MONTGOMERY – Arkansas State safety B.J. Edmonds is the only player in the relatively short history of the Camellia Bowl to record two interceptions in the game, but he has few pleasant memories of the Red Wolves’ game with Middle Tennessee in the Capital City in 2017.
“That was probably the biggest thing I remember when we played last time is us losing,” Edmonds said. “I just remember making a couple of plays, a couple of interceptions and I gave up a big play. That’s the biggest thing we’ve got to do, come out here and get a victory.”
Edmonds, who starred at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Mobile, is the second leading tackler for the Red Wolves with 87 and has a pair of interceptions and 10 pass breakups but he would be the first to tell you the 2019 did not go as expected.
First, head coach Blake Anderson had to step away from the team as his wife Wendy fought a well-publicized battle with cancer. Then, the Red Wolves had to deal with the loss of 10 players to season-ending injuries this season.
“When you build a culture of family and you have guys in your home and they get to know your wife and kids, there’s a cost for that when things don’t go well,” Anderson said. “We had unbelievably high expectations for how the season was going to go. As she got worse and I had to step away until the time she passed away, that was enough for any team to deal with.
“Then you add in the fact we lost 26 players to injury this year and it has not been the senior year they expected. And it’s not the senior year they deserved.”
Football players are accustomed to facing adversity, but nothing could have prepared the Red Wolves for what they faced in 2019. The emotional rollercoaster ride included a series of debilitating injuries that finished the year for starting quarterback Logan Bonner and all-conference defenders Forrest Merrill and Jerry Jacobs, along with seven others.
“It’s challenging,” Edmonds said. “We’ve got a bunch of tough guys on our team that have been through a lot of adversity from the beginning of this season until the very end – injuries, tragedy off the field. I think we just banded together and just grind as a family and become so close. It’s been awesome to watch.”
Thirty-two players have missed at least one game. The lineup has included 39 different starters.
“I’ll never use that as an excuse,” said freshman quarterback Layne Hatcher. “I expect to win every game we play. We didn’t do that but we’re in a good situation now. It was cool to see the way this team came together.”
The Red Wolves held it together with a strong gut check from seniors such as Edmonds, who battled his own personal emotions as he watched cancer tear apart his coach’s family.
“He lost his grandmother to cancer a year ago and we prayed through that process,” Anderson said. “So he’s been through this. It hit home.”
Thursday marked four months since Wendy Anderson passed away “and I could not have gotten to this point without this group of guys,” Anderson added, “and B.J. is one of the best at just, daily, ‘Coach, how are you? What can I do? How can I help?’ He’s been a tremendous leader. Win or lose, I love these guys and they’ll be special to me forever.”
After losing to Middle Tennessee in the 2017 Camellia Bowl when a last-second drive came up short, Edmonds wants his team to go out on top in Saturday’s matchup with Florida International.
“We’re down here to have fun, but at the same time we’re here to win,” Edmonds said. “Make sure that’s the most important thing, to win the bowl game. Make sure we’re handling business, make sure we get the job done.”
If it doesn’t turn out as planned, Edmonds and the rest of the Red Wolves can lean on the lessons from the 2019 season to put the game in perspective.
“I think it shows that football is just a game, but it also brings you together as a family,” Edmonds said.