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Former Chargers LB Donnie Edwards earns NFL award for assisting U.S. military personnel

Donnie Jones and Jake Elliott Super Bowl LII warmups (Quintin3265/WikiCommons)

Putting the San Diego into Chargers came easily to Donnie Edwards.

Edwards cheered for “Air Coryell” teams as a boy living in Chula Vista, and called San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium a special place. As an NFL linebacker, he turned down the Rams soon after they’d reached two Super Bowls so he could sign with the Bolts. He missed no starts in the five years he spent with the team, and played for AFC West-champions in 2004 and 2006.

Where he has shined brightest as a San Diegan, though, is off the football field.

The many good deeds Edwards, 46, does for U.S. military personnel, notably veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War, earned him the NFL’s 2019 Salute to Service Award, presented annually in conjunction with USAA.

“I’m very honored,” Edwards said by phone from Miami, where he received the award as part of Super Bowl week festivities. Yet he said the work is rewarding for him, and true to his beliefs about freedom and service.

Edwards has taken dozens of military folks, many of them San Diegans, abroad to historic places through the Best Defense Foundation he started in 2002 after joining the Chargers.

For instance, on his foundation’s dime, he’s sent vets to the beaches of Iwo Jima and Normandy.

Edwards, 46, said these solemn missions — which included a visit to Berchtesgaden, Germany, the alpine retreat of Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders — have allowed many veterans to find closure.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than taking veterans back to where they left their blood, sweat and tears to preserve the freedoms we enjoy,” he said.

The Rancho Santa Fe resident had a busy 2019, starting with a trip to Japan to watch the Super Bowl with troops in Okinawa. He took seven Iwo Jima surivors to the Pacific islands. To honor the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it was off to northern France, with 16 veterans and a nurse who served in World War II.

“I do this to honor my grandfather and his legacy,” Edwards said of a World War II serviceman and Pearl Harbor survivor. “Growing up, he took care of me, and now I’m taking care of the men like him who sacrificed so much for our country.”

He said many of his family members, who include 10 siblings, have served in the military.

Edwards himself would’ve joined the Marines, he said, if not for the football progress he made as a linebacker and tight end at Chula Vista High, to which he’s given $40,000 for a weight room.

Instead of attending college on the GI Bill — his original plan — he went to UCLA on a football scholarship.

Edwards lasted 13 years in the NFL, appearing in nearly 200 games. He reached three Super Bowl tournaments, though never the final game.

Amid this week’s Super Bowl hoopla, he acknowledged that one game still bugs him.

Yep — it was the Chargers’ home-field loss to the New England Patriots in the 2006 team’s playoff opener.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get over that game,” said Edwards, who had one of the three Chargers interceptions that afternoon against Tom Brady.

It was suggested to him that when the playoffs arrived, a soft AFC West and favorable schedule had worked against the 2006 Chargers, whose 14 wins are still a franchise record. Perhaps the team hadn’t been tested strongly enough, while rolling up the NFL’s biggest point differential that year.

Edwards disagreed. All NFL games are challenging, he said.

“There’s always going to be a team that’s coming for you, especially if you’re winning,” he said.

A win over the Patriots — who were a five-point underdog on betting lines and trailed 21-13 in the fourth quarter before winning, 24-21 — would have matched the Chargers against the Indianapolis Colts, in San Diego, with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

“I was really confident that we would not only reach the Super Bowl but win the Super Bowl,” Edwards said, “but the only problem was the New England Patriots were in front of us.”

In the same Miami stadium that the 2006 Bolts did not reach for Super Bowl XLI — won by the Colts against the Chicago Bears — Edwards will watch Super Bowl LIV between the San Francisco 49ers and the Chiefs, who drafted him and employed him in two stints around his Bolts tenure.

He explained why the playoffs loss to the Patriots still hurts.

“Because every time I watch it,” he said, “I want to go back and change a couple of things.”

Edwards was a versatile playmaker who filled all the linebacker positions in his career and finished with 23.5 sacks, 28 interceptions and four touchdowns to go with a huge number of tackles. He was the 2006 team’s top tackler.

Ever the linebacker, he seems to have slammed more than once into the cold reality that he can’t return to Jan. 14, 2007 and alter the outcome of that Bolts-Pats game, witnessed by 68,810 fans in Mission Valley.

“But you can’t do it, you can’t do it,” he said of changing a couple things. “It’s just one of those deals. You have to be OK with it.”

San Diego guy, San Diego memory.


© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune