It is a sight that Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium are accustomed to. Julian Edelman exits the Patriots tunnel, out of the shadows and onto the field under a perfect fall sky. He hits his stride at a full sprint and the crowd gets louder and louder. As his feet cross the threshold into the south end zone, Edelman leaps into the air and pumps his fist over his head, as if his body cannot contain his energy.
It is a scene that kicked off every home game Edelman played in his illustrious Patriots career, but Sunday's run out from the tunnel was different. Instead of a Patriots uniform, Edelman wore black jeans and a gray "Foxborough Forever" hoodie. It was halftime, not the moments before kickoff. There were no stragglers from the visiting team parallel to his path.
Instead, there was a podium.
The Patriots celebrated Edelman's career during halftime on Sunday. After his final season was cut short due to injury and played in an empty stadium, Edelman got the standing ovation he deserved from the Patriots faithful, who made it clear how they felt about No. 11. As he took his place behind the microphone, the crowd yelled his nickname.
"I remember my first training camp here, I thought those were boos," Edelman said. "I guess they're just 'Jules.'"
That first year, Patriots fans had no idea what this former Kent State quarterback would become to the franchise. It was an untraditional and difficult road, but no one was better equipped to walk it than Edelman. Robert Kraft emphasized this during the ceremony.
"His journey wasn't easy. But, no one worked harder to perfect his skills, play through pain and hone his craft than Julian did. When he arrived in New England, as a seventh-round draft choice, this former college quarterback had never returned a punt. He retires ranked third in franchise history. He had never played wide receiver, yet, he now ranks 2nd among the Patriots' all-time reception leaders. In the 102-year history of the NFL, only Jerry Rice has more receptions and yards receiving in the playoffs than Julian Edelman."
While Edelman's career as a Patriot speaks for itself, fans really connected with him in a unique way. Between his gritty work ethic, his social media presence and his attitude towards the game, it was a combination that Patriots fans couldn't get it enough of. Beyond his play, his clutch catches and his iconic mic'd up moments, Edelman was a player Patriots fans respected because of how he showed up.
"Playing professional football is hard, but the great ones always make it look easy. For more than a decade, Julian Edelman was one of the greatest. He had a knack for making improbable catches possible, creating space where there was none and constantly moving the chains," Mr. Kraft said. "He was quick to get open fearless across the middle and elusive after the catch. One of the things that made him a fan favorite here in New England: he was tough as nails."
In a brief speech, Edelman expressed how much that support from fans -- as well as the organization overall -- meant to him throughout his career.
"I just want to take a little time to thank the Kraft family, Coach Belichick, all my teammates. I miss them to death. And you guys, the fans," Edelman said. "You guys have taken me and my family and you brought us into your homes and you welcomed us. We lived you guys, we breathed you guys ... I love you guys. Foxborough forever. Let's go."