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Chargers’ Eric Weddle finds his joy in the LDS Church

SHARE Chargers’ Eric Weddle finds his joy in the LDS Church

It was hard to tell if the freshman was serious or just being polite.

Practice and chalk talk were over for the day, and rather than expend energy in downtown Memphis, a few members of the University of Utah football team were relaxing in a hotel room and playing cards, as a Liberty Bowl match-up with Southern Mississippi loomed.

When the conversation turned religious and Eric Weddle said he had attended LDS Church meetings with his old girlfriend, his Mormon teammates perked up.

"Really," said Justin Hansen, a teammate who would become a close friend of Weddle. "You should come over to our house and meet the missionaries."

The charismatic Weddle accepted the invitation. Cards were shuffled and the game continued.

The response was so nonchalant that Hansen wasn't sure if the all-American safety was genuinely interested or not.

Six months later, Hansen baptized his teammate into membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LDS Charger

More than five years after his conversion to the LDS faith, Eric Weddle is one happy man.

The former Utah star, his wife, Chanel, and their daughter, Brooklyn Marie, 2, and son, Gaige, 8 months, live in the San Diego area where Weddle plays free safety for the San Diego Chargers. But Weddle's happiness has more to do with his family and membership in the church and less to do with the prestige of an NFL lifestyle, although he is living the dream, he said.

One of his favorite places to go is the LDS San Diego Temple.

His current church assignment is teaching Sunday School to the 13-and-14-year-olds, a calling to which he is devoted. He doesn't shy away from questions about the church in the locker room or elsewhere. "To this day it (joining the church) is the best decision I have ever made. I have never looked back," Weddle said. "Ultimately I became a better teammate, leader, and better person overall. Understanding why we are here, what we are supposed to be doing, relationships and striving to do more, other than play football. When you get understanding like that and apply it, it works wonders."

The good son

From the time Eric was in the womb, Steve and Debbie Weddle knew there was something unique and remarkable about their son.

For starters, doctors fully expected Debbie to have a miscarriage in the second trimester of her pregnancy with Eric, but she didn't.

Secondly, Eric was an uncommonly good kid. As a youngster growing up in Southern California, he was a natural-born leader with a big heart and a loyal friend to the friendless. He was humble.

As a teenager, Eric had high standards. He didn't drink or use tobacco because he wanted to be a good athlete.

Steve and Debbie Weddle, both Lutheran and long-time Chargers fans, say their son has touched many lives.

"He has a special calling in life. God will use him," said Debbie, a veteran kindergarten teacher. "I felt guilty. I should have forced him to go to church when he was younger, but Pop Warner football was always on Sundays."

Whenever LDS missionaries came knocking, Debbie Weddle always let them in for a refreshing drink but was never interested in anything more. She never imagined her son would become a Mormon.

It all started during his junior year at Alta Loma High School, when big-time college recruiters were calling, that Weddle was blindsided by a senior soccer player named Chanel Blaquiere.

Something about Chanel

It was her modesty and maturity that caught his eye.

"She knew what she wanted, she had direction. It was something different and refreshing," Weddle said. "She intrigued me. She was someone I wanted to get to know."

What he soon discovered was that she and her family are Mormons.

The smitten Weddle didn't know much about the church, but attended Sunday meetings with Chanel's family. Although she never pushed her beliefs on him, he came away with a favorable impression.

His mother didn't even know the two were dating. Someone introduced her to Eric's girlfriend after a football game. "We had never had any close friends who were Mormons," Debbie Weddle said. "I had questions about everything."

The two dated through the rest of the school year but went their separate ways when she graduated and accepted a soccer scholarship to Utah State.

A football coaching change resulted in Eric changing positions from defensive back/receiver to quarterback, and many of the big recruiters lost interest, Steve Weddle said. Only a handful of schools still wanted him, including Wyoming, Boise State and Utah.

Impressed by Utah recruiter Kyle Whittingham, Weddle became a Ute. He moved to Utah focused on getting an education and becoming a great football player.

Both his parents knew they had not seen the last of a certain Aggie soccer player.

Ready for truth

Three games into his freshman year, Eric Weddle fulfilled his mother's hope that he would start one game by the end of his senior year. In fact, many seniors would bleed to have the kind of season that Weddle had as a true freshman in 2003.

The 5-foot-11 defensive playmaker started nine of 12 games, was among the team leaders in several statistical categories and earned freshman all-American honors while helping the team to a 10-2 record and win over Southern Mississippi in the Liberty Bowl.

But something was missing, Weddle said. "For whatever reason, there was an emptiness," he said.

Weddle had also noticed the perpetual happiness of teammates like Morgan Scalley. Even when the players were participating in torturous drills at 5:30 a.m., when most players were dragging, Scalley and others always found ways to have fun.

"Why is he so happy?" Weddle asked on more than one occasion. "I learned there was something more to him, something special."

So Weddle was prepared for the casual invitation to meet with the missionaries offered by teammates over cards prior to the Liberty Bowl. Spencer Toone, Justin Hansen, Scalley and others were already hosting missionary discussions at their home for two other investigators.

Depending on whom you ask, the first meeting was either successful or disastrous.

Weddle's returned missionary teammates were afraid he would abort the discussions and never want to discuss the church again. One of the elders was a German who spoke little English and had limited experience. His senior companion was also struggling that day, Toone said.

