ATLANTA — The once routine late-weekend drives were bad, but they were far from being the most difficult parts of Mario Edwards’ college journey.
Indeed, there was much more to be worried about, concerned about and even stressed about. Any fretting about getting behind the wheel weekly for those 11-hour round trips to school and back had to be put on pause. He had greater obligations.
“Any chance I got, I was trying to come home,” Edwards said.
That’s because, for the better part of his second year as a safety at Virginia Tech, Edwards — now an often-used defensive back at Georgia Tech — had to deal with comforting a grief-stricken family that was located nearly 350 miles away. But these days, thanks to a rare move by the NCAA, a work ethic that has been just hard enough, and the gracious spirit of some of those now closest to the football player, that anxiety has been considerably lessened.
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“It’s less stress-free because now I can come home any time I want to, and when my mom needs me, I can just drive down the street,” Edwards said.
During his emotional roller-coaster ride as a redshirt freshman for the Hokies in 2007, the Atlanta-area native was given the unsettling news that his father, William, had been diagnosed with lung disease.
A young, but growing member of the Virginia Tech secondary, Edwards was still in the early stages of building what he hoped would be a promising career.
Little did he know at the time, but that career would have to blossom at a different place.
“When I was at Virginia Tech, (my mom) would be calling and stressing and going through stuff, and I couldn’t be there when I needed to be,” Edwards said, speaking of his mother Maudestia, who has since become a full-time caretaker for her ailing husband.
One of those conversations prompted a drive home the weekend of Sept. 9, 2007.
Just hours after the Hokies had returned to Blacksburg, Va., from playing a Saturday night road game at LSU, Edwards hoped in his car and headed straight to his College Park home.
“Because we usually had Mondays off, I stayed until Tuesday,” he said.
After watching Edwards repeat the trip often that fall and winter, his parents and Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer knew they had to reach some type of reasonable solution to end his days of worry.
For that reason, following meetings with the player, Beamer was prompted to issue a statement on the Virginia Tech Web site in April 2008 saying, “After conversations with Mario, we’ve decided that it’s best if we separate and that’s what we’ve done. We thank him for his contributions to Virginia Tech and this football program and wish him the absolute best in his future.”
Enter Georgia Tech.
A school with which Edwards was very familiar — the Yellow Jackets had recruited him, along with Baylor and Central Florida, among others — Georgia Tech held a promising key to his playing future.
The previous December, Georgia Tech had fired its head coach and hired another who had designs of bringing on a new defensive coordinator. While initially unfamiliar with Edwards’ home situation, they both decided to give the young transfer an opportunity to walk-on, and a perhaps, a team to call home.
“He made the team and we put him on scholarship the following spring,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said.
Once on the team, Edwards began to thrive.
“I felt bad for him and his family, but I felt good about the fact that he could be here close to them,” Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do and he’s gone through a lot of things last year and this year and just kept working hard and finally got a chance. He was given a chance and he’s taken advantage of it.”
After receiving a hardship release from the NCAA, Edwards was able to vacate his Virginia Tech scholarship, and step into a playing role with Georgia Tech right away. In normal transfer circumstances, players have to sit out a year before joining their teams.
Appearing in every regular season game last season, Edwards was a backup who had just seven tackles, and forced and recovered a fumbles.
This year, after injuries, poor defensive techniques and overall changes in the Yellow Jackets’ defensive scheme, he was thrust into the starting rotation. Receiving his first career start four games ago, he likely will be in there once again Tuesday when No. 9 Georgia Tech takes on No. 10 Iowa in the BCS Orange Bowl.
“He has come in and done a better job of tackling for us,” Wommack said. “He’s smart. He understands the defense and what we’re trying to do. So he’s helped us from that standpoint.”
In his first series as a starting free safety, Edwards had a key pass deflection that helped keep Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner and his prolific passing arm out of the end zone.
“I remembered from that week of watching film that (Skinner) liked to throw the corner route when (the receivers were) in a double slot,” Edwards said. “So I kind of knew what was coming, and I baited him. And when he threw it, I thought I was going to get a pick off of it, but he just threw too hard out of bounds.
“I’ve just got to get a better break on the ball.”
Three weeks ago, as the Yellow Jackets clung to a narrow lead in the final seconds of the ACC championship against Clemson, he got a similar break on the ball to help preserve a Georgia Tech win.
On the Tigers’ final possession, speedy running back C.J. Spiller tore out of the backfield and into the secondary hoping for a big reception on a second-and-long play.
“I was thinking he was going to do a wheel route but I wasn’t sure,” Edwards said. “I looked into the post, and then I saw him at the last minute, so I run over there and I’m thinking, ‘Man, Spiller’s fast, he might just turn the burners on me.’ But I calmed myself down and turned my head around so they wouldn’t throw the flag.”
Breaking up the pass, he helped bring up third-and-20. After a completed Clemson pass came up yards short of a first down, the Yellow Jackets’ front line closed on quarterback Kyle Parker for a drive-ending sack that sent them into the Orange Bowl.
“He’s given us a guy who’s stayed healthy and been out there,” Johnson said.
Proving to be a dependable piece to the Yellow Jackets’ defensive puzzle, Edwards has played an unassuming, but vital role for the team.
It is much the same dependability he began showcasing his family with those frequent car rides home more than two years ago.
And as the calendar advances forward yet again tonight, and as his father’s health continues to progress, Edwards knows that those drives were well worth it. Just don’t expect him to repeat them any time soon.
“Now,” he said, “I’m just a phone call away.”