A.J. Edds didn’t just dream the NFL dream.
He actually lived it.
For five seasons, the former Greenwood Community High School star earned a living in professional football, drawing paychecks from the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Along the way, he played for some of the game’s most well-known head coaches, an array of disparate personalities ranging from Jim Caldwell to Chuck Pagano to Rex Ryan to Bill Belichick.
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To varying degrees, Edds enjoyed playing for each — and would have loved to have played longer, had fate not intervened.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Dolphins, Edds — a 6-foot-4, 256-pound linebacker from Iowa — entered the league with a wealth of potential and an apparently bright future.
But injuries changed everything.
A training camp knee injury cost him his rookie season in Miami. A training camp knee injury two years later cost him a full season with the Colts.
But he never gave up on his dream.
Edds battled through both injuries and returned each time. He played for the New York Jets at the start of the 2014 season and finished the year with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Buoyed by his time in Jacksonville, Edds hoped for another shot with the Jags — or another team — in 2015. But with age and injury history working against him, opportunity didn’t knock.
So in October of last season, Edds, 28, called it a career — a decision he acknowledges wasn’t entirely his own.
Circumstance had major input.
“First and foremost, the decision wasn’t necessarily mine to be done with the NFL. More often than not, the NFL kind of tells you when your time’s over. And that’s exactly what happened with me,” said Edds, who stayed in playing shape until Week 3, then informed his agent he was moving on from football.
“There are very few guys that leave the NFL on their terms and walk away from the game when there’s still opportunities on the table and truly retire when they could continue to play,” Edds said. “A lot of guys are forced into retirement because they suffer a catastrophic injury, or, more often than not, kind of like my experience.
“My time just kind of came to an end.”
But Edds has no regrets about the end. Although he hoped for a longer career, he accomplished his goal of playing in the NFL and, despite the literal hard knocks along the way, enjoyed the experience.
He was an honors student at Iowa and Edds now lives in Indianapolis and is exploring career opportunities in professional sports. He expects to be employed soon, likely in the front office in sales and/or marketing.
In a Q&A interview with the Daily Journal, Edds reflects on his five seasons in the NFL, including what it was like playing for his hometown team, the Colts, and his hometown team’s nemesis, the Patriots.
Q: What ultimately led to your decision to retire from football?
A: I got myself ready physically to play this past off season, into the summer and into the fall, and was ready in case a call came but was never truly holding my breath, knowing that I was kind of at a crossroads. I was getting to the point where I was going to start being owed a decent amount of money with the minimum salary, and if you compare that against a second- or third-year player, those are sizable differences.
The decision-makers for 32 teams basically all said, ‘We’ve seen what he can do. If we get in a jam, he’d be a nice guy to call. But at the end of the day, there’s more options. There’s other talent, there’s younger guys that might not have an injury history, let’s explore those options before we pull the trigger on this guy.’
I have no hard feelings. I had a front-row seat to understand that it’s a business first and foremost, and I picked that up pretty early. So it wasn’t so much me stepping away saying, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough, it’s time to hang it up.’ It was more so the NFL saying, ‘Hey, you’re time has come to an end.’
Q: The business side pretty much dictates everything, doesn’t it?
A: First and foremost, teams are concerned about winning, and what they can to do win football games and get to the playoffs and make a run in the playoffs. That’s the No. 1 detail, from the front office to the guy sweeping up the floors, that everybody cares about. The second most important thing is, ‘How can we maximize the amount of money we make? How can we maximize our visibility across a lot of spectrums? And how can we get people involved, get people interested, and get people to show up and come to the games?’ And a lot of those answers are by winning.
Winning cures a lot of those issues, but not every team’s going to go to the playoffs, not every team’s going to compete for the Super Bowl. And whenever you’re not in that position, the secondary factor in some of those roster decisions is, it’s a bottom-line business issue. I sympathize with it. I don’t know that I commiserate with it, but I understand it. The only thing that I could control was my output and my productivity. The last couple of years I really dedicated myself to just controlling what I could and putting my best foot forward every single day and put the best body of work on film that I could.
You have enough guys like me on your roster, and all of sudden that salary gets bumped up pretty high. And that’s always on the minds of your salary cap managers and general managers, people making the decisions who comes, who goes, who stays.
Q: Is football still fun, even when it’s a job?
A: There’s still tons of things about football that were fun in the professional world, but there’s also a lot of things, maybe more things, that are very indicative of the fact that it’s a job. It’s a career. You’re competing with a guy who’s trying to feed his family, keep his lights on, pay a mortgage. It’s not college where if you don’t start you can have a redshirt year, or you can still dress and stand on the sidelines and stay out of the way. It’s not that way in the NFL. Every man on the team, it’s all hands on deck on Sunday.
I was exposed to that pretty early on. Even my rookie year I understood that when I saw grown men being told, ‘Hey, thanks for your services, we don’t need you anymore,’ knowing that those guys had families and obligations at home. That takes a little bit of the lightheartedness out of it, knowing there’s bigger things at stake than wins and losses.
Ever since high school, the most rewarding fun parts of football, and sports in general for me, were the wins. I hated losing more than I enjoyed winning, if that makes sense. It’s such a sinking, hollow feeling to lose. When you have a chance to win and you don’t, that feeling overwhelmingly trumps the feeling of winning. Now that said, when you do win, especially in the NFL, you have to truly enjoy it and relax and kind of take your foot off the gas for a little bit before Monday rolls around. There are days when you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing this for if I can’t enjoy the success that comes along with it?’
