The events of April 16th, 2007 touched many people. Lives were changed and
altered in various ways, from the victims to the survivors to the first
responders to the university community. For former Virginia Tech running back
Tommy Edwards, the aftermath of the tragedy was a call to action, to return to a
place he had left years ago, to try to make a difference.
Hokie fans who have come on board in the last 12 years, since the 1995 Sugar
Bowl, may not know who Tommy Edwards is. In nearby Radford, Virginia, Edwards
had a storied high school career that saw him amass 57 rushing touchdowns and
nearly 4,000 yards in just two years of high school football. A decorated
recruit, he followed his father (Kenny Edwards, a VT running back from the early
1970s) to Virginia Tech in 1992.
In the 1993 season, as a redshirt freshman, Edwards scored nine touchdowns,
and his future was bright. By 1995, though, he was gone, transferred out to
Division 1-AA Boise State, where his college football career ended quickly. It
was the pre-Internet age, and the large majority of Hokie fans were in the dark,
wondering what had happened to “Touchdown Tommy” Edwards to cause him
to flame out so quickly.
Tommy Edwards’s story is not the story of a prima donna unhappy over playing
time, nor is it the story of a smalltown athlete who wasn’t talented enough to
make the big time. His story is about mental illness and the effects it can
have, how it can derail the most promising of lives and careers. The story of
Tommy Edwards not only answers the question, “Whatever happened to Tommy
Edwards?” It tells you what the events of April 16th mean to him, and why
he is inspired to do what he’s doing today.
A Promising Start
As a child, Edwards struggled academically due to dyslexia, but as he matured
and started to excel in track and football at Radford High School, athletics
helped him gain acceptance. “I always felt like somewhat of an outcast,
somewhere outside the circle,” he says. “But I began to gain some
recognition through track and football, and all of a sudden that opened a lot of
doors, socially, for me.”
It also opened the way to a football scholarship at Virginia Tech. After a
decorated high school career (detailed above), Edwards enrolled at Tech in the
fall of 1992 and redshirted.
That’s when things started to take a turn for the worse. Edwards was already
fragile psychologically when he entered Tech. “Some things happened to me
when I was pre-school age, or even pre pre-school age, just some emotional and
psychological trauma. I dealt with a number of issues when I was growing
up,” he says.
While he was redshirting, he was stricken with mononucleosis, which was
misdiagnosed at first as strep throat. When the correct diagnosis was finally
made, Edwards had to quit practicing and training, and he dropped the weight he
had put on. By the time spring football rolled around, though, he was back up to
215 pounds and was ready to practice. Still, the physical illness had taken an
unseen toll. “I think during that period of time, my brain chemistry was
just really stressed.”
Add in a traumatic event towards the end of the year (“I had a girl
threaten to commit suicide in my room my freshman year the night before my final
biology exam”), and Edwards’s mental health started to decline.
“That summer (1993) I was an orientation leader at Tech. I was just
starting to deal with depression, and it got pretty bad at different periods
that summer. I didn’t have the same get up and go that I had had my whole life.
I slept a lot more, and I rationalized this as going through the after affects
of really pushing my body through the mono and not really giving myself a chance
to really heal and get over it. I had a real desire to get back into the weight
room early, and the doctors okayed it. I really wanted to get my weight back up
to be competitive and try to win a spot.”
He was successful, and he wound up third on the depth chart entering the 1993 season, behind Dwayne Thomas and Ranall White. Edwards blew up in the first two games, scoring two touchdowns against Bowling Green (a 33-16 win), and four more against Pittsburgh (a landmark 63-21 victory).
“All of a sudden I was leading the nation in scoring and was in the national headlines and all eyes were on me. That created some added pressures and things that I hadn’t anticipated,” Edwards remembers.
The world is full of people who would handle that stardom just fine, but Tommy Edwards wasn’t one of those people. “I started experiencing some anxiety. I didn’t have any idea just how public my life had become at that point, and how scrutinized every move I made would be.”
He went on to score 11 touchdowns that season, including Tech’s Independence
Bowl win, but it was mostly as a goal-line specialist. The limited role wasn’t
what Edwards nor many people around him wanted.
“There was a lot of outside influence, people just speculating why I
wasn’t playing, and it just became frustrating. My mental state, my emotional
state, at the time was somewhat … not perfect. Having people speculate and
create negative ideas really weighed into my mental health and really caused me
to start questioning the loyalty of my coaches, when they were doing the best
job that they could.
“Looking back on it, there were just too many influences, and I kind of
got swept into it. I’ve known Frank Beamer and Billy Hite for most of my life,
and we’ve been friends, but I had people drive a wedge between me and the people
I put my trust in.”
The mounting pressures of college football, sudden stardom, and
second-guessers exposed Edwards’s emotional frailty, and his mental health
started to steadily decline.
