Edwards' journey home to the Bears filled with pride
Story by Gabby Hajduk
Every Sunday during football season at T.J. Edwards' house while he was growing up in Lake Villa, Ill. featured a "Bears party," where his neighborhood friends and their parents gathered to watch the Bears play.
While the adults hung out upstairs, Edwards and his friends - all dressed in their Bears jerseys - would watch downstairs and play their own football game in the small quarters of the basement in between commercial breaks.
At halftime, the boys would run back up to the kitchen and devour the large spread of food Edwards' mom, Cathy, prepared each week. After the game concluded, the kids would continue their pickup football game in the backyard, pretending to be the Bears defense.
Once the sun set or someone got too bruised up, T.J.'s friends would leave "Club Edwards," as they called it, and anticipate the following Sunday when they'd repeat the cycle.
T.J. and his best friend since elementary school, Andrew Spencer, would more so study than watch while the Bears played, wanting to emulate the players' actions and mannerisms.
While Andrew was a year older, T.J. always played up a level in sports, so the pair competed in basketball and football together through high school. Anytime the kids practiced football in the yard, T.J. had to be Lance Briggs while Andrew would imitate Mike Brown or Devin Hester. Although the Bears boasted a long list of linebackers to idolize, T.J. rarely took his eyes or mind off Briggs; Andrew swears he can pick out parts of the seven-time Pro Bowler's game in T.J.'s.
Over a decade later, memories of those Bears parties remain fresh in everyone's brain. Cathy remembers the boys always asking her what was on the menu that week while Vince, T.J.'s father, recalls setting up with Bears tablecloths, napkins and hats.
Those moments make the Edwards family's current reality that much more surreal.
After spending four years with the Philadelphia Eagles, T.J. chose to come home, becoming the Bears' first free agency addition of 2023 on March 15. When T.J. called his parents, who now reside in Florida, to deliver the news, Cathy and Vince "were in full tears."
"I just kept saying, 'are you kidding me?' because we just shake our heads about the places that he's taken us," Cathy said. "And I was just in disbelief, like, 'what? Are you kidding?' I mean, I just shrieked, like 'What?!'
"I'm happy for him just because I know that that's a place he had aspired to be and then to be a linebacker there after having followed the Bears for so many years, it's just a crazy turn of events."
While T.J.'s journey with the Bears has just begun, his return home is already meaningful. Not only is it a step forward in his career, but it's a full circle moment for him, his family and everyone who saw his younger self sport a Brian Urlacher jersey or dress up as a Bears player for Halloween.
When T.J. walked into Halas Hall for the first time a day after his signing and was greeted by the George Halas statue out front, saw Bears legends' numbers lit up in the player entrance and passed the Lombardi Trophy, he had one thought: "My 10-year-old self would be a really happy kid right now."
The 'it factor'
Luke Mertens has coached thousands of high school football players over the course of his decades-long career, but it's hard to think of many players that stood out quite like T.J.
While T.J. played quarterback for Mertens - now the head football coach at St. Patrick's High School - and the Lakes High School football team his junior and senior year, the coach knew T.J. wouldn't go Division I at that position. But T.J. "jumped out on tape," with his explosive power, knack for the ball and football IQ.
As college coaches began recruiting him, they all had different ideas of what position would suit him best; strong safety, running back, tight end, linebacker and even wide receiver were all on the table.
Ultimately, T.J. attended Wisconsin, who got it right with the linebacker position, but Mertens believes he would have found success at any of those spots. T.J.'s athleticism, competitiveness and selflessness warranted that belief.
"He's the only quarterback to this day that I've ever seen that hands the ball off and then go find a linebacker to go make a block," Mertens said. "That was actually something that stuck out to Wisconsin. They were blown away. Many quarterbacks, they hand the ball off and they kind of just watch the play. Not T.J.
"T.J. would hand the ball off and would beeline for the nearest defender and block him. It was unbelievable - something I've never seen before. T.J. ran towards the collision, not away from it."
Although T.J. played multiple positions since he was in little league, mostly linebacker, Mertens wanted him at QB as the team's leader in high school. His athletic ability played a large role, but T.J.'s personality was an equal factor in Mertens' decision.
Mertens describes T.J. as constantly having a smile on his face and always in a good mood. He knew those characteristics were an added layer of T.J.'s success at quarterback.
"He's just one of those types of personalities that you feel better just being in his presence," Mertens said. "And that's also why I played him at quarterback. It's called an 'it factor,' and T.J. has that it factor on the field and he has it off the field. He's just someone that you want to be around because he's positive, he's encouraging, he's humble, just all those characteristics that we all hope our kids grow up to have one day, for those of us who are parents."
"When you meet him, you feel better for being around him right now. There's few people that are like that, but he is one of them, and he has every reason to be cocky and arrogant, and he's not."
Mertens sees those traits exude from T.J.'s parents as well. Mertens remembers saying to Cathy and Vince during T.J.'s sophomore year, "Look, your son is special," and their response being, "Really? You think so?"
While Mertens was used to every parent thinking their kid was the next NFL star, Vince and Cathy were always "so humbled and shocked" when college coaches started seriously recruiting T.J.
Andrew also remembers the moment he realized his best friend was a different person than the rest.
Growing up, Cathy would have an "Eastbay week" for T.J. when he would pick out his cleats and football gear for the upcoming season; Andrew typically wore the same cleats for multiple years in a row. One day when the boys were around 10 years old, Cathy called them up from playing downstairs so T.J. could make his shoe choice.
