TORONTO — Robert Edwards is polite enough not to upbraid the questioner, but he still lightly bristles when he's asked about his "comeback." "I'm not 'coming back,' " he says definitively. "I'm back."
At some point during the Canadian Football League season, at some point in the 18 games he played this year and the nearly 1,200 yards he gained rushing for the Montreal Alouettes, it would have been fair to say that he was no longer returning - that he had, in fact, arrived. His patience with the repeated question is more than just good manners; it's born of a perspective acquired when it looked like he would never again play professional football - and might even lose his left leg.
In 1998 Edwards was a rookie running back with the New England Patriots, fresh out of college with a three-year contract worth about $5 million. He had been picked in the first round of the draft, a selection that some questioned because of an injury-plagued college career. He seemed to dispel those doubts and delivered value for the team's investment, rushing for 1,115 yards that year.
But at the Pro Bowl after the season, Edwards suffered an injury that was at once catastrophic and unlikely. He didn't tear up his knee on the field, but rather in the sand, at a league-sponsored flag-football game on the beach at Waikiki in Hawaii. If doctors on site hadn't acted quickly, some believe Edwards might have faced amputation of his leg at the knee.
Edwards was told that returning to pro football was unlikely. Privately, his physicians said it would be a triumph if someday he was able to walk with a cane. For six months, he couldn't get out of bed, couldn't even feel his left foot. And yet three years later, in 2002, he reported to New England's training camp.
"I've had to work a lot harder than I would have if I hadn't been injured," he says. "I had to spend hundreds of hours more in the gym. I was down for a time about it, when I was first injured. I'd ask, 'Why me?' But it could have been worse. I could have lost my leg. And the question changed: 'Why give me a second chance?' "
Throughout his comeback - it's impossible to call it anything else, though the word hardly suffices - Edwards was sustained equally by professional pride and deep faith.
"If I had already played four or five years in the NFL, maybe I would have looked at it differently," he says. "Maybe I could have walked away from football happy with what I accomplished. But I couldn't accept it when I was just starting out as a pro.
"I was raised in a religious home," the Georgia native says. "I grew up believing that God has a plan for everyone. This is His plan for me. Maybe my story is supposed to be an inspiration to others facing challenges."
He was able to earn respect in New England, but not a job with the Patriots. He did make it back into the NFL, rushing for 223 yards and two touchdowns in a season backing up Ricky Williams with the Miami Dolphins. But there was muted interest after that.
"I could get over my injury; the [NFL] teams couldn't," he says. "Even if I could play, they saw me as a liability." Now he's playing with the Alouettes for a yearly salary that he would have earned in one game for the Patriots.
But to hear him is to believe that three Super Bowl rings he might have earned with the Patriots couldn't mean more to him than the Alouettes' first playoff game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday.
"I know that all I have been through makes me appreciate every play and every game more than I did when I was young," says Edwards, who's third in the league in rushing. "I don't know what the future holds, but I take a lot of satisfaction in gaining 1,000 yards for the first time since 1999. I've lost a step or two since then - I might have even without the injury. But I'm smarter now. And I've been tested."