COLUMBIA — It was almost two years ago at a post-graduation pool party with some of his tennis friends from Washburn University when Blake Edwards decided on a whim that it would be a good idea to do cartwheels around the edge of the pool.
“Some would call it a mistake,” Edwards adds, a comedic aside which the Missouri assistant tennis coach is well known for around the Green Tennis Center.
After all, that’s the kind of person he is. He’s “always performing”, as one player put it.
The first three cartwheels were a success, but on the fourth, he noticed a puddle of water as his hand was coming down, and when he landed, his left elbow bent in the wrong direction. Edwards is a left-handed tennis player.
He suffered a complete break and dislocation of the elbow, and his job as a tennis professional at a local club in Topeka, Kan., was reduced to typing at a desk with his good hand. In addition, two weeks prior to the accident, he had been chosen as a quarterfinalist to be on “Survivor: China,” the next season of the hit reality TV show. The next qualifying round required physical challenges and Edwards, with a cast on one arm, had to reschedule and hope the casting directors would understand.
But Edwards said he knew things like that had a funny way of working out. He trusted it would lead him in the right direction and he stayed positive.
That positive mind-set, along with a ceaseless sense of humor, is what Edwards has brought to the Missouri tennis team, and it shows in everything he does. Whether he’s riding around the court on an electric scooter belonging to the head coach’s son, or giving advice to a player who is struggling in a third set, his upbeat attitude is reflected in the entire team.
“I’m a positive guy, you’ll never hear anything negative out of me and that’s just translated into these girls,” Edwards said.
Freshman Maureen Modesto said that in her experience as a player, she has never had a coach like Edwards, or “Eddie,” as he’s called to distinguish him from the other Blake, head coach Blake Starkey.
“He has an enormous amount of character and his energy is so positive for the team,” Modesto said. “I definitely think his personality has brought us closer together.”
The players have also noticed that Starkey seems to be more relaxed with Edwards around, or at least the looser side of Starkey’s personality is more present.
“We have a lot of fun together and I think we spend a lot of time laughing,” Starkey said.
As both a tennis player and coach, Edwards finds that laughter is part of his style of play, especially when dealing with a frustrating situation.
“Laughter always beats that throwing of the racquet, stomping around, gritting your teeth or crying,” Edwards said.
For Edwards, helping a player stay positive when she loses a point has always been more productive than telling her to focus and get serious.
Sophomore Kaitlin Dunham said that Edwards’ humor is what makes him an effective coach for her.
“You’re more apt to listen to him because he says it in a funny way,” Dunham said.
Edwards pushes the idea that it’s okay to be relaxed, something he learned from Starkey, who taught him when he was younger. And the players get it. Some coaches will insist on a player being focused and serious all the time, but that’s not the way Edwards and the Tigers do it.
“Other coaches see a college team playing and laughing all the time and for a lot of them that’s wrong,” Edwards said.
Starkey interviewed many highly qualified candidates for the position, but it was Edwards’ relaxed personality and his local ties to Columbia made him an easy choice.
Edwards, who grew up in Columbia and played tennis for Hickman, says his return to Columbia was fate. The accident forced his entry into the working world, where his first job was in Kansas City in public relations. After only three months, his inability to play tennis made him miss the sport. He then contacted Kendell Hale, the tennis coach of Rockhurst University at the time, who suggested Edwards get an official instructor’s certification and come work at his club in Kansas City. Hale happened to be a great friend of Starkey, and before long, Edwards was back home in Columbia.
While “Survivor” may never have panned out, Edwards did get a job doing what he said he loves most. He tells people that tennis is “the greatest love affair I’ll ever have.” For him, the court is his stage and his island where he can do what he loves most, and no matter what that will keep him coming back to tennis.
“Even when I win Powerball, which is coming up very soon — I’ll be winning it, mark my words — I would still teach,” Edwards said. “I love it.”