patriots, bad for me,” he said. “I wasn’t Belichick’s guy. And once I got there and he knew I had been injured, he looked at me differently. I never got on the field, never had the opportunity to prove that I was all the way back and I could play again. I never played in a preseason game. Nothing.

“So after training camp, I got released. He said he appreciated the effort I put forward to get back to playing, but there was nothing I could do to keep my job.”

Atlanta, New Orleans and Baltimore were some of the teams who let him go through the motions but decided against signing him in 2001. It wasn’t until 2002, when the Miami Dolphins gave him a shot.

He tag-teamed that season with former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, whom Miami had acquired in a trade with New Orleans.

“I got my speed back down to a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash),” Edwards said. “I was jumping 38 (inches) in the vertical. Everything felt normal. I felt exactly the way I felt my rookie year in the league. I mean running, cutting, everything.”

He suffered a pulled hamstring, though, in the summer of 2003, and Miami’s decision to release him after training camp that year chased him into the CFL, where he’d play another three injury-free years.

“The information I got was that Miami let me go because the coaches felt it was only a matter of time before I got hurt again,” he said. “They didn’t want to take the risk of me getting reinjured.

“And that’s what it’s going to take for this young man, Jaylon Smith, and I tell everybody this: Once you’re hurt, you’ve got to have somebody who has the same confidence you’ve got, that you’re not going to get hurt again.”

Surrounding yourself with the right people matters, Edwards said.

“People who don’t see you as a business transaction,” he said, “but as a human being who is trying to get his life back. And you’re also going to need some tough love at times, because sometimes it gets so tough you want to stop. When I wanted to quit, they wouldn’t let me.

“That’s why I didn’t bury my story in the past and try to forget about it. I want to remember it. And I want it to have a chance to inspire others.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith watched his teammates run drills during Notre Dame's Pro Day in South Bend, on March 31. (AP Photo/MICHAEL CONROY)

When: Thursday-Saturday.

Where: Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University; Chicago.

TV: ESPN and NFL Network.

Format: Coverage of Round 1 starts 8 p.m. EDT on Thursday. Round 2-3 start at 7 p.m., on Friday. Rounds 4-7 start at noon on Saturday.

Notre Dame player rankings: The Irish had 10 players in ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s final top 300 — 6. OT Ronnie Stanley, 31. WR Will Fuller, 41. C Nick Martin, 86. CB KeiVarae Russell, 89. DT Sheldon Day, 117. RB C.J. Prosise, 138. LB Jaylon Smith (with injury), 176. WR Chris Brown, 236. DE Romeo Okwara, 259. S Elijah Shumate.