"They didn't get along that well. ... One would leave the other hanging and frustration was showing," Toone said. "Fortunately, the main teacher was the Spirit."

While his teammates stressed, Weddle focused on the message. It hit its mark in his heart.

"I was happy as can be," Weddle said. "It was the calm feeling I felt. It felt like what they were saying is true. It could have been a little kid teaching me because I was ready for it. It was from the heart and that was what mattered."

As Weddle continued to meet with the missionaries and read the Book of Mormon, he knew he would be baptized. But he didn't want to join without his parents' blessing. He had stayed in contact with Chanel, but she wasn't aware of his early church investigations.

Special days

The gospel had been waiting for him, Weddle said. His conversion was not one big dramatic manifestation, but a subtle process of learning little by little. He was already living the lifestyle.

"They (the missionaries) taught me to pray and read the Book of Mormon. I put an effort into it," he said. "This was for me. It felt right."

When Weddle decided to join the church, support from teammates, coaches and friends was abundant. His parents were concerned, however.

"Are you crazy? What are you doing? We leave you for eight months and you want to join this church?" Weddle said, recalling their reaction.

Their big concern, Debbie said, was their son wouldn't think highly of them anymore.

"We drink and celebrate. Can we be part of your services?" Debbie said. "He told us 'I am what I am because of you. If you weren't included, it wouldn't be worthwhile.'"

For the next three months, Weddle answered questions, provided information, explained why the gospel was important to him and fasted and prayed for his parents' approval.

Finally one morning, the Weddles gave their blessing.

"Who are we to say how God will use Eric?" Debbie said. "I would never change, but I respect what they (our children) believe."

Weddle was baptized by Hansen on June 24, 2004. Toone and Hansen agreed it was one of the more memorable baptisms they had ever attended.

"It was special. You have baptisms on your mission, but when you have one at home it means a little more," Toone said.

"A lot of people respect Eric and reached out," Hansen said.

His parents described the baptism as "emotional" and "very appropriate."

"A mother knows her son. She knows when he is hurt on the field. To see him after he received the Holy Ghost, he was white as a sheet, I knew he had felt something," Debbie said. "It affected us all."

Following the baptism, Hansen said there was an ongoing campaign to set Weddle up with another girl, but he was never interested in anyone but Chanel. The Ute and Aggie didn't start dating again for another five or six months.

In July 2005, the couple was married in the San Diego Temple.

"Knowing our family would be together forever was one of the main things that caught my eye," Weddle said.

Unlike Eric's baptism, the day at the temple was much more difficult for his parents, not only because they weren't allowed in the temple, but because they also had to explain why to scores of nonmember family and friends.

Temples are not regular places of Sunday worship for members. Because of the sacredness of temples, only members of the church who are in good standing are allowed to enter.

"I stand behind my children for anything, but to not be included? I felt so left out. It was traumatic, the hardest thing I have ever had to do," Debbie said.

Since then Steve, Debbie and Weddle's older sister Kathleen have attended church meetings, baby blessings, funerals and more baptisms. They continue to ask questions, and Debbie has become friends with many of the Relief Society women in the ward. His family members respect Eric's decision, but aren't interested for themselves.

"I love the family atmosphere. They have it all figured out," Debbie said. "If something were to happen to them, I would honor their wishes and raise their kids the way they would want us to."

The couple lived in Ogden for a year so Chanel could commute to Logan and finish school while he commuted to Salt Lake City. When Weddle, a special education major, was drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft, the couple moved to sunny San Diego.

Rest of the story

Imagine walking into Sunday School and your teacher is an NFL player.

It's a reality for the 13- and 14-year-old youths in Weddle's San Diego LDS ward. It's a calling he adores.

"I love working with the youth. I am just as new to the gospel as lot of the kids, so I get just as much out of it as they do," Weddle said. "Just being around them makes it one of the best callings."

During the season, Weddle usually attends Sacrament meeting each Sunday before departing for Qualcomm Stadium and changing suits.

"I try to keep a Sabbath perspective," Weddle said.

Since his conversion, Weddle has had many opportunities to share his testimony — from firesides to the locker room.

His teammates have asked such questions as do Mormons really believe in Jesus Christ? Who is Joseph Smith? What are temple garments and what do they mean? Why don't you cuss, drink coffee or do anything on Sunday?

"We get into it a lot on my team when they ask questions — why I am who I am. Why do I do the things I do? A lot of it is just explaining what I believe and that I am not just some wacko."

Weddle also strives to say and do the right things, no matter who is listening or watching.

In a December 2009 interview with nationally syndicated sports talk show host Jim Rome, Weddle was asked about Tiger Woods' extramarital affairs. Weddle replied that it was unacceptable, no matter the circumstances. Weddle also reached out to Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco after the passing of Ochocinco's teammate Chris Henry.

"It was just something I felt I needed to do. Look, it was a huge game out there, but you can't help but feel for the situation and realize the bigger picture," Weddle said of the encounter.

When his NFL career is over, Weddle and his wife hope to serve a mission together. Until then, Eric plans to serve in the church, his community and cause chaos for opposing offenses.

"It (having the gospel) makes a difference. You enjoy life and the people around you more. It has put me in a position to have direction, love, and have what I want most for my family."

E-mail: ttoone@desnews.com