Braylon Edwards keeps his promise
CLEVELAND – In 2007, they were wild cheers for promise fulfilled and a franchise-record 16 touchdown catches.
A year and a bunch of dropped passes later, they turned to boos – and that's when he was still playing for the hometown team. His return to Cleveland Browns Stadium as a visiting player last November brought the kind of vitriol otherwise reserved here for a guy named LeBron.
Braylon Edwards has never had a problem bringing out emotion in this city. But the announcement by a Cleveland Municipal School District official Wednesday night that Edwards is the first solo donor ever to give $1 million to the city's students might also be the first time he made a few folks in Cleveland cry.
Handshakes and hugs, though, were the more common reactions at the Cuyahoga Community College Auditorium as Edwards returned for the grand finale – speaking of promise fulfilled – of one of the most generous scholarship programs any athlete has ever spearheaded.
Edwards' Advance 100 program started with a pledge he made back in 2007 to donate $10,000 for college to 100 Cleveland Municipal students, then eighth-graders, who met certain academic and community service criteria in their high school careers. After an interview and application process, 101 were selected.
About 60 of them, plus their family members, were on hand for the Advance 100 graduation ceremony Wednesday. Many had prior commitments, including school graduations and regional track meets. Thirteen graduated a year early and were honored in a ceremony, also attended by Edwards, last May.
He was there every for them step of the way, even after getting traded to the Jets in 2009, in ways that ranged from answering late-night emails on college advice to calling students in danger of falling off track and out of the program. A guy known for his flash made sure his signature program had substance.
"This was not a tax write-off," Edwards said. "This was something we wanted to do the right way and something I was going to be a part of until the end. I know that some of these kids could have easily steered off the right path or maybe wouldn't have been able to go to college at all without this, and I just hope someday they pay it forward."
Wednesday night, the graduates mugged for pictures with Edwards and extended him handwritten notes of thanks. They hugged one another, too, sharing stories of their time together and their plans for the summer and fall – plans that include enrollment at schools including Ohio State, Cincinnati, Cornell, Bowling Green, Howard, Harvard, Ohio University and Cal-Berkeley.
Miriam Beavers, who graduates from John Marshall High School next week, is headed to Washington and Jefferson, a private college deep in the heart of Steeler Country.
"This program is one of the best things that ever happened to me," Beavers said. "I knew I needed this money to go to college. It kept me on track and helped me get other scholarships, too. I get a chance to go to school and be pre-med, and without this money I may not have been able to go to school at all."
Edwards, 28, told the story of one student who, as a ninth-grader, "was a knucklehead; he reminded me a little of myself at that age." Mr. Knucklehead's grades dropped at one point well below the program's standards, but a couple encouraging phone calls from Edwards led to a turnaround in his grades and his behavior.
Another, William Johnson, literally grew up in front of Edwards' eyes. Edwards said Johnson entered the program as a slight, shy eighth-grader who was afraid to speak up in group settings.
"Now, he has a firm handshake, he's over six-feet tall and he's going to Harvard," Edwards said. "And it used to be we couldn't get him to speak, but he called my mom and told her he was going to be President of the United States."
Though this is the official end of the Advance 100, Edwards said he, his mother and other people who work with the Braylon Edwards Foundation plan to keep in touch with the graduates. There have been discussions about holding a similar program in Detroit, Edwards' hometown, but nothing concrete is expected until the NFL lockout is resolved. Edwards prefers to return to the Jets but will be a free agent when football resumes.
He said he hasn't been thinking much about the lockout but admitted to spending some time thinking about Wednesday's ceremony marking the official end of his ties to Cleveland. He tweeted Wednesday that he was "the second-most hated person in Cleveland" but had been true to his word in regard to the program.
The tweet was very "Braylon." Edwards has always embraced the spotlight, and he's always worn his emotions on his sleeve.
The Browns made Edwards the third overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Besides his record-setting 2007 that ended with a trip to the Pro Bowl, his time here also included a torn ACL and staph infection while recovering, a nightmarish 2008 season that saw him lead the league in dropped passes and several public and private spats with Browns fans, some of which he blamed on being a University of Michigan alum playing in Ohio State territory.
"You never want to leave anywhere with a sour taste," Edwards said Wednesday. "If I never had to come back here for anything else, I'd let this event speak for itself.
"You're never going to please everybody. That's life. You can only try to do your best, and you can only learn from your mistakes."
He was traded to the Jets in Oct. 2009, about 30 hours after he allegedly punched a downtown Cleveland nightclub employee in the face. He later pleaded no contest, and his relationship with Cleveland fans became further strained last summer when he and his mother took shots at the city in a New York Times article.
But there's no denying the generosity he's shown a fortunate group of soon-to-be Cleveland graduates – generosity that's gone well over his original $1 million pledge.
In 2009, when Edwards followed up a personal conversation with one of the Advance 100 students by asking others what else he could do to help, every student in the program came home the next week to a new Dell laptop computer. For many, it was the first computer they'd ever owned.
Nike also sent gift cards, shoes and gear to Advance 100 participants, and Edwards even made two offseason appearances at group events after he was traded.
"When I said I was sticking with this thing and that I'd do anything I could for the kids, I meant it," Edwards said. "That was a big part of this, teaching them about commitment and seeing things through."
Over the course of the program, Saturday workshop sessions gave the kids a chance to gather, challenge one another and hear from speakers from all walks of life on subjects such as money management, higher education and getting the most out of those shiny new laptops.
"The Advance 100 gave me 99 new friends," Beavers said.
"It's something that changed my life," Johnson said. "I'm forever grateful to Braylon. We all are."
During his address to the graduates Wednesday night, Edwards talked about his football return to Cleveland last fall. He said he spent time the week of the game visualizing how the fans would treat him, how he'd react and even what he'd say to the media after the game.
Following a draining overtime game won by the Jets, he instead held a subdued press conference, keeping his answers close to his (designer) vest. It was very bland and, frankly, very un-Braylon like. He told the students that when a reporter offered him a chance to say whatever he'd been wanting to say about Cleveland, he instead chose to just think about "the kids here that mean the world to me."
For those kids, the feeling is mutual.