But it was definitely fun. Coming out of a tunnel at 7:30 for Monday Night Football and things like that, you can’t put a price tag on stuff like that. It was definitely a lot of fun, a lot of memories, but at the same time, there were some hardships involved. I’m not in the minority in that regard. Everybody kind of experiences that at some point or another as a professional football player. It was always business first, and then if you still have time to find some fun and do some fun things and kind of enjoy it a little bit, that was sort of icing on the cake.
Some guys are good enough that they can go out and have fun every single day, every single minute and still get the job done at a high level. Personally, I wasn’t that flat-out skilled to walk into the building during training camp after two weeks and have the biggest smile on my face because I just knew I was better than everybody. I mean, it was a grind. From day one until my last day in the NFL, every single day was hard, every single day was a challenge, every single day presented an opportunity either to get better or go backwards. I’d like to think I made the most of my time. It’s hard to know, but had I stayed healthy, it might have been a different story. We might be having a different conversation right now.
But no regrets, nothing I would do differently. It’s kind of a situation where it is what it is, and things happen the way they do for a reason.”
Q: What are you most proud of about your career?
A: I’m mostly satisfied in the resolve that I was able to come back from the injuries, come back from being released, however many times it was, and prove to at least someone, one decision-maker throughout the league at different times that I was worth taking a chance on, I was worth bringing in, and I was a guy that was worth one of those 53 spots. So that’s what I’m the most proud of that I was able to do in my time.
Q: Was it nice to have the chance to play for your home town team?
A: Absolutely. I loved playing for the Colts. Obviously, we had a tough year that year Peyton was down. It was great being back in Indianapolis. The other thing that was really enjoyable for me was being able to play with a couple of good buddies in Pat Angerer, who still is a best friend of mine from Iowa, and Stevie Brown, who I grew up with in Columbus. That was pretty cool. I really enjoyed that.
It was definitely enjoyable, but there’s nothing enjoyable about going 2-14. But at the same time, there were things I truly enjoyed and was glad to be a part of.”
Your first NFL game was on Monday Night Football with the Patriots. What was your experience like with that franchise?
“I understand 100 percent the feelings toward New England in Indiana, particularly in the Indianapolis area. I have nothing but respect and nothing but gratitude for the whole organization, from Mr. Kraft all the way down to the bottom of the totem pole. It’s a first-class organization as far as how they approach it. It’s business first and business last. It’s a business mindset, and that’s one place where winning football games trumps everything.
They don’t care about where you came from, how you got to the NFL, what your story is, they care about putting the best players on the field that gives them the best chance to be successful. Whatever’s going to give Belichick and that staff and that team the best chance to win is what’s going to be put on the field. It was a great opportunity for me, and I was blessed to have that opportunity. I wish it could have lasted longer there, because you can’t argue with the success, and their proven success over the last decade. It’s something that any industry can look at and say it’s something to be studied and appreciated because it’s so hard to win in the NFL. It’s so hard to win consistently, and to do it the way they’ve done it for so long, it’s pretty special. It was great to be a part of that.”
Q: You played for some different personalities. Did you have a favorite?
A: I picked up something from each coach along the way. I really did enjoy Rex Ryan. He’s an enjoyable guy. He’s kind of the definition of a player’s coach. He kind of gets what the guys are going through. He places a lot of trust in the veteran leadership on his team. You don’t always have that. I really enjoyed my time in New York with Rex. He’s a great coach, and he makes it enjoyable. He makes every day fun.
And not to be a homer, but I really, really enjoyed my time with coach Pagano, the way he is and the way he carries himself. He’s the definition of professionalism while still being a great football coach and understanding what the guys are going through, as well. He figured out pretty quickly what Indianapolis is all about as far as the community and how important the Colts were and what that meant to people and really embraced it, and he’ll continue to put his best foot forward. I’d be surprised if they don’t continue to have success, especially bouncing back from last year.
Coach Caldwell, I’d put him in the same conversation. Totally different demeanor but just as successful. And my five weeks down in Jacksonville, I really enjoyed Gus Bradley. They can all be thrown in there. I played for some great coaches.
You notice I didn’t throw Belichick in there. That’s just because a very militaristic regime as far as the daily mindset and the daily tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that. You win a lot of football games doing that. It’s just not a real jovial place to go to work. That’s the only reason why I would say he’s not necessarily the most enjoyable guy to hang out with in the lunchroom, but at the same time no one’s in the NFL to make friends. No one’s there to create plans to go fishing in the offseason.
It’s about winning football games and getting championships, and nobody’s figured out that formula as well as them.
The Edds File
Name: A.J. Edds
Occupation: Former NFL football player
High school: Greenwood
Drafted: Selected by the Miami Dolphins in fourth round of 2010 NFL Draft
Position: Linebacker/special teams
Teams: Miami Dolphins (2010-11); New England Patriots (2011); Indianapolis Colts (2011-12); Patriots (2013, released during training camp); New York Jets (2014); Jacksonville Jaguars (2014)
High school highlights: Four-year starting linebacker and tight end; starting center on varsity basketball team; multiple IHSAA state meet qualifier in hurdles races; selected the Daily Journal’s 2006 Johnson County Male Athlete of the Year
Parents: David and Anne Edds