“At the end of that year, I got into a fight at a fraternity house. One
of my friends got jumped by a bunch of guys. I ended up getting arrested. I had
always kind of prided myself on being a pacifist, and I just reacted and tried
to help my friend. All those years in the weight room, and all those years on
the field learning to react kind of took over, and I kinda banged some heads.
“I was charged with malicious wounding, which was grossly exaggerated.
The charges were eventually dropped, and I had to do some community service, but
it was just really publicly embarrassing. That really sent me into a spiral that
summer, and I started drinking more and more to try to cope with the
embarrassment and anxiety. I really started to question who I could trust around
me, and I started drinking more, and that contributed to the depression and
anxiety. I just became more and more unhappy.
The Last Year at Virginia Tech
“Going into my redshirt sophomore year , things just got worse. My
depression got worse, my anxiety got worse, and I was throwing up every day
before practice and during practice, like it was uncontrollable, like a gag
reflex. I was really embarrassed, because P.J. Preston had gone through
basically the same thing and had left the team over it. There was all kinds of
speculation as to whether he was on drugs, and I didn’t want to be scrutinized
in the same way, so I just didn’t say anything to anybody.”
In addition, the Hokies had a change of offensive coordinators, going from
Rickey Bustle, who had orchestrated the high-scoring 1993 Hokie offense, to Gary
Tranquill, who disrupted everything from strategy to play calling to team
chemistry. Tranquill’s regime at Tech was short (one year) and unsuccessful, and
according to Edwards, it negatively impacted the players he coached, to say the
Edwards, by his own words, became more of a recluse that season, and his
depression worsened. He started having suicidal thoughts, and more than one
night, he sat on the edge of his bed with a shotgun in his hands.
After finishing as Tech’s second-leading rusher in 1994 (115 carries, 396
yards, 3 TDs) for the second season in a row, it call came crashing down.
Edwards’s aunt intervened, forcing him to get therapy, but he struggled to make
the appointments, or to do much of anything else.
“I was incapacitated to the point where all I wanted to do was sleep 24
hours a day and do nothing. I pretty much stopped going to class. I took some
incompletes and I failed a couple of classes. My family practitioner prescribed
me some anti-depressants, which actually made the situation worse.”
Edwards knows now, having been diagnosed years later, that he was bi-polar.
His mood swung back and forth from depressed to manic. While manic, “I just
acted irrationally. My party antics sort of took on a legendary kind of status.
I was ‘Touchdown Tommy,’ and that in a way took on its own alter-ego.
“I didn’t feel like that person inside. I’ve always been an artist and a
very creative person, with intellectual pursuits and interests. But I had become
this kind of cartoon character in people’s minds. When I was in a public
setting, especially when I was manic, I lived that, and I really pushed that to
the extreme. I just wasn’t right. I was sick.
“I can remember after one game in either my freshman or sophomore year,
and a bunch of kids were lined up to get my autograph. I really hadn’t done much
during the game except play special teams. I didn’t even get a snap at tailback.
My personal self worth was so diminished at that point that I didn’t feel worthy
of the attention of these kids. I felt that my life off the field was in such
disorder and disarray that I didn’t feel like they should respect me, or that
they should want my autograph. I just wanted to crawl in a corner and die.”
In the spring of 1995, he quit going to practice, and he asked Frank Beamer
if he could take some time off to sort things out.
“I was incapacitated to the point where there were times where I just
couldn’t get out of bed. I tried to explain the best I could what was going on,
and I told him I needed some time to try to figure things out. I was told that
wasn’t an option.”
Edwards looked for other ways out, and transferring became his focus. He
looked at Boise State, the 1-AA national runners-up in 1994, and decided to go
there, aided by the presence of some relatives in Boise. His family and friends
were pressuring him to stick with football, and he felt a change of venue would
It didn’t. “The whole summer leading up to my transfer, I went through
more depression swings. It was exacerbated by drinking too much and partying.
“I got out there, and we were going through two-a-days, and I had an
emotional breakdown after a practice. I was trying to talk to my coach and try
and communicate what I was going through, and that I was having an anxiety
attack. I thought I was having a heart attack at one point. He didn’t know what
to do or how to react to somebody just breaking down and crying on the
Edwards was prescribed Prozac and sleeping pills. “The Prozac made me
feel like a zombie, and the sleeping pills made me feel like I was on speed.
When I called to tell them what was going on, they told me to just take two.
That didn’t work.”
Edwards stuck with it, but he suffered a shoulder injury that fall, and by
the time spring rolled around, he gave up football forever.
Life After Football
He returned home, but home was a place where he was still “Touchdown
Tommy,” and where everyone thought he should be playing football. His
depression worsened, and he abused drugs and alcohol and had several run-ins
with the law.
