This is looking so much like the breakout season Braylon Edwards expected. The Cleveland Browns' third-year pro, never shy in desiring to be recognized among the elite receivers, has the videotape and statistical evidence that reflects a player of such a level. Edwards makes spectacular diving catches. He runs fearless routes over the middle. He blocks. He hustles. In a win against the Baltimore Ravens two weekends ago, the former University of Michigan star even led his home crowd in an O-H-I-O chant.
Yet for all the highlights and numbers — Edwards heads into Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins averaging an NFL-best 20.2 yards a catch for players with at least 15 receptions and ranks fourth overall with 485 receiving yards — it would be a shame to define this man merely as a football player.
Edwards, 24, pledged $1 million this year to Cleveland's public schools for 100 scholarships for children who might not otherwise be able to attend college — or, in some cases, provide incentive for students to further their education. Last year, in the midst of a five-year, $40 million contract, he created a $500,000 endowment at Michigan, the largest donation by a former athlete.
He is a man with a social conscious, serious about education and as self-assured as he is about his football skills when considering how and why he must make a difference.
"Growing up, I saw that there were a lot of kids who could do what I could do from an intellectual standpoint, an athletic standpoint," says Edwards, a Detroit native, "but they didn't have the push and motivation. … All that they were seeing around them was negative. And that's all they know. So my goal has always been to help if I was ever in a situation to do anything."
Through the Braylon Edwards Foundation he established the Advance 100, a program that selected 100 eighth-graders through an essay competition and promises to provide a $10,000 gift toward college costs. To collect, students must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, perform 15 hours of community service and attend workshops and seminars.
The first workshop was held at Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College in late September, where Edwards' father, Stanley, a former Michigan running back who played six NFL seasons with the Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions, was one of the guest lecturers.
Among topics at the first seminar: goal-setting, etiquette, communication skills and developing a support system.
In addition to more seminars, Edwards is trying to enlist support from corporations and civic organizations, including the Urban League, to establish mentoring for the kids and plans to arrange for a series of college tours to broaden exposure.
"There's no 'if' clause with this," Edwards says. "We're providing the kids with all the means necessary to reach that GPA, to do their community service. We're going to make sure that they don't fail, so that when we get to 2011, there are still 100 kids."
Sanders says 90% of students in his system come from economically challenged homes. The system, he says, is saddled by dilapidated facilities, which underscores why one of his biggest priorities is to refurbish or replace buildings — a task made tougher, he says, when considering a significant portion of funding relies on property taxes from homes with an average value of $60,000.
Sanders also says 45% of the students who enter the ninth grade drop out before graduating from high school.
"That's why what Braylon is doing is so special," Sanders says. "One conversation with a kid at the right time can transform a life. … The last time I saw him, a few days ago, he's like, 'Doc, what else can I do to help?' "
Sanders was struck by "rapt attention" the charismatic Edwards commanded from the 100 kids and their parents at a ceremony in May to announce the program.
"The thing that really hurt my heart when we were reading through the essays were some of the stories these kids were telling," Edwards says. "It was stuff like, 'My brother's robbing people. My mother's never here. My father beats my mother.'
"It made me sick to my stomach, just thinking about the people who are out here and the kinds of things that go on. For this to be the greatest country in the world, we've got a long ways to go."
Learning From Parents
Edwards is nobody's rags-to-riches case. Although his parents divorced when he was young, both remarried and he grew up in an upscale area of Detroit with his mother, Malesa, and stepfather, Charles Plater. They were progressive examples. His mother, now his business manager, operated her own shoe store and later a gallery. Charles, a doctor, has been an educator in the Detroit school system for more than 15 years.
Edwards has also been close with his father, who has coached an AAU track team for years in addition to his real estate interests.
"I've always felt I was lucky to have two sets of supportive parents," Edwards says.
His parents, he says, taught him much about the history of Detroit, economics, racism and discrimination that allowed a basis for big-picture perspective.
Since he was 12, Edwards says there was always an emphasis on community service. He has helped with turkey drives and canned goods drives, helped feed homeless people and read to disadvantaged kids. "Wherever I wound up," Edwards says, "I would've been active in the community."
Education became the thrust of his charitable efforts because Edwards believes that can go the furthest in reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots in society.
He attended public and private schools and was struck by differences in facilities, resources and curriculums. He is still reminded of such when considering the education his younger sister receives in a suburban Detroit high school and what he sees when driving around poor neighborhoods in Cleveland.
"Education is awful in America but especially in these inner cities like Detroit and Cleveland," Edwards says. "We don't get the right books, the right materials. Teachers can't teach the materials. And kids are dealing with so much outside of school, sometimes they don't have a reason to come to school. That's not an excuse for not coming to school, but they need support. We all have a duty to help."
Growing On, Off Field
Browns general manager Phil Savage sees Edwards' civic commitment in the context of a larger picture that includes blossoming on the football field.
Savage, formerly the Baltimore Ravens' player personnel director, took over the Browns' football operations in 2005. Edwards, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's top receiver, was his first draft pick, third overall, in 2005.
In his first two seasons, Edwards struggled to reach his potential while the team developed slowly. An infection sidelined him for two games in his rookie year and a torn ligament in his right knee ended his season four games prematurely. Last year he got on the bad side of coach Romeo Crennel for being late to a meeting and was criticized when TV cameras captured Edwards yelling at teammates.
None of that stopped him from making his grand social statement.
"It was a bold move to put something together like he has off the field," Savage says. "A lot of people want to do these things after they are established on the field. In a lot of ways, he's put some additional pressure on himself in the right way. I think it's helped him.
"I'm proud of him. … He's one of these modern athletes who realizes there's more to life than football. I respect he had enough confidence in himself to make such a big commitment."
Edwards is a big dreamer. His childhood friend and former college roommate, Hayes Groom, helps with many of the details; there are a number of fundraisers planned. Edwards also is trying to line up support from the business, civic and education communities.
"I'm going to help Cleveland," Edwards says. "But after making the pledge, as soon as I went back to Detroit, it was, 'So, when are you going to give a million dollars to Detroit?' This is my first contract. Let's do this now, see how it goes over with the city, the mayor, the school system and how the kids fare.
"In a couple of years, as this is going well, it might be, 'Hey, Detroit: I've got a proposition for you. I've got some backing now, got other people that want to be involved. Instead of the Advance 100, let's do the Advance 500.' "
The pledges extend to the football field, too. The Browns (2-3) have shown the most signs of progress in the Savage-Crennel regime after an impressive offseason landed running back Jamal Lewis and guard Eric Steinbach as free agents and tackle Joe Thomas, quarterback Brady Quinn and cornerback Eric Wright from the draft.
Edwards — whose dive-and-roll 37-yard touchdown grab was one of the ESPN moments of the 51-point outburst in the victory against Cincinnati in Week 2 — has surely done his part. As promised.
"I have to prove to this team why they drafted me," says Edwards, tied with tight end Kellen Winslow II for the team lead with 24 catches. "I don't think they've forgotten, but for whatever reasons — personnel, whatever — I haven't been able to show what I came here to do.
"So to the fans and the media, maybe it was, 'He isn't what we thought he'd be.' But I'm hoping that this is the year I break out of the shell."