‘I was meant to be here’: Eric Weddle on decision to make NFL encore
The Rams needed help in their secondary heading into the playoffs, so they called the former Utes great and 13-year NFL vet to see if he’d pause his retirement for a run at the Super Bowl. The rest is history
Only three weeks ago Eric Weddle was a content, retired professional athlete, two years removed from a long career in the National Football League. He was coaching his kids’ athletic teams. He was driving them to school. He was making dinner for the family. “I was as happy as I could be,” he says. “I was good. I had no itch, no inclination to play.”
But here he is, one game away from playing in the Super Bowl. The Los Angeles Rams, Weddle’s last employer, found themselves in a predicament; they were set to begin the playoffs with a secondary decimated by injury. They called the 37-year-old Weddle to see if he was willing to fill in. Weddle, the former University of Utah All-American, agreed.
With Weddle back at his old safety position, the Rams beat the Arizona Cardinals 34-11 in the wild-card round and then beat the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round 30-27. That puts them in a SoCal vs. NoCal conference championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. A win there would send them to the Super Bowl, which, as fate would have it, will be played in Los Angeles.
“It’s crazy. You can’t make this up. All the things that have aligned. I’m just taking it and running with it.” — Eric Weddle
“It’s crazy,” said Weddle this week in a phone conversation. “You can’t make this up. All the things that have aligned. I’m just taking it and running with it.”
The Rams called Weddle when safety Jordan Fuller went down with a season-ending ankle injury and another safety, Taylor Rapp, entered concussion protocol. Weddle has played a surprisingly big role as an 11th-hour call-up. He played 20 plays against the Cardinals when the lopsided score allowed him to play as needed and as his fitness allowed, but in the narrow win over the Buccaneers he played a whopping 61 plays and collected four tackles, two of them solo.
“From the onset, it has been how I felt during the game and how the game was going,” he says. “The first game worked out well. I didn’t have to push too much. But in the second game, I was feeling good. I was running around and playing well. The coaches were saying if I was feeling good just stay out there. In a game that close there was no way I was coming out.”
Weddle’s retirement following the 2019 season marked the end of a fabulous 13-year NFL career in which he was named first-team All-Pro twice, second-team All-Pro three times, and was voted to the 2010s All-Decade Team while playing for the Chargers, Ravens and Rams.
He returned to his home in San Diego after leaving the game and during the next two years he had had little contact with the Rams other than periodic phone conversations with head coach Sean McVay. “Those were just support calls, things I saw from afar,” he says. “I was a sounding board.” Then he received a call from Raheem Morris, the Rams defensive coordinator, just before the playoffs were set to begin to ask if he would join the team.
This wasn’t the first time a team had tried to coax him out of retirement. He says he received calls from “six to eight teams” in 2020 trying to sign him to a contract. He refused. For one thing, in his last year with the Rams his family continued to live in San Diego, which meant they were apart for most of eight months. “It took its toll on us,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that again.”
The wear and tear of 13 years in the NFL and 1,179 tackles also had taken its toll. He says he experiences pain “every second” in his back, hips and neck — “It’s just something I have to deal with,” he says. He gained some relief by shedding 10 pounds, but not enough to make him return for a full or even half season of abuse.
“I couldn’t say I was in football shape. But I was in good enough shape to give it a run. I just had to get my body to match up with what my mind was telling it to do.” — Eric Weddle
“I just didn’t want to go through the pain and sacrifice it takes to be the best,” he says. “It was time to hang it up.”
So he rejected all offers to return to the NFL in 2020, but then Morris called with an offer that required a commitment that would last only one to four weeks (if the Rams went all the way to the Super Bowl) and offered another (abbreviated) run at the Super Bowl. The deepest he had ever gone in the playoffs was the AFC championship game in his rookie year.
He called his wife Chanel and told her about the Rams’ invitation. “If anyone can do this, you can, babe,” she told him. He also wondered how the Rams players would feel about him joining the team this late in the season — “There’s the camaraderie and dynamic of the team; I didn’t want to come in and mess things up. They had a good team without me.”
Weddle called a couple of Rams players to get their opinion. “They were all on board,” says Weddle. “They said, ‘Stop talking. Get out here.’ It was good to hear that. Then I get in the building and see the smiles. I was meant to be here.”
He could pick up the Rams’ defensive system quickly enough, but his fitness level was an unknown. In retirement, Weddle continued to exercise. He played five-on-five, full-court basketball once a week at his home; he ran repeat sprints once a week; he jogged once a week; he lifted weights daily.
“I couldn’t say I was in football shape,” he says. “But I was in good enough shape to give it a run. I just had to get my body to match up with what my mind was telling it to do.”
So far, his body has held up and he has held his own on the field. He also quickly felt part of the team. “I feel like I’ve been here the whole season,” he says. There’s a chance Rapp could return to the field this week. If that’s the case, Weddle says, “I’m not sure if my role would be the same.”
Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the ride. The Super Bowl is in sight, and he’s been a part of two big wins in his NFL encore act. The victory over the Bucs marked the first time he defeated a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady. After the game, he had a relatively long meeting with Brady on the field. “He’s the greatest,” says Weddle. “Who knew I’d have another shot against him. I think I was 0-5 or 0-6 against him. I can cross that off the list.
“I just wanted to tell him how much I admired and looked up to him. I appreciate his work because I know what it’s like. He set a standard of consistency and winning for us. I wanted to show my respect.”
The only disappointment he has experienced so far is the reaction to a fourth-down hit he put on Bucs receiver Mike Evans. He drew a personal-foul penalty for an “unnecessary hit,” but in real time (not slow motion), it was a highly questionable call. Weddle arrived a split second after the ball dropped out of Evans’ hand and Weddle led with his shoulder (not helmet to helmet as the TV announcers said). But what really hurt Weddle was the “cheap shot” accusations made by fans on the internet.
“It was the talk of the day (after the game)!” he says. “Those people don’t know the game. They expect me to pull off when I’m one step away? I saw the ball on his hand at the last second. They called it a cheap shot. Go back and look at my career. I play the right way.”
“The kids are older now and seeing me do this. Some of them kind of remember it. I want them to know this is what I did for a whole career and I want them to understand the time and effort (it required). I hope that translates — that they see that if you work hard at something and are passionate about it and you’re a good person, you’ll succeed.” — Eric Weddle
Other than that single play, Weddle’s curtain call has been magical for him and his family. His wife and children — ages 14, 12, 10, 7 ½ — attended both games. “They’re all up for it; they’re not missing anything,” he says. “The kids are older now and seeing me do this. Some of them kind of remember it. I want them to know this is what I did for a whole career and I want them to understand the time and effort (it required). I hope that translates — that they see that if you work hard at something and are passionate about it and you’re a good person, you’ll succeed.”
When this last joy ride through the NFL is finished, Weddle will return to his old new life, which will include football. He interviewed this month for the head coaching job at Rancho Bernardo High. He will begin the job in January 2023. He hopes to have Super Bowl champion on his resume by then.
“I was shocked (by the Rams’ offer), but the bottom line is that when an opportunity comes are you going to be ready?” he says. “I’m just taking it and running with it.”