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.