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Julian Edelman is the Patriots’ Mr. Persistence

Receiver has goes from fringe to key force in title quest

Julian Edelman has emerged as a prime receiver for Tom Brady’s passes as well as one of the league’s most efficient punt returners.

Jim Davis/Globe staff

Julian Edelman has emerged as a prime receiver for Tom Brady as well as one of the league’s most efficient punt returners.

Frank Edelman, fixer of cars and proud small business owner, figures his son has a unique engine.

“He is possessed,’’ the senior Edelman said the other day, speaking on the phone amid the clatter of his auto repair shop in northern California. “Possessed . . . always has been. If Jules wants it, he wants it, and there’s no stopping him — he’s gonna get it.’’

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For proof, said the father of the Patriots’ No. 1 pass catcher and fearless punt returner, there was Julian Edelman’s first year with New England. By his dad’s count, the then-23-year-old Patriot rookie stayed on the field that 2009 season with a medical mishmash that included four hernias and a blown adductor muscle.

“He would call me at night and say, ‘Oh, dad, I can’t even move.’ Just groaning,’’ mused the senior Edelman. “And I’d say, ‘Son, you are my hero, I don’t even care. . . . You have done enough.’ ’’

Not that any of it was a surprise to Frank Edelman. He watched his possessed little boy excel in every sport he tried as a preteen, football and baseball and basketball. He then saw him “go through hell’’ in his early years of high school football, his underdeveloped body yet to catch up with his abundant athletic gifts. Later, he watched his son struggle mightily to gain notice as a college prospect and then again as a potential pro who wasn’t offered an invite to the NFL Combine after lighting it up as Kent State’s quarterback.

Through high school, junior college, and college, Julian Edelman never shrank from a challenge, his father recalls.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Through high school, junior college, and college, Julian Edelman never shrank from a challenge, his father recalls.

“He went through complete hell as an individual,’’ recalled Frank Edelman, noting especially Julian’s early high school days in Woodside, Calif., before puberty finally worked its wonders. “He was four-foot-nothing, just getting killed out there. And all I would say is, we kept our focus going year to year — let’s just be a better player, let’s keep our grades up, and let’s just focus on our task at hand. And then finally, at end of his junior year of high school, he added something like 50-60 pounds, he grew like eight inches . . . and everything began to turn.’’

Now 27 years old and New England’s not-so-secret-yet-undersized weapon heading into Sunday’s AFC title matchup with the Broncos, Edelman this season has experienced the ultimate career growth spurt. It has been a blend of his own talent and a litany of personnel changes, including injuries to receivers higher on the depth chart (Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola), as well as the arrest and incarceration of prized tight end Aaron Hernandez on murder charges.

Through all the shuffle and strife of the season, the 5-foot-10 Edelman emerged as just the latest New England slot receiver to catch more than 100 of Tom Brady’s passes. He has cashed in six of those for touchdowns, and further solidified his standing as one of the game’s most efficient punt returners.

Heretofore an unheralded piece in the large Patriots mosaic, with his headlines ranging largely from humble to questionable — including an arrest for an alleged groping incident at a Boston nightclub that was quickly dismissed — Edelman has gone from fringe player to core contributor. He’s likely to be a vital component in Sunday’s AFC title game. And on the verge of being a free agent, after earning an NFL pittance of slightly more than $1 million in 2013, he is poised to be rewarded this off-season with a long-term contract worth $5 million a year or more.

Not bad for a kid who less than five years ago awoke each morning around 3:30 a.m. and hopped in his beat-up pickup truck to chase his dream down the highway.

The route, recalled Edelman’s father, was the 50 or so miles from the Kent State campus to Cleveland. Absent the invite to the NFL Combine, Julian’s best chance of catching the eye of pro scouts was a spring 2009 Pro Day on the Kent campus. To prepare, Cleveland was the place to be, the place where Edelman trained daily with the best players from surrounding colleges. For five or six days a week, Edelman awoke at 3:30, made the hour’s drive northwest, worked out through the morning, then raced the hour back for afternoon classes at Kent.

“It was an old S-10 Chevy pickup and the heater didn’t work,’’ recalled Frank Edelman. “The weather would get down to below zero, and he’d wrap himself in blankets, get behind the wheel and drive.’’

Ultimately, it’s very likely Edelman’s Pro Day convinced the Patriots he was worth a seventh-round pick, No. 232 overall, in the draft later that spring. With a New England scout among only a handful present at Kent’s Pro Day, recalled Frank Edelman, his son posted an eye-popping number in the short shuttle, a drill central to success of slot receivers. The number was so impressive, in fact, that the scouts didn’t believe it, so they requested he run it a second time. The retrial was even better, at 3.91 seconds, exactly 0.05 seconds faster than anyone posted at the Combine.

To this day, Edelman himself isn’t sure why he wasn’t at the Combine.

“I mean, I rushed for 1,300 yards,’’ he said, recalling his senior season at Kent State. “I threw for 1,900 yards. I had 36 total touchdowns.’’

Good numbers for college, but not the NFL.

“I’ve always gone the back road, let’s just say . . . that’s just part of it.’’

