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Unfinished business: Braylon Edwards back at UM for degree

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Former Wolverine and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards currently is taking four classes at the University of Michigan and has an internship in the athletic department.

Ann Arbor — Braylon Edwards was living in Chicago last fall, in a comfort zone with so many Michigan alums in the area, when he had a moment of realization while watching an NFL game on a Sunday afternoon.

Edwards, a Detroit native who turns 34 on Tuesday, still has multiple receiving records at the University of Michigan. He was the No. 3 pick in the 2005 NFL draft, and spent nine seasons in the league accumulating 5,522 yards and 40 touchdowns. Most recently he has done some television work for Fox and ESPN.

While he had awards and a lucrative NFL career, Edwards did not have a Michigan degree.

“I said, ‘All right, look, I’m 33, I’ve got to get back home,’ ” Edwards said. “I knew it was time to focus. It’s time to find that drive. You’re 33, what’s going to be your final signature on this world?”

He moved back to West Bloomfield and paid a visit to Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who was in athletic administration at UM when Edwards was in school from 2001-04.

“Warde just kept talking about getting that degree,” Edwards told The Detroit News recently over a pizza sandwich in the Michigan Union. “He kept talking about the importance of education, the importance of being taken serious. He said, ‘You’re already a football player, but those days are over.’ He said, ‘People respect you and they say, man, you have all the records, you donated money. People respect your foundation,’ but he said, ‘What’s next? What’s deeper than that? Where’s the depth in that?’

“He said, ‘Now, let’s get the degree. Let’s show them you’re focused on the next stage of life after we get that degree. Now we can make moves. You can still be an analyst, but now you have a degree. Maybe you do something with that degree as well. Maybe you get your MBA.’ I was like, he’s making a lot of sense. So I got to a point, sometimes you’ve got to listen to what’s right in front of you. Stop looking for answers in other places. He convinced me, and here we are sitting in the Union.”

Manuel was a student-athlete at Michigan, but his football career ended early because of injury. He has an MBA from UM’s Ross School of Business and was athletic director at UConn for nearly four years before returning to his alma mater.

“He could do a lot, but there are some things he can’t do without a degree,” Manuel said of Edwards. “It opens some doors for him. When we met I told him my hope would be knowing what options he wanted to consider the rest of his life, he would look into (returning), and we would help him and support him finish his degree. I’m very proud of him. He was a student-athlete of mine, so it’s an important piece of what I’ve always emphasized.”

Generational impact

Edwards currently is taking four classes at Michigan and has an internship in the athletic department. He was 24 credits shy when he left for the NFL and is now on track to earn a general studies degree. He will complete his degree work the second week in July but will get his diploma during graduation April 29 at Michigan Stadium.

“If I was to wait and graduate in July I would have to walk (for graduation) in December at Crisler; and I’m sorry, I didn’t play at Crisler,” Edwards said, smiling.

Close but no cigar: Michigan falls in overtime

The NFL offers a program that for each accredited year you play in the league — making an opening day roster counts as an accredited year — it will pay for a year of college. The individual also needs to have left school in good standing before he can be considered for re-enrollment. Edwards said he had a 3.2 grade-point average his last semester.

Edwards still holds Michigan’s career receiving record with 3,541 yards, career receptions (252), career touchdown receptions (39) and held the single-season record of 1,330 yards until Jeremy Gallon broke it with 1,373 yards in 2013. He won the Biletnikoff Award — a prize for college receivers — and the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award — for the top Big Ten player — in 2004 when he was a unanimous All-American.

What many people remember, though, is his performance in Michigan’s triple-overtime victory over Michigan State in 2004. He caught two touchdown passes in the final five-plus minutes in regulation that helped erase a 17-point deficit, and he caught this third touchdown in overtime. He had 189 yards on 11 receptions.

“I had a kid in one of my classes — I’m saying kid. That should let you know how old I am — and he was like, ‘One of my most fond memories ever was that Michigan State game. Ah, man, you just don’t know. I was at the game, and you were amazing. It was the best memory. I was 6 years old.’ I said, ‘Did you just say 6 years old?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m 19.’ If that right there wasn’t a blow to my age pride. ... Life goes on. It doesn’t stay still for anybody.”

A new view of campus

Edwards said most of the current Michigan population identifies more with Denard Robinson than Braylon Edwards, although he was stopped three times during an interview so fans could take photos with him.

During his NFL career, Edwards established the Braylon Edwards Foundation and made a $500,000 gift to Michigan for a scholarship endowment.

Former Wolverine and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards talks with The Detroit News in the Michigan Union before heading across campus to a women's studies lecture.

Edwards is focused on a future in business and marketing while proving it’s never too late to go back to school. The professional athletics “ride is not forever,” he said, and he wants the athletes in their mid-20s to finish their degrees earlier, before they are faced with life after football.

Edwards realized that although he met a number of important business-types while he played professional football, sometimes it wasn’t enough being Braylon Edwards. Several CEOs asked how they could be a part of his next step.

“And they always ask that question, ‘Do you have your degree?’ ” Edwards said. “Once you say no, it’s kind of a segue to the, ‘Well, here’s my card. If you ever choose to further your education, then we can do some things.’ I looked at it as, now is the time.”

Edwards takes classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and is often on campus from morning until about 6 p.m. A dozen years after he was last a Michigan student, Edwards now sees Michigan through different eyes. He sees new construction and enthusiastic young students. He also engages more in class and is fascinated by the journey professors have taken to reach their positions.

“Michigan has always been Michigan,” Edwards said. “We are the leaders and the best, but in the last four, five years, you’ve seen the transcendence of where Michigan is going in terms of the national spotlight. You look at the football program, you look at the architectural design and obviously (Michigan football coach Jim) Harbaugh is the talk of the town on so many levels and what the Ross School of Business is doing, you’re lucky to be here.

“It’s not easy. I’d be lying if I told you my classes are easy. These kids are intelligent, they’re smart, they work hard, the professors are amazing at what they do. To be here is a special thing, and I see why people are excited and passionate about whatever they do here.”

Edwards blends in on campus wearing a Michigan hoodie and hat, and when he’s not going to class or studying or attending meetings as part of his internship, he’s at the football building giving advice to some of the current Michigan receivers, including early-enrollee freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black.

“The other day I was watching film with Maurice Ways and helping him, saying, ‘Hey, this is what I see in your first step. Hey, this is what I see at the top of the route,’ ” he said. “I talked to the freshmen, and they have my cellphone number. So basically I’m just being like that old guy that’s around that they can see. They also can see me taking school serious, so they can look at the other side too. If you look at the numbers, not everybody goes to the NFL. Sometimes you have to realize that education will never leave you so you’ve got to be mindful of that. That’s what I tried to show them.”

Manuel is delighted Edwards is back on campus fulfilling the degree he set out to earn when he arrived as a freshman in 2001.

“I’m proud when we win championships and they have attained success on the field of play, but what gives me the greatest pride is knowing they’ve achieved the big education goal the University of Michigan is trying to bestow on all our undergraduates,” Manuel said. “They come here, they get a great education and they attain a degree from the University of Michigan. That lasts forever. That degree people can’t take away from you. I just can’t put into words how proud I am of Braylon.”