CHENEY – As injury followed insult earlier this season, Nicholas Edwards responded the only way he can: by working just a little bit harder.
On Sept. 22 in the Big Sky Conference opener at Weber State, he caught a pass and was tackled on the sideline.
“I didn’t think anything of it, but as I was running back (to the huddle) my leg gave out,” Edwards said.
Just that fast, one of the most honored players in Eastern Washington football history picked up an unwelcome decoration: a bloody towel on his left knee.
By halftime the towel was replaced by a knee brace ... and a bit of fear for the former Foss High School standout, who had never before suffered a major injury. The trainers thought it was a grade-3 anterior cruciate ligament tear, which meant at least six weeks of rehab in a season that was already in its fourth week.
Three weeks later, after it had been determined he didn’t suffer a tear, Edwards was sprinting on the turf at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Mont., testing the knee and his resolve during the Eagles’ team walkthrough.
The next day, he caught one pass, good for 6 yards but worth a lot more in the long run.
“It helped my confidence,” said Edwards. It also showed that we were just going to do what we did in 2010, and keep fighting.”
For Edwards, that meant more hours in the training room, burnishing a reputation for off-the-field discipline that former quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell called “Jerry Rice-esque” and that younger players have tried to emulate.
“It’s just what Coach Baldwin always preaches in hard situations,” Edwards said. “To weather the storm.”
Edwards did as much in high school; he admitted to having a chip on his shoulder after getting no scholarship offers despite a sterling career at Foss.
Joe Rubin, another Foss star who played running back at Portland State, encouraged Edwards to “make sure you keep that chip on your shoulder because you’re going to be a great player.”
After a redshirt year in 2008, Edwards started 11 games as a redshirt freshman the following season, then burst into the national spotlight in 2010 along with the rest of the Eagles.
In the national title game against Delaware, the Eagles were trailing 19-6 in the fourth quarter when Edwards made one of the biggest plays of the season. Expecting man-to-man coverage, he instead was confronted with a cover-2. Edwards adjusted his route, hit the seam and caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell.
Ten minutes later, the Eagles won their first national championship.
Last season, team success was traded for individual glory: 95 catches, 1,250 yards and 13 TD catches, numbers that added up to a first-team All-America award.
The Eastern season was summed up at 6-5, a byproduct of injuries at several positions. A healthy Edwards tried to set an example, earning an “Iron Eagle” award for achievement in the weight room.
Edwards has been known to shed pads after games and go straight to the monitor.
“He’s a film junkie,” said receivers coach Junior Adams, who in turn gets a lot of credit from Edwards for developing a talented receiving corps that also includes Brandon Kaufman and former Steilacoom High School star Greg Herd, both also All-Americans last season.
“His knowledge is phenomenal,” Edwards said of Adams.
This season, with a big receiving corps and a bigger commitment to the running game, fewer balls are finding their way into Edwards’ hands. Going into today’s FCS quarterfinal game against Illinois State, he has 35 catches for 424 yards and three TDs. But that’s the point, Adams said.
“Nick has had all that the success as national champion and last year as an All-American – all those accolades” Adams said. “He’s mature enough to see the bigger picture. That’s at the top of the list.”
Edwards caught an 11-yard pass to the Wagner 2-yard line last week to set up the clinching touchdown in a second-round playoff victory.
“We’re always a comeback team, and we never panic,” Edwards said.
Later this month, Edwards will graduate with a degree in recreation management. Supported by his wife and high school sweetheart, Macca, he hopes to play professionally.
In the meantime, there’s some unfinished business at Roos Field. A return trip to the national title game is two wins away.
Edwards’ place in EWU football history is a sure thing: his 2,622 career receiving yards rank fifth in school history. He’s third in catches with 213 and second in TD receptions with 32.
His legacy won’t be measured in numbers.
“The receivers we have, they’ve all learned something from Nick,” Adams said. “His knowledge and his work ethic. Because of guys like him, they’re constantly pushing the bar.”
EWU’s opponent today has a familiar name on the coaching staff.
Illinois State’s offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach is Luke Huard, a former Puyallup High School star.