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January 10, 2014

Settling in with San Diego

By: Jimmy Robertson

After several injury-plagued seasons, former Tech receiver Eddie Royal bounced back with a big 2013 season in his second year with the San Diego Chargers

Eddie Royal had one of the best seasons of his career as a receiver for the San Diego Chargers and played a large role in helping them into the NFL playoffs. (Photo courtesy of the San Diego Chargers)

Many factors lead to NFL players signing free-agent contracts with certain teams – things like money, playing time, familiarity with the organization, offensive or defensive philosophies, genuine admiration for the coaching staff, etc.

In a mid-December phone interview, former Virginia Tech receiver Eddie Royal cited all these as his reasons for signing a deal with the San Diego Chargers in March of 2012.

However, he did leave out one reason – the weather.

“Yeah, it’s the middle of December, and I’m wearing flip-flops and basketball shorts,” Royal said, laughing. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

The weather marked a stark contrast to the climate in Denver, where he spent the first four years of his NFL career. It also marked a stark contrast to Blacksburg, where he spent four years making big plays for the Hokies.

Many expected Royal to return to the East Coast after his stint with Denver, as he engaged in negotiations with the Washington Redskins that became public. When a media outlet reported that Royal had agreed to terms with the Redskins, it created mass confusion. Royal, who actually had not agreed to terms at the time, found himself inundated with phone calls and texts from people congratulating the Alexandria, Va., native on his return to his old stomping grounds.

“Everyone was so excited,” Royal said. “I even had my mom, who was in the next room, asking me if I had signed without telling her. She had seen it, or heard about it, on television. I had to calm her down because she was so excited about it. I get a lot of grief about it. Every time I’m back home, I always get a few people saying, ‘I wish you’d signed with the Redskins. We’d love to have you.’

“But it was a tough situation. Washington was the hometown team, and I would be playing for my old coach [Mike Shanahan], so everything pointed toward me signing there. It was tough. I had to take a step back and talk to a few people. We all seemed to think San Diego was the right place.”

Royal chose San Diego in large part because he respected Chargers coach Norv Turner. He used to watch the Redskins when Turner served as their coach, and he liked what he saw – the Redskins threw the ball and got everyone involved.

He also liked that the Chargers had a very good quarterback in Philip Rivers, a strong-armed signal caller with the ability to throw deep. Royal saw the Chargers twice a season because Denver and San Diego resided in the same division (AFC West), so he possessed a familiarity with the organization.

“It seemed like a good situation for me,” Royal said. “They had signed [Robert] Meacham, and they had Malcolm Floyd, and they said I could play in the slot. They also had a Pro Bowl quarterback, and that’s very important when you’re making a decision, especially for a receiver.

“Everything seemed to fit. It seemed like a good match for me. Just having played against the Chargers and knowing how good of a team they were and how explosive an offense they were … as hard as it was to leave Denver, it just seemed like a good fit for me.”

Royal signed a three-year contract worth $13.5 million. Six million of that was guaranteed. The money was similar to the Redskins’ offer, but on a two-year contract. Royal got a little more money and the extra year with the Chargers.

Leaving Denver, though, wasn’t easy. The Broncos drafted Royal in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft, and as a rookie, he enjoyed a fantastic season, catching 91 passes for 980 yards and five touchdowns.

Injuries hindered Royal for the next three seasons. In his final season with the Broncos, he missed four games because of an injured groin and caught just 19 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown.

Still, he liked everything about Denver and was very much open to returning to the Broncos after his rookie contract expired following the 2011 season.

“It was real tough because it felt like you’re leaving part of yourself,” Royal said of leaving. “The guys that I had come in with, we had developed such a good bond. And my relationships with the coaches and the fans and with the community, it’s a great place. I love it there. I’ll always have great memories.

“I was waiting to see the offer from them … it just didn’t work out. I don’t want people thinking that I didn’t want to come back because that wasn’t the case at all. It just seemed that San Diego was a smart move for me and a good decision for me and my career.”

Unfortunately, last year was a disaster. Again, injuries took a toll, as he injured his groin again, and his mom became ill, forcing him to make several cross country trips to check in on her. In his first season in San Diego, he played in just 10 games, catching 23 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown.

Team officials decided to fire Turner following the season, leaving Royal wondering about his role. But those same team officials decided to hire Mike McCoy, who just happened to be Royal’s offensive coordinator in Denver.

Royal couldn’t have been happier.

“I knew what to expect,” he said. “I knew what type of coach he [McCoy] was. I knew what he represented and what this team would be all about just based on the type of person he was and what he stood for. I knew that there would be a good environment. We were going to have fun and win a lot of games and throw the ball a lot. Those were things I was excited about. Just knowing the type of coach he was, I knew we’d have some success.”

Royal has enjoyed his best season since the 2010 season when he caught 59 passes for 627 yards. During the Chargers’ regular season – a four-game winning streak to end the season propelled them into the playoffs – he caught 47 passes for 631 yards and a career-best eight touchdowns. He was tied for first on the team in touchdown catches, fourth in receptions and third in yardage.

Royal caught two touchdown passes in a season-opening loss to the Houston Texans. Then, he added three more touchdown receptions the following week against Philadelphia. That two-game start got him headed in the right direction for the season.

“It was really good to get started like that, especially coming off a year in which I was hurt and I wasn’t really out there much the year before [in 2012],” Royal said. “You want to come in and make a good impression, especially with a new team, and being hurt that first year was really frustrating. I didn’t make the impact I wanted to, so it was great to get off to a good start this season and get things going and start the season on a right note.

“The hot start was because they [the coaches] happened to call my number, and those plays worked. We’ve been spreading the ball around a good amount this whole year. It’s good when you play in an offense like that because defenses can’t key on one guy.”

Royal likes the direction the Chargers are headed under McCoy. He also likes learning from receivers coach Charlie Joyner, a Hall of Fame receiver in his own right from his days as a Charger. Joyner was a smaller receiver, like Royal, and has helped Royal become a better player.

The 2014 season will mark the last under Royal’s current deal. So he wants to get healthy, stay healthy and become an even better player in the offseason.

Royal, who ranks sixth in career receptions at Tech (119), would love to take some time off and come back to Blacksburg for the spring game. He still keeps in contact with some of the Tech contingent, but scheduling conflicts have kept him from coming to the spring game the past few years.

“I still keep in touch with [John] Ballein [associate AD for football relations] and Bruce [Garnes, deputy director of football operations],” Royal said. “I think my mom talks to Coach [Frank] Beamer more than me.

“It’s just so hard being on the other side of the map. I wish I could get to a game or even the spring game, but we’ve usually got OTA’s [organized team activities] going on. As much as my heart is there [Blacksburg], and I want to be there, it’s tough to make it back. I wish I could be around more because of what Virginia Tech has meant to me.”

Tech fans understand. They know Eddie Royal. They know San Diego, with its great weather, is his residence these days. But they also know Virginia is his home.