"If it goes, it goes."
The year was 2016. The Patriots were preparing for their first playoff game of the 2015 season, a home date against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round. Julian Edelman had missed the previous seven games with a broken left foot but left no doubt he would return for the postseason, saying he would play the way he always had -- "full throttle, regardless."
Edelman went on to rack up 10 catches, reaching the 100-yard mark in a postseason contest for the second time in his career. It would become a familiar benchmark for a player who is currently tied with Travis Kelce for the second-most playoff games with 100 receiving yards in NFL history (six).
On Monday, the 34-year-old receiver was released by the Patriots after failing a physical, and he announced his retirement shortly thereafter.
"I've always said, We'll go until the wheels come off," Edelman said in a video posted to Twitter. "And they finally have fallen off."
As yet another cornerstone of the Patriots dynasty says goodbye, it's worth revisiting a career path in which, Edelman acknowledged in Monday's post, "nothing ... [came] easy."
Edelman's toughness has never been in question. The former Kent State quarterback, selected by New England with the 232nd overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, transitioned to the NFL as a jack-of-all trades returner, defensive back and, eventually, the self-made heir to the throne of slot receivers in New England, helping to redefine the position like Troy Brown and Wes Welker did before him.
Edelman took more hellacious hits than someone his size -- let's call him 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, though even that may be an exaggeration -- should seemingly be able to take. But his ability to bounce back up made fans, media and teammates marvel at Edelman's willingness to keep making plays, snap after snap, week after week and year after year.
"Part of me is not amazed anymore because that is who he is, but then you kind of take that for granted. I don't think you can take a guy like Julian for granted," said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater back in 2019. "I honestly think sometimes he can go out there and die, not literally, but he will give you everything he has until he can't. That is just rare. Not only for this era of football, but I think for any era of football to have a guy like that -- just his will to go out and compete and win, and to play through whatever is going on is really unmatched in my mind."
There was the vicious shot he took in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Seahawks, only to spin away and attempt to gain precious yards after the catch. The stunning tenacity shown in Super Bowl LI, leading to the "I caught it, I caught" fingertip grab mere millimeters from the turf in that epic comeback over Falcons. And there was, of course, his MVP-winning performance in Super Bowl LIII, a 13-3 Patriots win over the Rams (10 receptions for 141 yards).
Edelman is second in the NFL, behind only Jerry Rice, in career postseason receptions (118), proving he wasn't just about toughness, but that he was highly skilled, as well. He's a lock for the team Hall of Fame and, according to Tom Brady, someone who should be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "What he's accomplished in his career is nothing short of spectacular," Brady said in 2019.
In 2020, however, Edelman had offseason knee surgery. After he limped his way through the better part of six games in the Patriots' first season since 2000 without Brady (who was on his way to winning another Super Bowl with the Bucs) as the starting QB, Edelman underwent surgery once more. Despite multiple attempts to return, he never saw the field again for the Patriots.
As Edelman said during the offseason, "your money-makers are your legs," and those legs finally surrendered after over a decade of making sharp cuts and hurling Edelman's body into oncoming traffic like he was still out there fighting for his job.
Maybe this wasn't the ending Edelman foresaw for himself in Foxborough, but the reality was, it was inevitable for someone who played the game the way he did -- like every play was his last.