This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue 2017. Subscribe today!
He made the play of Super Bowl LI, a bobble-stopping grab of a tipped Tom Brady pass that propelled New England to an overtime victory. How does Julian Edelman top that? Try leaping through the air fully nude at his Body Issue photo shoot a few weeks later. Reporter Morty Ain caught up with the Patriots wide receiver to discuss all things body, including how he developed the focus — and grip strength — necessary to make that miracle play.
You’re nearing the end of your offseason; how have you been keeping in shape off the field?
Sometimes you eat a little too many hamburgers [laughs] and have a little too much fun after a season and you start feeling a little slacky. But the older you get, the more you realize how precious it is to be in the National Football League, and you see all the young talent and the guys who are grinding. So I firmly believe you think about that, and the best way of staying in shape is never getting out of shape.
Obviously my goal No. 1 every year is to play in every game. That should be a high priority because sometimes durability can get you past ability. People think it’s just a 16-week season, but this is a 52-week kind of job. You’re always thinking about how to improve and what to get for the next year. I know what time of year it is from how my body looks.
Have to ask: How were you able to make that amazing “shoe catch” during the Super Bowl?
The No. 1 rule you’re taught as a receiver: You’ve just got to watch the ball. You hear about the guy who was lucky. But the guy who was lucky got an opportunity, and he was prepared for it. Sometimes the ball falls your way, and, you know, we’ll take it.
So what was some of the preparation that went into you making that catch?
When I’m tired, I like to go and do drills where you catch tennis balls off walls. Different colors use different hands, and you’ve got to react to those types of things at different angles. I do all these crazy reaction-time things or reaction skills with tennis balls every morning, or at least four times a week. After that catch in the Super Bowl, I go up to the guy who throws for me — he’s one of our equipment guys — and I go, “It’s because of the tennis balls!” It’s because you’re reacting so quick. It all helps you out in the end.
Also, I’ll do a circuit of hand exercises in rice buckets. I’ll swoosh my fingers from right to left [in the rice] for 20 seconds, 30 seconds. And then you go swoosh them in the other direction. And then you grab and claw the rice and you rotate your wrists so you’re getting different movements in the fingers. And then I’ll go and I’ll dig to the bottom, all the way to the bottom of the bucket and you come back up. So you’re doing that for 30 seconds. Then you’re doing pianos where you just go and you just piano the rice, like you’ve got two chords, for 30 seconds. Then you grab some rice and squeeze it as hard as you can for 30 seconds.
Where’d you learn that?
My dad was a big drill guy. When I got to the pros, I’d never really caught punts. So he would tape one arm behind my back or he’d make me use one arm, and he’d have my sister or my buddy Kurt throw little tennis balls at my face while my dad would get on the top of a press box at our high school. He would punt the balls off there because he couldn’t get them high enough, and I’d have to catch them.
Then he got a pair of sunglasses and he would tape one eye off. I had to catch the ball with only one eye and one arm to try to make it really hard. And he used to make me run routes in between, like, you know how you have a tennis court and there’s six tennis courts in a row? There’d be a bunch of nets, and he’d make me do routes in between all these poles and stuff so I would be aware.
He was just always thinking about these one-hand catches when I became a receiver. He’d always try to work my mental side.
You’ve said you’ve always had a chip on your shoulder. Where did it come from?
When I first started playing Pop Warner, I was really small. I was 8 years old and I was always the real little kid, and because I always got beat up by my older brother I would never take anything from anyone else. I was never scared of anyone who was two, three years older than me just because I wasn’t afraid of getting hit or competing. And that’s just how I was, and that’s how my dad brought me up. I would go into my dad’s room when I was real young, and I’d say, “Dad, when am I going to grow?” Because he was a late bloomer. When he was 17 he was still a small kid too. I’d go in there crying and be like, “Pops, when am I going to grow? I’m sick of being short.” And he goes, “Don’t worry, son; just keep battling. I’ll just tell you right now, one day it’s going to be unfair.”
What’s something about your body that might surprise us?
I’ve got very ugly feet. The moment I got in the NFL — when I started having to do these cone drills and learning how to run routes, and your feet are just constantly going in and sliding and hitting the back or the front of your toe — my feet have just gotten so ugly. I’ve got a bunion on my right one. My toenails are all jacked up. I’ve got scars on the side of them. I’m embarrassed of them. I don’t try to hide them, but I don’t wear sandals, I’ll tell you that right now. No words can describe them. They look like grim reaper feet. Tales of the crypt. Remember “Tales From the Crypt”?
If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
My hands. I’ve broken every finger. My pinkie’s all jacked up; it gets in the way with handshakes and catching the ball sometimes. I broke it when I was a little kid playing Pop Warner, and then I broke it again later. I got it caught in a face mask, and the guy yanked his head and my pinkie got ripped. Through the years, it just doesn’t straighten anymore.
You jam multiple fingers catching balls. Tommy [Tom Brady] will throw a seed or Jimmy [Garoppolo] will throw a seed or Jacoby [Brissett] will throw a seed, and sometimes you’re laying out in different, awkward positions; you can dislocate a finger there. A lot of times in the blocking game, you’re blocking a DB or a safety, and you battle those guys and you’re trying to clench their shoulder pads. You’re shooting your hand so quick that sometimes your pinkie will get caught, and you look at it and it’s looking the other way.
What other kinds of injuries have you sustained?
I’ve broken both of my feet. I broke my forearm — my radius one time and then my ulna, so I have two scars from that. I had labrum surgery on my right labrum when I was in college. I broke my jaw. I messed up my left knee a little bit back in the day. I tore my PCL. I’ve had hernia surgeries. I had adductor release surgery early in my career, so I had to get those ripped up, so I had bilateral hernia and groin issues going.
There’s an old saying: “You can’t make the club in the tub.” You do everything you can to get back. You play hurt. Our sport’s different, man. There’s incentive to play because if you don’t play, you don’t get paid. Our contracts aren’t guaranteed. You’ve got to get back quick, because everyone’s good.
Do you think there’s anything unhealthy about how you treat your body?
Every time you look at a scar, you see how hard you had to grind to get back to where you could play, and play at a high caliber. So they’re like little victories. It’s not like a victory getting hurt — it sucks — but when you look down and you say, “Man, that was a tough rehab process,” you do get kind of proud, I guess.
I’m proud of this last foot injury. [Edelman fractured his left foot in 2015, requiring two surgeries.] This was a tough year. To go out and play 16 games is a testament to having a good group of people around you that give you the right things to work on. I kind of knew what I could do to rehab it and when to come back, but I think it’s always that little bit of doubt that makes you work harder. There’s that little thing in the back of your mind, the fear of failure. It drives me nuts. I think I hate losing more than I love winning.