"We're going through [the cleats] and picking them out," Andrew said, "and without hesitation, he's like, 'Andrew, pick your cleats.' I'm like, 'What are you doing?' He was like, 'Mom, is that okay if Andrew gets some cleats too?'
"So, that was the moment when I was just like, 'man, this dude is the most selfless human being ever.' And I'm older than him so really he's my younger brother, but he acts like my bigger brother and I look up to him. Yeah, I love him."
When T.J. officially signed with the Bears, Vince and Cathy heard their phones buzz seemingly every second for several days.
T.J.'s parents were born and raised in Illinois - Vince on the south side of Chicago and Cathy in west suburban Des Plaines - then kept the tradition alive by starting their family in the northern Chicago suburb of Lake Villa.
While T.J.'s friends and family all rooted for the Eagles since 2019, they never lost their loyalty to their hometown team. Even when Cathy and Vince moved down south - joining the majority of their close friend group in Florida - they'd set up two TVs on Sunday, one playing the Eagles game, the other featuring the Bears.
When the initial report of T.J. signing with the Bears came out on social media, Cathy and Vince's phones flooded with messages from extended family members, friends they hadn't seen in years, coworkers and anyone in between. Vince, who works remotely, told his boss, "I gotta sign off today," after receiving messages about his son via Microsoft Teams chat, LinkedIn and email.
As T.J.'s parents sifted through the congratulatory messages, one text Cathy read caused the news to really seep in and allowed her to process what this move meant to her entire family.
"My dad was an unbelievable Bears fan," Cathy said. "I'm from a family of nine and they're all Bears fans. So they texted me when this news came out and one of my brothers said, 'Dad would be so proud of T.J. right now. He would be beside himself.'"
The Bears fandom in the Edwards family is a generational tradition. When Cathy was growing up, the whole family would gather at her parents' house on Sundays to watch the games, similar to the Bears parties she went on to host.
Vince picked up his love for the Bears from his mother and sister who "were huge, huge, Bears fans." He idolized players like Wilber Marshall and Walter Payton and vividly remembers the journey of the Super Bowl champion '85 Bears.
Throughout their lives, there's only been two games the Edwards family wasn't rooting for the hometown team: when T.J. and the Eagles played the Bears in 2019 and again this past December.
"When you're from Chicago, you root for the Bears," Vince said. "That's kind of what you do."
Return to Soldier Field
It was just three months ago that T.J. stepped onto the turf of Soldier Field for the first time when the Eagles came to Chicago for a Week 15 matchup.
T.J. said he had about 36 people attending the game for him, ranging from cousins to high school friends to his parents' friends, all braving the frigid December conditions in Chicago.
While T.J. spent plenty of hours of his childhood sitting in the stands at Soldier Field, being on the field and seeing the stadium from a different perspective was an unforgettable experience.
"As a kid, I didn't realize when you're on the field that the stands are so close, so it feels more up and personal when you're playing," T.J. said. "We were way up as a kid watching, so everything looks so small then you get down to the field and you're like, 'holy crap. It's right here.' It's so special."
As T.J.'s family and friends reflect on how he went from a high school quarterback to Wisconsin's last scholarship offer to an undrafted free agent to a Super Bowl appearance and now a three-year contract with the Bears, it's hard to encapsulate the journey into words. But "prideful" is one that sticks out.
For Andrew, that pride stems from watching T.J. show up every day to achieve his goals since they were seven-year-olds playing football in the cul-de-sac. There's pride in knowing his journey was once aligned with T.J.'s when the two would send each other a "song of the day" before gamedays in college when Andrew was at Winona State and T.J. was a Badger.
For coach Mertens, he feels pride in understanding what T.J.'s presence will mean to the entire city of Chicago this season. Mertens also coached Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn - who played a year with T.J. at Wisconsin - and saw how fans gravitated toward the rookie from Lake Zurich because "he represents us; he represents our city."
Mertens knows T.J. brings that same "beat the odds, chip on your shoulder, the whole second city mentality" all of Chicago has.
"We all feel like it's us out there now because he represents that Chicagoan that's been doubted," Mertens said.
For Cathy and Vince, the pride is endless. Vince remembers lecturing T.J. on all the Bears greats when his son was young and pulling up Mike Singletary, Briggs and Urlacher highlights on their laptop in the kitchen.
Cathy and Vince remember the feeling of sitting with T.J. throughout the entire 2019 NFL Draft, waiting for his name to be called then realizing he'd have to prove everyone wrong when he got the opportunity to play in Philadelphia.
"When I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes," Cathy said. "It gets me choked up because I'm so happy for him. And he sacrificed a lot of things. In high school, when his friends were out partying, he knew the path he wanted to take. He knew that he could not mess up [or] make big a stupid mistake.
"I'm just prideful in that he was smart enough at a young age to see that his hard work will pay off. And he's now seeing the fruits of his labor. So it just comes down to pride and it kind of makes me emotional because I know what he sacrificed."
For T.J., the pride all came rushing in on Dec. 18 as he left the visiting locker room, headed toward the field and saw thousands of Bears fans embracing the elements, eager to watch their team compete for the next three hours, because years ago, T.J. was in their position, sitting up in the nosebleeds, decked out in Bears gear, waiting for that noon kickoff.
"I think when you walk out of that tunnel and you get to finally realize you're playing at Soldier Field," T.J. said, "something that I was in the stands watching as a kid, that's why you do it.
"You work so hard to get these things and to see that happen, it's what you do it for."
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