He finally gave up drug and alcohol abuse in 1999, got married in 2001, and
moved to California, so his wife could work toward her doctorate at Pacifica
Graduate Institute. The marriage failed, but while in California, Edwards’s life
blossomed. He developed a skateboard company, Sasquatch Skateboards, and his
music career also took off. He opened for high profile artists and performed on
television a number of times.
Just as things were taking off for Edwards, he had a serious skateboard
accident in 2003 and suffered a brain injury. The injury brought on extreme
brain chemistry fluctuations, resulting in hyper-mania, and within six months,
he had lost his business, his home, and most of his friends.
In our interview with Edwards, he didn’t go into great detail about these
events. “I’ve still had to deal with the chemical fluctuations as an adult,
and sometimes they’ve been more detrimental than others,” he sums up.
“Especially after my head injury, some things really came to light. I kind
of understood myself better, as far as what’s good for me and what’s not.
“A couple of years ago, I met a retired psychiatrist who became a friend
of mine and became my mentor. He basically diagnosed me, and we worked towards
non-pharmaceutical treatments through nutrition and activities. It’s been an
amazing journey. Difficult at times, but it’s really helped me understand
myself, my life, and what’s valuable in my life.”
April 16th and The Heart of Virginia
Edwards rebuilt his life in San Diego, and then came the fateful events of
April 16th, 2007. He was visiting family back on the East Coast when the
shootings at Virginia Tech happened.
“I was visiting in Christiansburg [on April 16]. We had heard the
sirens, and we thought maybe there had been an explosion at the [Radford]
arsenal or something. I turned on the TV at lunch, and it said ’33 dead at VT.’
I immediately got sick. I didn’t know how to respond.
“I just wanted to help somehow. I just wanted to help ease the pain. I
wanted to help raise money in some way, and that’s where the idea of a benefit
concert came from.”
That idea grew into something more, and Edwards founded “The Heart of
Virginia Foundation.” Edwards was greatly affected by the story of
Seung-Hui Cho, and how an obviously mentally ill young man had slipped through
the cracks and hadn’t found treatment.
“I made the decision to drop what I was doing in San Diego and pack
everything and move across the country to start this,” he says. “I
started calling up all my contacts, and I felt there was enough interest from
the entertainment world and the folks that I knew to help me feel like it was a
legitimate idea, and that there would be some support behind it.”
Edwards’s goal is to raise $2 million by April 2009 for his foundation, which
will in turn donate the money to mental health services to develop, expand and
coordinate programs that promote physical and mental health.
As written on his web site, theheartofva.org,
Edwards hopes to “create an event that changes the way we, as Americans,
deal with the escalation of violence and the deterioration of mental well-being
in our country. And to show the world that this senseless tragedy will not pass
quietly as one in a string of violent acts, but call for change.”
The centerpiece of his efforts, that “event,” would be a benefit
concert in Lane Stadium. “If Tech doesn’t want it to be in Lane
Stadium,” Edwards says, “we’re looking at doing it in Scott Stadium at
UVa, or Richmond International Speedway or Bristol … but we’d really like to
do it in Blacksburg, because it’s the epicenter of the tragedy.”
Edwards wants create something positive and long-lasting from the tragedy,
something that is an ongoing force for change. He saw too much negativity from
the outside world after the tragedy. “We want to create a positive
perspective for the world of what Virginia means to us, especially after the
negative aspects and controversy were placed by the national media. That’s a
trend in our society that actually contributes to more school shootings and more
acts of violence.”
Starting The Heart of Virginia Foundation has been an arduous, complicated,
exhausting task, from the very beginning. “Initially when we went out and
tried to gain support, there was a lot of skepticism in what we were doing. Even
moving across the country, my car broke down ten times and cost me something
like $6,000, which was $6,000 more than I had planned on. It took me almost five
weeks to drive from San Diego to Virginia.”
But he believes in what he’s doing, and he relishes the challenge.
“It’s been an amazing process, having to surrender my own timeframe
schedule. Sometimes I try to force things to happen, but then I have to stop and
take a break, and let it come to me. And it has.”
It has been a long, hard road for the former high school star and hotshot
recruit, but he has found his calling, and he’s determined to see it through.
This Saturday, April 19th, High Point Coffee in Roanoke will
be hosting The Heart Of Virginia fund raising event with former Hokie football
player Tommy Edwards. There will be live music from 4-10 pm featuring local
talent such as, Kristi Emmons, Ben Hurt, Jess Pillmore, Red Mahna, Brad
Archer and Donna Pearson, Randy Walker (of the Aardvarks) and the host, Tommy
Edwards. In addition there will be door prizes all day and a silent auction. How
can you help? Please stop by and/or spread the word.
For more information, visit The
Heart Of Virginia web site.