Eric Weddle on ‘fairy-tale’ ending of NFL career — and where he thinks Utes program is headed
The consensus All-American Utah safety was recently inducted into the Utah Athletics Hall of Fame and yes, he still bleeds red
It was the latest in a long, long line of surreal experiences for the former Ute star safety and consensus All-American.
“The pinnacle is a national championship. That is the standard. We’re not here just to be good. We want to be great.” — Eric Weddle on what he thinks of the Utes football program
“For all this to happen, it’s kind of like I’m still living a dream in a sense,” he told reporters prior to Utah’s 73-7 victory over Southern Utah last Saturday. “It just keeps getting better and better each day that I wake up. You try to do things right and treat people the right way and good things happen.”
While growing up, Weddle never thought he would be a college football player, let alone find himself playing, and starring, in the NFL.
But the second-round draft pick of the 2007 NFL draft played for 13 seasons, including nine with the Chargers and three with the Baltimore Ravens — earning six Pro Bowl selections.
Weddle capped off his career in memorable, one-of-a-kind fashion. He retired after the 2019 season with the Los Angeles Rams but returned in 2021 during the Rams’ playoff run that culminated with a dramatic 23-20 win over Cincinnati in Super Bowl LVI.
Then he retired again. This time, for good. What a way to walk away from a remarkable playing career.
A movie could be made just from the last year of Weddle’s life.
“It’s been a whirlwind to say the least,” he said. “To go from being a dad and coaching your son to living a crazy dream for six weeks; going back and playing in the NFL, which I thought that dream was done two years prior and to end up with a fairy-tale ending with a Super Bowl is just hard to comprehend.”
A week after winning his first Super Bowl championship, Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego announced that Weddle would be taking over as its head coach after the 2022 season.
Before last Saturday’s game, he addressed Utah’s team and encouraged them to do exactly what he’s done — take advantage of opportunities that are presented to them.
Weddle arrived on Utah’s campus in 2003 as what he described as “a little, punk California kid trying to prove myself.”
Being inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame certainly wasn’t part of his life’s plans.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen,” he said, while expressing his gratitude for the honor.
Still bleeds red
Weddle has been a part of, and has witnessed, the rise of Utah’s football program over the past two decades — from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12; from the Urban Meyer era to the Kyle Whittingham era.
So he has an interesting perspective on what’s happened to the Utes over that time.
Sitting at the 40-yard line, a few rows up, at The Swamp on Sept. 3, sitting by fellow Ute fans, Weddle watched Utah fall 29-26 to Florida.
“It just hit me. I’m at The Swamp, watching my alma mater play. Twenty years earlier, that was never a possibility. You could never have drawn up a script that said, ‘Utah is going to play on the road in The Swamp.’ It just wasn’t a reality,” Weddle said. “Now we’re talking about six months earlier, we were playing in the Rose Bowl. So much has happened that you just look and you smile and you’re proud of it. We had a little hand in it but these guys have really taken it to the next level.”
Not only is Weddle still a big supporter of the program, but so is his family.
His 13-year-old son Gaige loves the Utes. One night, Weddle asked Gaige what would happen if he were offered a scholarship by archrival BYU.
“What if your only scholarship (offer) is the Team Down South?” Weddle recalled. “He’s like, ‘I’ll go to a community college, Dad.’ We’re like, ‘Gaige, stop being dumb. Seriously. That’s a good school.’ He’s just full of red. He’s a diehard. We love him.”
Weddle played during Whittingham’s first season as a head coach in 2005. He credited Whittingham’s “consistency and willingness to adapt” through the years.
“From where he was in 2005, his first year, to now is a huge change of coach Whitt,” Weddle said. “The fire, the intensity never wavers and doesn’t change but some things have. Great coaches are willing to adapt and change and to learn and listen to your assistants and players. The greatest coaches that I’ve ever been around are the ones that listen. … I try to take little bits and pieces of every coach and every man that I admire and he’s definitely at the top of the list.”
Weddle added that Utah’s program stands for excellence off the field, not just on the field, noting the Utes’ high graduation rate for their athletes, just behind Stanford. He praised the school for preparing its athletes for life after sports.
“That’s what we preach. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “The point of the university and the staff is to grow and nurture and teach these young men to be leaders and to be the future of their cities and communities and to do it the right way. That stems from Coach Whitt and his style of coaching, how he loves and how he cares about the boys and tries to implement that every day — the routine, how you work, how you persevere the adversity.”
Those are attributes that Whittingham instills in his players, Weddle added.
“In the real world, no one’s going to be there. You’re going to have to recall those experiences of how you got through them,” he said. “I can honestly say that’s how I learned to be where I’m at today from here. … It’s easy to come out of this program better than you were.”
As proud as Weddle is of the program, and what it has accomplished under former athletic director Chris Hill and current AD Mark Harlan, he’s far from satisfied. He knows that Utah, which won its first Pac-12 title last season, is capable of even more.
What is the ceiling for Ute football?
“The pinnacle is a national championship. That is the standard. We’re not here just to be good. We want to be great,” he said. “There is no consolation with this program. We’re not happy just because we went to the Rose Bowl. We’re disappointed because we didn’t win it. Just like last week (at Florida) — that loss and how that game went is going to motivate this team for the rest of the season. We expected to win that game. Things happened and we didn’t get it done. But that is the ultimate goal. We don’t play for second place.”
Weddle knows how far the program has come and what it will take to reach that next level.
“We’ve been building. It’s been a long process. It wasn’t easy coming from the Mountain West. We’ve worked hard to get to this standard of competing and winning championships. The next step is to finish it. That’s the driving force,” he said. “The success we’ve had as a program, that’s the stepping as you go. You keep knocking until you knock it down.
“I think they have everything here to compete and win. It’s just about making your opportunities happen and making the most of them. Every opportunity matters. … If you meet each other halfway and do your part, special things can happen. I’ve experienced that firsthand.”
Yes, he has.
As a retired NFL player, as a new member of the Utah Hall of Fame, as a husband and father, and as a high school coach, Weddle will continue to do what he can to lift Utah’s football program.
“I see the boys and I tell coach, either I’m shrinking and these guys are getting taller or these guys are morphing into these extraterrestrial athletes that are playing on a whole other level than I ever could have,” he said. “It’s just really special to be part of this program and try to represent it the right way. Now, it’s nice to have time to be able to come back and support them, not just from afar, but to be at the games and be around the boys and try to shed some light and help them in whatever ways I can.”