High school triumphs

Edelman’s No. 1 Wildcat jersey has been retired and is displayed in a trophy case at Woodside High School south of San Francisco. Pictures of him in Patriots colors dot the school’s halls and offices.

“Of course this is 49ers territory,’’ said Woodside physical education teacher Steve Nicolopulos, Edelman’s coach his senior season, reached earlier this week by phone. “But everyone’s very aware of Julian, and what he’s done. He’s been back here a few times to talk to the kids, inspire them.’’

Edelman quarterbacked Woodside’s heralded 13-0 team in 2004 and also much of 2003, a season cut short due to disciplinary issues. According to Nicolopulos, who was also the school’s athletic director at the time, the final two games of the ’03 season were forfeited because a number of players on that squad made disparaging comments about the then-coach. The remainder of the season was called off, Nicolopulos returned as coach, and in 2004 Edelman was part of a returning group that reported to duty in the fall with a chip on their shoulders.

“They came back wanting to prove that they weren’t bad kids, that they were good kids with something to prove,’’ recalled Nicolopulos. “And they did it.’’

Edelman finished his high school career with a total 2,237 yards passing and threw for 29 touchdowns. He also rushed for 964 yards and 13 more TDs.

“He was the guy who made things happen on offense,’’ said Nicolopulos. “He wanted to play defense, too, because that was his nature; he wanted to be on the field all the time.’’

By graduation, Edelman was approaching his 5-10 height of today, but he still weighed under 170. Big-time colleges weren’t interested. But the nearby junior college, the College of San Mateo, had a keen interest.

“And we’re like, ‘Wow, that’s way cool,’’’ recalled Frank Edelman. “We were like little naive people, thinking, ‘Oh, we’re good enough to play in college?’ We weren’t even thinking the next level. All we were thinking was, hey, someone wants us and this is cool.’’

Bret Pollack, today’s head coach at San Mateo, was the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator when Edelman arrived.

“Other junior colleges had interest, but he committed here,’’ said Pollack. “And one thing about Julian, once he makes up his mind, you are never going to change it — so don’t even try. And I’d say that’s served him well. I tell him that all the time.’’

By Game 2 of his year at San Mateo, Edelman was the starting quarterback. He was gaining weight, gaining confidence, gaining traction.

“When you get a freak athlete like that at our level,’’ said Pollack, “the more he gets the ball in his hands, the better.’’

By late in his one season at San Mateo, Edelman was drawing interest from major college programs. Washington State had interest. Oregon. Other Pac 10 schools. But Kent State was the first to offer, and by then, said Frank Edelman, the family mindset was to go where the interest was the greatest.

“Kent called,’’ recalled the senior Edelman, “and said, ‘We want you and we want you now!’ So we figured, let’s get up there and learn now to play football in the cold.’’

Setting sights high

Coming out of Kent State, prior to the draft, Edelman drew interest from the Canadian Football League. The BC Lions, once home to Doug Flutie, had visions of him as their undersized option quarterback.

“It was a big incentive-based contract,’’ Edelman recalled. “But I didn’t grow up wanting to play in the Canadian Football League — I wanted to try to make the jump.’’

Initially, it was Edelman’s return skills that provided the platform. He’s in New England today, he figures, because of his ability to field punts and dart up field, an art form he never worked on until his first Patriot training camp. The same skill set, dotted with quick fakes and sharp cuts, is woven into his role as slot receiver.

Edelman starts most days now with a couple of hundred warm-up tosses, reporting to work early to catch the throws of John Jastremski, a 34-year-old equipment assistant.

“It’s just repetition, trying to get a little bit more experience every day,’’ said Edelman. “The more you do something, the better you get.’’

NFL analyst Fred Smerlas figures it is Edelman’s exceptional skill set and his nonexistent fear factor that set him apart from the field, especially as a punt returner.

“He has everything you want in terms of an on-board computer,’’ said Smerlas. “You know, the brain, the ability to read and react instantly. When you watch him, he has the ability to make a move two or three steps down and act on them instantaneously with someone coming at him at 30 miles an hour. That’s a gift that 99.999 percent of the guys in the league don’t have. There is greatness in all of us. But fear is the barometer. He has no fear.’’

“It’s vision,’’ added fellow analyst and ex-NFLer Steve DeOssie. “He is able to look and discern a pattern.’’

It has always been that way, said Frank Edelman. Whatever the athletic task, his son has charged ahead full throttle. The Edelmans have a lake home, he said, and his son made dives into the water, big twisting dives, without any tutoring.

“He gets that from his mother (Angela), I think,’’ said the senior Edelman. “Matt, her father, was a bricklayer, a tough, meaner-than-a-snake old-school bricklayer. Strong as an ox. And fearless. His mom is the same way . . . loving, a sweetheart, but she’ll tell you the way it is. Me? I mean, I’ll tell you what’s going on, but I get scared . . . but not Jules.’’

Without exception. Nearly.

“Put a rat or a snake in front of Jules,’’ mused Edelman’s dad, “and he’ll run like a little baby.’’

On Sunday, the animal in front of Julian Edelman will be the Broncos. From everything we’ve seen, he’ll be running.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD
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