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The Life

September 23, 2002
Promise Keeper
ESPN The Magazine

Herman Edwards is a little boy.

"I'm 5 years old!" the Jets coach shouts, springing up from a seat in the conference room next to his office. "Maybe 6! Maybe 7! I don't know ... young!" He turns the final word of that statement into two syllables for emphasis. "Yuh-ung!"

And little Herman's got a broom in his hand.

"Don't be 'fraid to push the broom now, son," the coach says, now imitating the voice of his father, Herman Sr.

Herm Edwards
Herm wants to lead the Jets to the promised land.
"Broom ain't gonna push itself, son. Go on, push the broom now."

You watch as Edwards walks quickly around the room, sweeping up a make-believe patio with an imaginary broom. Suddenly he stops and puts his left hand to his chin, Thinker style. "Tell you what," he says, switching back to his dad's voice and waving a finger in the air. "You're going to sweep the patio in the back. And I'm going to pay you. Put all the mess in a pile in the middle and call me when you're done."

He resumes sweeping with the make-believe broom. "So I'm out there 30 minutes or so, and I'm working on my pile," Edwards says. "I got my pile. 'Dad, I'm done, come on out!' I got my chest pumped out. I'm proud. I'm going to the store. I already know the candy I'm buying. My dad comes out. And he walks right over the pile."

Playing the part of his dad again, Edwards walks to a corner of the room and bends over at the waist. He points and whispers, "There's some over there you missed, son." He walks to another corner and does the same thing. Again, he whispers, "There's some more over there you missed." The coach walks back to the middle of the room. He purses his lips, crosses his arms and shakes his head, looking very disappointed. "You missed the corners," he says. "Son, that's the most important thing, the corners. Not just here in the backyard, son. In life. The corners in life, son -- that's what's important."

Finally, Edwards sits back down. "It took me a while," he says. "But as I got older, I started figuring out what he meant. I figured out what the corners are. The details." In one of the corners of Edwards' office stands a little statue of a man with a broom. "That's my reminder when I come here to work every day," Edwards says. Then, one last time, he switches back to the voice of his father, who died in a car accident more than 20 years ago. "Broom ain't gonna push itself. The corners, son. Don't ever forget about the corners."

A year and a half ago, Edwards walked into the middle of a coaching mess, broom in hand. Al Groh, hand-picked by Bill Parcells after Bill Belichick bailed for New England, bailed himself after one 9-7 season, leaving behind a group of players who griped openly about his brutal training camp and slow practices. Applicants for the position lined up, rehearsing their lines on how they'd put an end to that griping, Parcells-style, by getting in some faces and letting them know who was in charge.

Except for the first interviewee, Edwards, a former Eagles cornerback who'd been assistant head coach and defensive backfield coach under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay. He had a different take. "I want the players to know they have ownership in the team," Edwards told the Jets braintrust. "Respect comes with the head coach's title. They have to respect me. But I want to earn their trust. That's how we're going to start this relationship."

Jets GM Terry Bradway, hired only a week before, had worked with Edwards in Kansas City. He knew Edwards as a man who didn't drink, smoke or swear. A man who showed up to the team's practice site at 4:30 a.m. to get in an early workout, so he'd have time to read the Bible before the players arrived. A man who didn't believe in screaming at players or intimidating them, but in befriending them. A man more likely to share a story about his African-American dad or his German mom, or what it was like to play for Dick Vermeil's Eagles, than rant and rave in another grown man's face.

So Bradway knew hiring Edwards would be the furthest possible departure from the Parcells era. But was that the way to go? The term "players' coach" is a double-edged ripsaw for any GM. Win and you're fine. But lose with a players' coach and old-school football minds will say you caved. Still, when he assessed the morale of the Jets after their 2000 collapse under Groh, Bradway sensed the players needed a change. Edwards would be their man.

It's Sept. 11, 2002. The Jets, 1-0 after a thrilling overtime road victory against Buffalo, have just finished practice. Edwards is telling you why the team will spend Saturday nights before home games at the Marriott Financial Center Hotel in Manhattan, where many rooms offer a view of Ground Zero.

"When I thought New York Jets, I thought big-city team," Edwards says. "I become coach and learn we practice in Hempstead, Long Island, and before games we stay in Secaucus, N.J. How are we the New York Jets? After what happened on Sept. 11 last year, I wanted a greater sense of attachment to the city. And being downtown, next to where the Twin Towers stood, I hope will make our players appreciate all we've got. If they're ever questioning how up they are for a game, well ... look to the right. It'll remind you. You better get up, because you never know about tomorrow."

Tomorrow turned out to be a 44-7 thrashing by the Patriots in the team's home opener. The Jets were whipped up front, outhustled in every aspect of the game, overwhelmed for much of it. Gone was all the good feeling from the Buffalo win, and from last season's winning record. Edwards has been there before, even in his short tenure: The Jets were whipped by the Colts, 45-24, in last year's home opener; they opened 1-2 before winning six of seven and marching to the playoffs. It's a safe bet Edwards will be reminding his players of that -- and about sweeping those corners.

Edwards is big on reminders. He keeps a notebook in his office called Life's Lessons, with dividers labeled with words like Humility, Loyalty, Character. The book is filled with quotes he's gathered, stories that have touched him, scripture that has moved him. These are some of the reminders he shares with his players. He admits it's impossible to have a roster full of "people who buy in." But these reminders are his way of sweeping the corners.

Last season, before letting the team take an extended Thanksgiving break, Edwards pulled a page from the book. He had it printed on a transparency, then projected it onto a screen in a team meeting. The slide hit the screen like a door slamming in a quiet library. "Trio of Browns Arrested on Separate Charges," read the headline. Edwards had circled the names of the players in red. "Look at the names, men!" Edwards shouted. "Another guy! Another error in judgment! Look at the names!" Then he whispered. "Look at the names."

