August 6, 2005

Roughriders' Edwards has his roots in Lachine


Saskatchewan Roughriders safety Darnell Edwards, who played CEGEP football at Vanier College before going to the University of Manitoba, dropped in on his parents, Dean and Deborah, at their Lachine home before Thursday night's game against the Alouettes.

MONTREAL - The streets of Lachine have improved considerably over the years. With its old, well-maintained brick homes, waterfront restaurants and bars hovering on the edges of Lac St. Louis, it's suburban living at its finest. Yet it remains a working-class neighbourhood, where many families must live from paycheque to paycheque, just close enough to the factories in LaSalle and poverty of Ville St. Pierre to keep its citizens honest. It's an area that Darnell Edwards, a safety and special-teams player with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, calls home, albeit infrequently these days, between his career and Minneapolis-based girlfriend.

"It's quiet, green, real nice ... not like LaSalle," Edwards said during an interview this week before Thursday's game against the Alouettes at Molson Stadium. "I used to be left in the park by myself as a kid, without worries. This is suburbia. The water's right there. There's not much crime. We used to leave our door unlocked."

Edwards was a sports maniac as a child, active and busy. Soccer, basketball, tennis, baseball, softball, swimming. It mattered little. And he quickly understood he was good; better than his peers. So good, he played against older kids. So good, his softball coach told him to slow down his pitches to better provide the opposition with an opportunity to hit. The philosophy frustrated Edwards.

He understood sports was his ticket out of Lachine, potentially to a better and more prosperous life.

"I never practised. I just played. I was a natural," he said, without a shade of cockiness in his voice. "Whatever sport, I was the top at it. I was pretty good at what I did."

On his way to a 6-foot-3, 195-pound body, Edwards excelled and prospered at basketball, but figured the likelihood of a Canadian making it in the National Basketball Association was remote. So he turned his attention to football, a sport that became part of his fibre. He played two ways at Vanier College for three years - cornerback and wide receiver. He was the Cheetahs' lock-down corner, always lined-up against the opposition's best receiver. The quarterback rarely threw to his side.

Edwards played four years at the University of Manitoba, leading Canada West in interceptions his final two seasons. He was named a first-team all-Canadian in 2000 and was selected in the fourth round (29th overall) by the Riders two years later. He cracked the roster as a rookie, at 22, somewhat unique for a lower draft pick.

That might have been the end of the story. Except, in many ways, Edwards lives a life unfulfilled. He has a drawer at home full of envelopes and letters from Syracuse, Central Michigan and other leading U.S. colleges, a constant reminder of what could have been. A coach at UCLA once told him he could guarantee Edwards would be drafted by a National Football League team following three years with the Bruins.

Edwards was never a particularly diligent student. His teachers complained of him not applying himself. But he was athletically gifted, had the body frame and could play bump-and-run coverage. It wasn't long before American colleges started taking notice, sending him entrance forms, information packages and invitations to tour the campus and facilities.

Edwards would have earned a scholarship from the school of his choice, except that he came up short on the entrance exams - the aptitude tests required - scoring 890 points, 110 short of the minimum requirement.

"I made it tough for myself, and I'll never forget that," he said, shrugging. "I'm keeping those letters for my kids, so they know the importance of education. I could have played football for free ... been on TV ... but it didn't work out. If you don't have the grades, it doesn't matter.

"You need an opportunity, and the opportunities are narrow up north, where you're playing against average to decent receivers (in university). Had I gone to school in the States, I have no doubt I'd be in the NFL, playing Monday Night Football and starting. I don't want to sound cocky. There's no excuse. It's on me."

Edwards likely would have been a first-round draft choice in the Canadian Football League, but there were rumblings of him testing the NFL market, which made Canadian teams nervous. Scouts from the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers came to Montreal to test Edwards. The Detroit Lions flew him to their suburban practice facility. But none of the three organizations offered contracts.

"The tryout at Detroit was crazy," he said. "You see all those guys. They walk you through the facilities. You could have eaten off the floor. At (Manitoba), I had to pay to go to the gym, and I was a student-athlete. I guess it wasn't meant to be."

It has been a frustrating pro career for Edwards. There were knee injuries his first two seasons, and he now finds himself in a battle with Scott Gordon for playing time in the Riders' secondary. Nonetheless, Edwards, a potential free agent in February, said he'd like to re-sign with Saskatchewan, perhaps working with inner-city kids someday.

"Ask me to do anything with kids, I'll do it," he said. "You can't say no to a kid. If you do, it might change his life."