When you've been to hell and back, as Bobby Joe Edmonds has, you realize how lucky you are to get a second chance. You savor the little things you took for granted the first time around. The locker room banter. The stadium noise. "I get a kick every day I come to work," Edmonds says.
He does, too, literally as well as figuratively, because he's the guy who returns kicks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After the first five weeks of this season Edmonds, 31, ranked third in the NFC in average yards per punt return, at 10.7, and ninth in average yards per kickoff return, at 21.4. But he's hands-down No. 1 in the category of Most Amazing Return. Before appearing in the Bucs' opener against the Eagles, Edmonds had been out of the NFL since 1989. The only NFL player with a longer gap between appearances is Ross Nagel, an offensive lineman who played for the Chicago Cardinals in 1942 and resurfaced with the New York Yanks in 1951.
Edmonds's hiatus can be traced to the drinking that began when he was 13, around the time his mother, Jeannette, died in a car accident, and continued until New Year's Eve 1992, when Edmonds quit cold turkey. He says he can't remember anything about his last drink, although he does recall the support he got from his wife, Karen, then his girlfriend.
"While everyone was having their cocktails, I decided to never have another," Edmonds says. "Enough was enough." Even today Edmonds contends the drinking never affected his performance on the field. During his college days at Arkansas, his drinking escalated, especially after another car accident claimed the life of his grandmother Canary Hendrix. Still he ranked third on the school's career punt-return yardage list.
A fifth-round pick of the Seahawks in 1986, Edmonds had a spectacular rookie season, leading the AFC in punt-return average and earning a spot in the Pro Bowl. The next season he became the first player since Les (Speedy) Duncan in 1965-66 to lead the conference in punt-return average in consecutive years. After signing with Detroit as a free agent in 1989, he was waived on the final cut and caught on with the Raiders. But he broke his ankle in October, and the Raiders released him in the off-season. Nobody picked him up because of questions about his ankle and whispers about his drinking.
At 26 Edmonds was washed up.
He began selling real estate, and he didn't do badly. "Those were happy years," Edmonds says. "I met my wife, and 1 found there is life after football." Nevertheless he wanted to play again. "I knew the reason I wasn't playing was not that somebody had beaten me out or I couldn't succeed," he says. He felt so good mentally and physically after he stopped drinking that he decided to make one more run at the NFL.
Edmonds believed Tampa Bay offered the best opportunity. The special teams coach was George Stewart, who had been on the Arkansas staff during Edmonds's days there, and defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman had been Edmonds's special teams coach in Seattle. He played so well in a preseason game against the Bengals that the Bucs kept him on their roster.
"I'm better now than I was," Edmonds says. "My speed and quickness are just as good as they were, if not better, and I'm at the age when I should be in the prime of my career. But the main thing is, I'm more mature."