Luke Mertens is an English teacher and a football coach, a warrior and a poet. And even he admits you couldn’t make up this T.J. Edwards/P.J. Fleck stuff if you stinking tried.
A Badger, a Gopher and a rabbi walk into a bar …
“I’d told T.J. this: If you’re going to a MAC school, you run the risk of those coaches recruiting you not being there at the end of your four years,” Mertens told Land of 10 when asked about Edwards, the Wisconsin Badgers’ star inside linebacker. “If they’re really good, the Big Ten or the SEC or the ACC or the Big 12 are going hire them. And if they’re really bad, they’re going to get fired.”
Mertens, now at Lake Zurich (Ill.) High School, was plying his trade four summers ago at Lakes Community High in Lake Villa, Ill., where Edwards was a stud quarterback who also happened to hit like a Peterbilt 386. He’d committed to Fleck, then the coach at Western Michigan, the June before his senior year. Wisconsin got wise and swooped in with an offer a few months later, meaning Edwards suddenly found himself stuck between a good situation and a great one.
“You think this is stress? This is not stress, my friend,” Mertens told Edwards at the time. “Whatever decision you make, you win.”
The Badgers stopper’s old coach laughs at that take now. And at the fact he’d harbored concerns that Fleck — a hyper-caffeinated, savvy, charismatic climber, football’s latest television reality star — might not be a part of Edwards’ junior year of college, let alone a senior one.
“It could not have been any more ironic of a situation,” Mertens cracked. “What a way for it to go down.”
The rest is … well, even more stuff you couldn’t make up. Edwards went to Wisconsin. Fleck had the Broncos bowling in 2014 and ’15, then got off to a 13-0 start last fall. He steered Cinderella to the Cotton Bowl, where she was paired at the dance with — yup — the Badgers.
Edwards picked off Western quarterback Zach Terrell in the fourth quarter to help seal a 24-16 Wisconsin victory, then headed to the sideline making a “row the boat” motion, a not-so-veiled reference to the coach’s mantra of choice. A few weeks after that, Fleck took the job at Minnesota, Wisconsin’s oldest rival. Frenemies for life!
WMU’s P.J. Fleck on the pick by former Broncos commitment T.J. Edwards: “There’s a reason why we recruited him, and you saw it.”
— Tony Paul (@TonyPaul1984) January 2, 2017
“It’s not dislike at all,” the junior linebacker said of Fleck, whose documentary series “Being P.J. Fleck” debuts Wednesday night on ESPNU.
“I said ‘hi’ to him even when I saw him walking around [at Big Ten Media Days]. He wished me luck.”
Luck, but, you know, qualified.
“A coach never likes to see a player de-commit from a team,” Edwards continued. “There were some hard feelings there. But, you know, it is what it is.”
‘He sounded like a beat-up old dog’
It was pulling teeth. The worst break-up call imaginable.
“[Edwards] was sick to his stomach because he knew what he wanted to do in his heart,” Mertens explained. “But he also knew he would have to go against his word — and that’s something that was important to him. And he also didn’t want to make the call to Coach Fleck because he likes Coach Fleck.”
He did it anyway, because he had to. Because it was time. Because the I don’t want to card isn’t played by rational adults.
“And he called me afterward, and he sounded like a beat-up old dog,” Mertens laughed. “I didn’t ask for any details. This kid is 17 years old, he stepped up to the plate, made a really difficult phone call.
“A lot of kids would just post it on Twitter and run the other way. T.J. manned up. He did man up to it.”
So: Friends without benefits, OK?
Are we cool?
“Wisconsin was a team that I always looked up to,” said Edwards, whose 89 tackles last fall led the Badgers. “When I was younger, [it] was a team I always knew a lot about.
“And [once they] came into play, and it was hard for me to say, ‘no,’ especially with it being closer to home, things like that. A lot of factors really took place and I had to de-commit from Western and then maybe a month later I officially signed with Wisconsin, so … I’m glad I’m here.”
‘I don’t think any coach in their heart could blame T.J. for the decision that he made’
He’s glad Fleck is here, too. Deep down. Not that the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe — a tilt the Badgers have won 13 straight times, the longest stretch of dominance in a series that dates to 1890 — needed any more capsaicin tossed in the pot.
“I definitely like to beat him,” said Edwards, who was named Cotton Bowl defensive MVP. “I’m sure he says the same thing about Wisconsin. But at the end of the day, it’s about the axe.
“It’s nothing where I want to beat Coach Fleck. I want to beat Minnesota because I don’t want them to have the axe.”
Water under the bridge, kids.
Water under the boat.
“First of all, I think it’s a great hire by Minnesota. It’s pretty obvious what he’s going to be able to do over there,” Mertens said. “If you’ve ever been in a room with the guy, his energy is infectious … it’s going to be really interesting to see the level he does bring Minnesota [to].
“And as far as the T.J. piece, I don’t think any coach in their heart could blame T.J. for the decision that he made. Especially given how it all played out for the kids.”
In the micro and the macro, Edwards made the right choice. Whether Fleck did the same, we’re going to find out soon enough.