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Sports From near-amputation to rushing star: How Robert Edwards beat the odds

The day Robert Edwards's career changed forever was intended to be all about fun, a meaningless 5-on-5 flag-football game on a beach in Hawaii.

Edwards had just completed a 1,000-yard rookie season with the New England Patriots, earning him the chance to join Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and other National Football League freshman in a made-for-television event that was part of the 1999 Pro Bowl festivities.

Late that day, however, Edwards found himself in an ambulance en route to hospital, where doctors would decide whether to amputate his left leg below the knee or try to repair his artery, giving him a long-shot chance to walk with a cane.

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In a single moment without warning, Edwards had dislocated his knee while diving to knock down a pass that afternoon. Dislocation, however, doesn't come close to explaining the carnage that occurred: Edwards's anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments were all completely torn. A fourth ligament was nearly shredded. In addition, he suffered severe nerve damage and a severed artery that had to be repaired immediately. One doctor said it looked as though Edwards's knee had been hit by a hand grenade.

It's the kind of thing one expects to result from a serious auto accident or a fall from great heights. But from beach football?

"One thing my mom and dad always said is that if I'm going to do something, I'm going do it to the fullest," Edwards said. "I ain't going to halfway do it."

As he describes that day back in February of 1999 from his seat in a downtown Montreal restaurant, Edwards recounts his story calmly and methodically.

He's a big man for a CFL running back, with a Southern accent indicative of his rural Georgia roots and a gentile disposition.

His drink of choice is a Shirley Temple with extra grenadine.

Edwards recalls going into shock when he looked at his knee, convinced he was dreaming, that his lower leg couldn't really be hanging just by skin alone. Then came the pain.

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But as strange as it might seem, Robert Edwards was lucky that day.

When Patriots doctor Bertram Zarins was reached in Boston, he called his brother, the chief of vascular surgery at Stanford University in California. By telephone, Christopher Zarins directed the surgeon who stood over Edwards in Hawaii, quarterbacking the process that saved his foot. Had things taken 10 minutes longer to come together, the result might have been different.

Months later, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue cancelled future Pro Bowl beach football games. Edwards's career, meanwhile, appeared to be over.

Bertram Zarins believed a positive outcome for Edwards would have been if he was able to walk again.

"In 24 years as the Patriots' team doctor, it is one of the worst injuries I've ever seen," he said. "But he was very determined to get back and worked harder than anyone I'd ever seen."

Last Sunday against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Edwards had his fifth 100-yard rushing game in his past seven as a member of the Montreal Alouettes. Heading into tonight's game against the Calgary Stampeders, he is tied for the CFL lead among running backs with an average of 6.8 yards a carry, competing with no sign of the injury that most said would end his career. He has compiled more than 1,000 combined yards for the season and has given Montreal a much-needed ground attack.

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"I feel like I never got hurt," he said. "Just like everybody else, like it never happened."

Medical technology has made recovery from knee injuries in football almost routine. Each season, athletes pop back onto the field with amazing recoveries.

Edwards is believed to be one of a kind in professional sports, a player whose mere presence makes sports-medicine professionals gasp in awe.

"I think my story has helped a lot of people," Edwards said. "There's situations I've talked to kids or different people, people who call and say my son needs some inspiration, will you please call him. And I don't think it's done yet. It's yet to be finished.

"I was always taught that no matter how bad something is, something good has to come of it if you have faith."

Edwards is not bitter. Which is remarkable, considering that the club that had made him a first-round pick in 1998 out of the University of Georgia has gone on to win three Super Bowls in four years.

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The Patriots were supposed to be his team. How could one possibly watch what's unfolded in New England the past few seasons and not dwell on what should have been?

"I'm happy for [the Patriots]" Edwards said. "But God had different things for me, so I continue to think that way. I know I missed out on a lot of big contracts. I just stay humble and continue to work hard and go out and do the best I can."

"If they asked me to [play in the beach football game]again today, I'd probably do it. That's just the way I am. I look at it as it was destined to happen because a lot of people wouldn't have made a comeback from this. Maybe I was picked out by God for it to happen to me because I had the willpower to push through and fight, so that I have a story to tell to people who feel like they want to give up."

Watching Edwards run for Montreal makes it easy to forget where his comeback began. Zarins performed the surgery to repair the knee two weeks after the injury occurred in February of 1999.

Edwards started with six months of bed rest, during which he could not feel his foot. While his peers headed to training camp in the summer of 1999, Edwards spent 23 hours a day on his back. Next came shock treatment to stimulate nerve growth, water treatment and other therapies. At eight months, the feeling started to come back in his foot and he began to walk. With each step, however, his foot flopped like a pancake unless he wore a brace.

"When we talked from the start we said let's not rule out anything," said Ron Courson, the head trainer at the University of Georgia, who oversaw Edwards's recovery. "We'll take it a step at a time. Once we walk, we'll run. And once we run, we'll try playing football.

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"The hardest thing with something like that is perseverance because you're talking about two years of rehab and the average person can't continue at it that long. But he kept his eye on the prize and kept on working. He never gave up."

To keep himself motivated, Edwards watched the videotape of his injury to remind himself how far he'd come. He would learn to ignore the strange recurring dreams in which his foot would suddenly fall off in the middle of a pick-up basketball game with friends.

A year after his injury, Edwards was defying the odds by running forward, allowing him to begin speed training. In November of 2001, just months before the Patriots' first Super Bowl win, he made a visit to New England, demonstrated his progress and told them he planned to participate in their off-season program.

"I think they were in shock that I went through the workouts like I'd never been hurt," he said. "I felt like I was back."

By the next August, Edwards was trying to win back his job from former Buffalo Bill Antowaine Smith. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn't know Edwards well, but he knew he presented a risk. So when Edwards suffered a groin injury unrelated to his knee damage, the Patriots cut him.

From there, teams lined up to look at Edwards. But as hard as it may have been to get the feeling back in his foot, regaining the respect he'd once owned in the NFL was even tougher to recover.

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"I felt a lot of teams brought me in just to see that I could run," he said. "They couldn't believe this guy was doing it, but they didn't really give me a shot. I don't think they really wanted to give me a chance."

The Miami Dolphins gave him a shot during the 2002 season, when he racked up 233 total yards and two touchdowns playing behind Ricky Williams. The next season, he was cut. He continued to work out for teams and called the Dolphins directly when Williams walked out on them before the 2004 season.

That the Dolphins weren't interested in him a year ago but have welcomed Williams back this season brings out a rare moment of frustration.

"That doesn't sit well because they won't give a guy like me a shot and yet they hold onto a guy that doesn't want to be there," Edwards said. "That's hard for me, when they give an opportunity to a guy who doesn't want to be there."

At age 30, Edwards's NFL days are likely done. And while he could have walked away from football with a remarkable story to tell, his desire still burns to play the game in a way no one ever believed he would.

He wants to have a 200-yard game in the CFL. He wants to make it impossible for Montreal not to give him the ball. He wants to play in the Grey Cup game in Vancouver in November and walk off the field as the most outstanding player.

No one would dare suggest he can't do those things.

"My goal wasn't just to make it back," he said. "Until the desire leaves, I wasn't going to be happy. I love the game . . . I want to play.

"I understand that in the blink of an eye you may not be able to play this game any more. Nothing is promised, so I'm excited to get up and put the pads on. I know anything can happen. Anything, on or off the field. You never know."

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