April 27, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Braylon Edwards decided to finish his degree at the University of Michigan, a friend sent him a video of "Back to School," a 1986 movie about a man attending college with his son starring Rodney Dangerfield.
"I busted out laughing," said Edwards. "That perfect dive of his at the end of that movie can't be beat."
Edwards, 34, is getting the last laugh, though, on Saturday (April 29), when he walks across the stage to pick up his diploma at Michigan Stadium.
"Now my parents can wave and scream and cry and cheer," said Edwards, whose parents are Malesa Plater and former Wolverine and NFL running back Stanley Edwards.
Braylon's general studies degree focused on marketing strategies, and he will be recognized on the same field where he once broke records as an All-America receiver.
"I think that should be the first dream of any student -- to make sure you walk across that stage," said Edwards. "Education is the thing that's going to be there for the long haul. Sports is fine, but it's a longshot to play for a long time.
"Now, I didn't wrap my mind around this concept for a long time. But even if you play awhile, you retire as a relatively young man in the eyes of the world. A degree is something that can never be taken from you, and a degree from the University of Michigan is powerful on so many levels."
Edwards had one monster season in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl after catching 80 passes for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns in 2007. He played eight years, making 359 catches for 5,522 yards and 40 touchdowns but was done after spending 2012 with the New York Jets.
"I finally had some down time and wasn't working for a network or radio station per se," said Edwards. "So it was time for me to assess what the future held for me. I had a meeting with a good buddy of mine, aka the athletic director, Warde Manuel.
"We sat down in October, and I congratulated him on coming back to Michigan. Then we talked about myself. We talked about stripping away Braylon Edwards the football player and creating Braylon Edwards the second phase. He suggested finishing my degree was the No. 1 thing I needed to do."
And so No. 1 on the Wolverines football roster, 2001-2004, accepted that No. 1 challenge of Manuel.
"When Warde makes a suggestion," said Edwards, "it's really more than a suggestion. It's what you need to do. So, I took him at his word and enrolled."
The numeral Edwards wore has been special at Michigan ever since three-time All-American Anthony Carter, a teammate of his father's, made it so. Braylon added to the lore of that number and then some. He still holds Michigan's career record for catches (252), yards (3,541) and touchdowns (39), exceeding Carter's touchdown total by two while also establishing a new Big Ten record.
Braylon said that record, which allowed him to surpass what might have been A.C.'s toughest to break, means the most to him because it takes into account every receiver who ever played in the conference.
"Growing up," said Edwards, "that's all my dad talked about was A.C.'s footwork or A.C.'s ability to catch the ball in traffic or A.C.'s route running or how he returned punts. A.C. was the best. Growing up, I said, 'I'm tired of hearing about A.C.,' but not in a bad way. I knew I wanted to go to Michigan, play wide out and wear No. 1. I wanted to beat all his records and everything he did. So, that was my motivation since middle school.
"When I got to Michigan and had a down day or a bad practice, I remembered why I was there. So, having No. 1 has been special to me my whole life. Following in the footsteps of my dad and A.C. -- it's now 35 years after they played -- meant so much."
Edwards won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top wide receiver in 2004 and set school single-season receiving records with 97 catches for 1,330 yards. His 15 touchdown receptions that season are second only to the 19 Desmond Howard caught while winning the 1991 Heisman Trophy.
Braylon's signature game came as a senior and is one of the most memorable performances in school history. The Wolverines trailed Michigan State by 17 points with 8:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, but Edwards caught two touchdowns from Chad Henne to force overtime and then the game-winning 24-yard scoring pass on a slant route on a third-and-nine play in the third overtime of a raucous, 45-37, comeback victory at Michigan Stadium.
"It's crazy," said Edwards, who had 11 catches for 189 yards and a 22-yard run that day. "When it happened, I was only 21, and you never know how you are impacting long-time fans and kids. Now, 13 years later, I still have kids coming up to me saying that game made their life or that I was their idol.
"And then there are older adults. Yeah, I was No. 1, but A.C. will forever be No. 1 to them. That's their guy from their era. But in that game, the older fans were like, 'A.C.'s my guy, but what you did was special.' That was the seal-of-approval game."
Some of the students he attended classes with this semester were toddlers when he last played for the Wolverines, and nearly all of them were less than 10 years old. Yet, several recognized him and wanted to talk football.
"I walked through the door in this class, and you could see the excitement on this guy's face," said Edwards. "He was just ready to talk to me, but he waited for an opportunity. We got on an elevator together, and he said, 'I've got to tell you, Michigan-Michigan State, in '04, Omigod!' The guy played lacrosse, and that was pretty neat."
Edwards said he's still doing analyst work for FOX Sports and CBS Radio, but added that he's now prepared for future business ventures and can finally be more than "a silent investor" in projects.
"I can come up with my own marketing strategy as it relates dealing with marketing and branding for a firm," said Edwards, who lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan. "I'll have more channels open to me."
Edwards was 20 credit hours away from his degree when he became the third overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, and he got 16 credits in the winter semester that just ended. He will get the last four hours in the spring semester.
It's common for students that close to degrees to take part in graduations ceremonies, and Edwards recently tweeted @OfficialBraylon a photo of his cap and gown and this message: "One week from today #Blessed."
That said it all.
"I didn't have to worry about football when I came back to school," said Edwards. "I was really able to pay attention to the other kids in class, the presentations, the professors and anybody on campus.
"Michigan's a special place. They don't call us 'the leaders and best' for no reason. The professors are the best of the best, energetic and enthusiastic and smart. They have wisdom on top of wisdom, and the kids are the smartest of the smart. It was the first time I really paid that side full attention, and I was proud to be getting a degree from Michigan.
"Now, I wouldn't be having classes with these geniuses if there wasn't something about me that stood out. That's what I paid attention to this second time around as just a student."
Dangerfield, playing Thornton Melon in "Back to School," was a millionaire who discovered he couldn't buy an education.
Edwards returned to school after a lucrative pro football career and discovered exactly what makes an education truly special.
Funny how things work out.