One of the defining stories of the 2020 NFL season has been the return of Washington quarterback Alex Smith. Just two years ago, Smith was on the verge of having his leg amputated after a gruesome injury during a game against the Houston Texans.
Smith’s story, while incredible, is not unprecedented. Two decades ago, a promising New England Patriots rookie nearly lost his own leg after a devastating injury during a meaningless flag football game. While he kept his leg, his career never recovered.
The Patriots find a replacement for Curtis Martin
The New England Patriots selected Robert Edwards with the 18th overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. Head coach Pete Carroll needed Edwards to fill a hole in the offense, as previous running back Curtis Martin had departed for the New York Jets.
Edwards impressed in his rookie campaign, rushing for 1,115 yards and nine touchdowns. He could well have been the Offensive Rookie of the Year if this weren’t the same season that saw the rise of both Peyton Manning and Randy Moss. The Patriots squeaked into the postseason but lost their wild-card game to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While Edwards did not earn a place on the regular AFC Pro Bowl roster, he did earn an invitation to the “Rookie Beach Bowl” — a four-on-four flag football game featuring top rookies from the past season. Also featured in this event were future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson.
This would be the last Rookie Beach Bowl.
A fateful trip to Hawaii
At some point in the contest, Edwards jumped to defend a pass from Lions quarterback Charlie Batch. Also jumping for the ball were Woodson and San Francisco’s R.W. McQuarters. The three players collided and tumbled to the beach. Edwards landed awkwardly on his left leg and could not get up.
An ambulance carried him to a nearby hospital. According to Sports Illustrated, Edwards couldn’t feel any pain while he was on the ground.
Doctors discovered that Edwards had torn the ACL, MCL, and PCL in his left leg. Worse still, he had severed an artery, causing massive internal bleeding. If the sutures in his artery did not hold, the doctors would have had to amputate his leg. It seemed from that moment on that he couldn’t walk without the aid of a cane, let alone play football.
Ron Courson, who treated Edwards during his rehab, called it “the worst knee injury I’ve ever seen.”
Robert Edwards’ brief NFL comeback
In time, Edwards could do more than just walk. After a year of painful treatments, he regained the ability to use his left leg normally. To the surprise of the entire NFL, Edwards returned to the Patriots in time for the 2001 season.
During his absence, Pete Carroll had been replaced as head coach by the much sterner Bill Belichick, who did not witness Edwards’ 1,000-yard rookie season of 1998. Edwards had to prove himself to Belichick in training camp to make the roster. He might have done so were it not for a groin injury unrelated to his previous injuries.
The Patriots released him in August. Six months later, Edwards watched as his former team won their first Super Bowl without him.
He finally returned to the NFL with the Miami Dolphins the following season, as the backup to Ricky Williams. In 2002, Edwards rushed for 107 yards on 20 carries and one touchdown. This would be his only season with the Dolphins, who released him shortly thereafter.
Although his return to the NFL did not pan out as he had hoped, he found success in the Canadian Football League. In each of his two seasons with the Montreal Alouettes, Edwards rushed for over 1,000 yards and made the East Division All-Star team. His team reached the Grey Cup final in both seasons but lost. He retired from football altogether after the 2009 season.