Edwards had to deal with one of his own team's names last season, when defensive back Damien Robinson was caught with an assault rifle in his car as he entered the Giants Stadium parking lot. Robinson was fined $30,000 and told by Edwards, "Everyone makes mistakes. Now that'd better be it." This year, Edwards kept a contract offer on the table for free agent defensive tackle Josh Evans, even after Evans told him he was about to get hit by the league for a positive drug test. "He came forward," Edwards says, "which showed me something." Says Evans, "I could tell just from talking to Herm that honesty was everything to him. After I met with him, I knew the Jets were the team I had to play for ... and that I had to be honest with him."

Ask him if this is part of his job, to monitor players off the field, and Edwards answers emphatically, one syllable at a time: "Ab ... so ... lute ... ly. I hit 'em on this probably every two weeks," Edwards says. "Choose your friends. Don't let them choose you. It's bigger than being a Jet. It's your name. If you screw that up, you got to live with that, and your parents have to live with that, and your children have to live with that. Your name is all you got. Money? Fame? Nah. Your name is all you got. But that doesn't mean players won't make mistakes. I know, I've made my share of them myself."

Two things New Yorkers count on in December: crowded department stores and a Jets collapse. "I'm aware of the Jets' history," Edwards says. "Before last season, they'd won 12 games only once. They won 11 games twice, they won 10 games three times. That was in 41 years before I got here. You can get scared of that. To me, though, it's exciting that we have a chance to make our own history."

Edwards believes they started to do that last season, when he became the first Jets coach to lead his team to the playoffs in his first season. But New York fans have short memories, and the humiliation at the hands of the Patriots will have the tabloid headline writers working overtime all week, questioning his preparation and game planning, areas Edwards worked on during the off season. But the static won't stop Edwards from relying on what he believes is the most important job in coaching: building relationships.

That's why, one day during the off-season, he and his wife, Lia, drove over to Vinny Testaverde's house. "The wives stayed upstairs," Edwards says. "And Vinny and I went downstairs for four hours and talked. We talked about the good and the bad from last year, and I told him he was still our quarterback, that I didn't care about his age, that I trusted him. There is nothing more important for a head coach than communication. When I was a player, I always wanted to know where I stood."

Says Testaverde, "He cares more about us as people than as football players. Football is one part of his life, not everything. That's why I relate to him and respect him. And it helps that he played."

Yes, the words "when I was a player" ring loud in the Jets' ears. Edwards is one of only 10 current NFL coaches who played even a little in the league. The fact that he lasted 10 years gave Edwards huge points before many of the players even met him. "He's going to open up a whole new era for professional football," says defensive back Ray Mickens. "He understands how our bodies are feeling at different points in the season. That's something a guy who never played the game would never understand, when to push us and when to let up because we're bruised and beat up."

Gone are the days of heavy contact practices during the season. Gone are the long, drawn out meetings. Taking their place are fast-paced, concentrated workouts and a few perks like "Victory Mondays" -- off days after a well-played win -- and Friday afternoon barbecues. These are concepts Edwards has borrowed from Vermeil, who, Edwards says, brought a college football atmosphere to the NFL at a time when that was taboo.

Of course, those are the very concepts that Mike and the Mad Dog and other radioheads will be dismantling in the wake of the Patriots game. But should you think Edwards' style is short on discipline, consider the Jets were NFL's least penalized team last season. And after a 10-penalty Week1 performance against Buffalo, "Victory Monday" was canceled. "The only player who can't play for me is a player without discipline," Edwards says. "I don't have a lot of rules, just expectations. Be on time. No excuses. No explanations. Be relaxed but alert." Says running back Curtis Martin, "It takes a lot of courage to come in here and do almost everything opposite of the way it was done before -- and stick to your guns."

Martin's assessment of the coach seems to validate everything Edwards has strived for in life. His father, Herman Sr., was an African-American serviceman who married a German woman just after WWII, and raised Herman Jr. and his sister in Seaside, Calif., on the Monterey Peninsula. "I get a lot of strength from what they went through," Edwards says. "My mom came to America and was shunned, but was never angry. She said people are afraid of what they don't know.

"My dad taught me to take a stand. I listened to him, I guess, because I went to Cal Berkeley. I wanted to be where it was all going on. The free speech, the hippies, the Black Panther Party. All the issues right there. I'd sit there in the plaza and listen to people talk. Saw how many people were committed to so many different things. Everyone seemed like they were willing to take a stand."

Fittingly, Edwards would leave Cal not once but twice, because he was "taking a stand" against a defensive backfield coach he could not work with. He ended up playing his freshman and junior years for the Golden Bears (with a year of junior college in between) and his senior year at San Diego State. All that movement got Edwards branded, as he puts it, "uncoachable and undesirable." Undrafted, he had to settle for a free agent tryout with the Eagles, where Vermeil found Edwards so uncoachable that he found a way to start him every game for the six years they were together.

Edwards is still taking a stand. The week of the Buffalo game, he arrived at the Jets complex at his usual time of 4:30 a.m., only to find that the code he tried would not open the security gate. It wasn't the first time Edwards' code had failed, and upset that he could not get inside to park at his reserved space and get to work, Edwards found a space about 200 yards from the gate, walked back and climbed the eight-foot barbed wire fence. Then he told the team he would not use his parking space, offering it to the first veteran to arrive at the complex each day.

"They say the players of today are different from 15, 20 years ago, and it's true," Edwards says. "I was more like today's players. When a coach said 'jump,' I didn't ask 'how high?' I asked 'why?' I didn't think that was a bad thing."

He was just making sure to get the corners.

This article appears in the September 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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