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When TJ Edwards interviewed for a job at a Lake County golf course this summer, he was as polished as if he were interviewing on Wall Street.
"It was my first interview, so my Mom wanted me to practice before I went," Edwards said. "She pretended to be the interviewer and she asked me questions.
"I told her, 'Mom, it's not like this is a suit-and-tie kind of interview. And she said, 'Better to be over-prepared.' She's big on that kind of stuff."
No wonder Edwards had college football coaches raving about him this past spring and summer. He was probably prepared for them, too.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior quarterback from Lakes, who recently committed to Western Michigan and begins the 2013 season tonight against visiting Grayslake North (7:30 p.m.) as one of the top players in Lake County, showed that he is unequivocally the entire package. Already known for his versatility on the field, Edwards also proved to be a dynamic character and a skillful communicator in person. He knocked his one-on-one interviews with the coaches out of the park.
"We had 50 Division I schools come in to meet TJ in person and everyone, every single coach from Wisconsin to Eastern Illinois, went on and on about what a great kid TJ is, about how they felt like they made one of the best connections they've ever made with a high school kid," Lakes coach Luke Mertens said. "I heard it time and time again. TJ is a kid who can hold a conversation with an adult. He'll look you in the eye and joke with you."
In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and texting, where quipping and commenting electronically seems to be cutting into our real-life face time, Edwards is increasingly a rare breed.
"A lot of kids can't talk with adults anymore," Mertens said. "They can text, they can Tweet like nobody's business, but it seems like some of them don't feel comfortable just talking and having face-to-face interaction. The coaches that came in here said that TJ was refreshing, that they hadn't enjoyed talking to a 17-year-old kid that much in a long time.
"TJ's ability to communicate, his maturity … it sets him apart. It's what makes him unique."
It's what made Mertens want to turn Edwards into a quarterback in the first place.
And, as hard as it is to believe now, Mertens had some turning to do.
Edwards is a mean, hard-hitting defensive guy at heart. In fact, Western Michigan will likely use him as a safety next fall.
"They (the Western Michigan coaches) saw (a defensive mentality) in my films, that after I'd pass or hand off the ball, I'd be looking to make blocks downfield," laughed Edwards, who also considered Toledo and Wyoming. "I don't think most high school quarterbacks do that. I don't shy away from the contact. That's the defensive player in me."
In youth football and up through sophomore year, Edwards was known best for his hits, and his speed in pursuit. He spent most of his time in grade school with the Lake Villa Timberwolves as a middle linebacker. As a freshman and sophomore at Lakes he started at safety.
Skilled and oozing with football smarts, Edwards was seen as a guy who could also help on offense. He was designated a back-up quarterback as a freshman and sophomore. But, as it turned out, he wasn't used much on offense during his first two seasons.
Not that it bothered Edwards, though. Defense was still his focus. Just like it always had been.
Then Edwards became a junior, and little did he know that Mertens was about to turn his defensive focus inside-out.
In his search for a new quarterback prior to last season, Mertens looked to Edwards first, unconcerned about his lack of experience at the position.
"I noticed the way our seniors from last year, some really high-profile kids, were just so drawn to TJ," Mertens said. "They all hung out with TJ, they all lifted with him. It got me thinking about how that's what you want at quarterback. You want a kid at quarterback who not only has a strong work ethic but who also carries himself well, who is a presence, who can communicate, who is relatable, who has that 'It Factor' with the other kids.
"I wasn't really thinking about how TJ would be at quarterback or whether he could throw the ball or not. I didn't even know if he could. I just knew that this was a guy we needed in our huddle."
Mertens found out quickly that Edwards could indeed throw the ball, too.
Edwards finished the 2012 season with eye-popping numbers. He passed for 1,800-plus yards and 19 touchdowns in leading Lakes (9-2) to its second consecutive North Suburban Conference Prairie Division title and its fourth straight playoff berth.
Edwards also ran for 600 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"I was really surprised. I never thought I'd put up numbers like that," Edwards said of his aerial aptitude. "I thought I would just kind of get in there and direct things and that would be it.
"But I really worked hard at the passing drills. And the way the team believed in me from when I took my very first snap really helped. My offensive line was also great and having unbelievable players around me like (running back) Direll Clark and (wide receivers) Justin Bergeron and Andrew Spencer and Nick Battaglia really took the pressure off me.
"Playing quarterback feels really natural to me now."
That doesn't mean Edwards loves defense any less, though.
In fact, being an offensive guy last season made him appreciate all the more what he has to look forward to next season at Western Michigan, where he committed shortly after his visit because he loved the coaches and the school and the fact that he can major in sports medicine.
"I just absolutely love contact," Edwards said of playing defense. "I love that 1-on-1 feeling of where the better man wins.
"I'm excited to play defense in college. I'll be going back to where I got started."
But first, Lakes will get some final words on the offensive end from its great communicator. Bet they'll be memorable.
• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw
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