MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As a high school sophomore, T.J. Edwards felt like he had every reason to quit football.
The Lake Villa, Ill., native broke his foot during his freshman season at Lakes Community High, the first time he’d suffered a serious injury, and didn’t want anything to jeopardize what appeared to be a promising future in basketball.
Basketball felt more fun for Edwards at the time anyway, he said, and he needed convincing from family, friends and high school coach Luke Mertens to take the football field again as a sophomore.
"I had never really been injured major before, so the first time I did it I just kind of blamed it on football,” Edwards said. "It definitely was a real thing. I was just close to being done. ... Ever since then it’s worked out well."
When Edwards stopped growing taller and began adding muscle, making the decision to stick with football felt like a great one.
Now a junior inside linebacker for the University of Wisconsin, Edwards earned All-American honors from the American Football Coaches Association, Sporting News, the Associated Press and the Walter Camp Foundation this season, including a first-team selection from the AP.
He’s in the process of deciding whether he’ll leave the sixth-ranked Badgers (12-1) after Saturday’s Orange Bowl against No. 11 Miami (10-2), set for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Hard Rock Stadium.
This time, however, instead of transitioning to the basketball court, he’d enter the NFL Draft and begin his professional career at the highest level football has to offer.
"His whole script could have been a little different if he chose to focus on basketball,” Mertens said. "It’s a good story to have in my back pocket when I have conversations with kids nowadays and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I think I need to focus on basketball or I need to play fall baseball instead.’ There’s this kid T.J. Edwards I had the same conversation with."
Edwards’ NFL decision is yet another fork he’s faced during his football career — from the injury that could have ended it in the first place to an extricating recruiting choice that paved his path to Madison.
Major programs were hesitant to offer Edwards during the recruiting process. Not because they overlooked him, necessarily, but more because they couldn’t look at him at all.
Edwards played quarterback for Lakes Community, and Mertens estimated he played only about 20 snaps on defense.
It’s far from unique for an athletically gifted high school player, especially a quarterback, to plan on switching positions or even sides of the ball when taking the step up to college. It’s quite difficult, however, for top programs to burn a scholarship on such a prospect when coaches are unable to envision how that switch may bear out.
Edwards opted not to attend most recruiting camps, making many programs uneasy about extending an offer.
"T.J. being T.J., he was more concerned with his high school football team rather than himself,” Mertens said. "He knew he had to be around for us and he had to be at our practices. So he chose his team over his own recruiting. He could have very easily just been like, ‘Hey Coach, I’m going to camp this, camp that’ and not thought about us, but he put the team first."
Edwards committed to Western Michigan in June of 2013 prior to his senior year, and despite interest from UW, he didn’t make the trip up to Madison for the Badgers’ recruiting camp.
UW eventually took a chance on Edwards by offering him late in the process anyway, and he ultimately flipped his commitment in December following his senior season.
It marked one of Edwards’ toughest decisions because he never wanted to be “that guy” who backed out of a commitment, but the Badgers were somewhat of a dream program for him.
“That’s never really been my thing to back out of something like that,” Edwards said. "But ultimately, it was for the best."
The transition to linebacker that concerned some programs turned out to be laughably smooth. After redshirting his first year on campus, Edwards started at inside linebacker and led UW in tackles each of the next two seasons.
He quickly became a sure tackler, an instinctive defender and solid in coverage — an all-around player that looks like he’s been a linebacker his entire life.
"T.J. can lay the hits, man,” UW right guard Beau Benzschawel said. "The first time we figured it out was freshman year. We didn’t really know about T.J. We knew he was a quarterback coming out of high school. We thought, whatever, he might not have a huge truck stick. But I found out the hard way. I think (Michael) Deiter might have, too. And then just every scout team player imaginable.
“Now that he’s got the mentality of a linebacker and the smarts of a linebacker, it’s made him a very versatile player, a guy that’s all over the field."
Heading into Saturday’s Orange Bowl, Edwards has recorded 75 tackles, 11 for a loss, two sacks, four interceptions and a touchdown this season. He proved himself as one of the best linebackers in the country and took on a greater leadership role after fellow inside linebacker Jack Cichy tore his anterior cruciate ligament in August.
“I think it’s a lot of those natural instincts and physicality and just understanding of what we try to do, being able to communicate that,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "He does it every single play for us. He brings a lot to the table — run game, pass game, leadership, physicality, the whole nine yards."
Despite his play this season, Edwards said Thursday he received a “come-back-to-school grade” from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which grades players as either first round, second round or return to school.
While Edwards’ tape would mostly indicate he’s ready for the next level, there are concerns over his lack of speed. That’s not something that would be easy to improve dramatically over one more season with UW, but there’s no telling how much another year in college — and another year of experience playing linebacker — could improve his draft stock.
Faced with another tough football decision, Edwards hopes to make the right call once again.
“I definitely would have to (get) some good feedback,” Edwards said Dec. 19, before receiving the advisory board’s grade. "Nothing too average or I’d probably be leaning to come back. ... I think the biggest thing is kind of just my gut feeling — looking back at my time here and feeling what I’ve done and what I still need to do."