Analysis

Rams safety Eric Weddle exceeding expectations ahead of Super Bowl LVI in whirlwind NFL return

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- One of the first things Rams safety Eric Weddle did last week after receiving his uniform for Super Bowl LVI was head to the nearest mirror. The semi-smirk on his face as he studied the yellow pants and white jersey was a cross between bemusement and incredulity. He didn't pinch himself, but he did chuckle internally at the unpredictability of life.

He had walked off the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Field on Dec. 29, 2019, believing his career was likely over. In fact, he and his agent, David Canter, had labeled that season "The Final Ride" before it started. There was no question he could still play when it was over, but the NFL tends to be a young man's game because it means cheaper labor. Weddle understood the business and was content to have played 13 seasons and earned six Pro Bowl berths, two All-Pro selections and a spot on the 2010 All-Decade Team.

But last month -- 745 days after leading the Rams with seven tackles in a 31-24 win over the Cardinals in that Week 17 game -- he found himself signing a contract to rejoin Los Angeles and help stabilize the safety position after Jordan Fuller was lost to an ankle injury and Taylor Rapp was placed in concussion protocol. As if to confirm that he was actually going to his first Super Bowl, he stopped in front of a bathroom mirror at the team facility and posed for a selfie, which he sent to Canter.

"When he called me, he was like, 'Is this real? Is this real life? Are we playing in the NFL? Are we playing in the Super Bowl?' " Canter said in a phone conversation last week. "It just doesn't make sense."

It does if you believe good things happen to good people, which is what current and former teammates consider Weddle. He spent nine seasons with the Chargers after being selected in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft, then three years with the Baltimore Ravens before joining the Rams for one season, in 2019. At every stop he was respected -- if not beloved -- because of his dependability and accountability. He would only ask of those around him what he first demanded of himself, giving all that his heart and body had to give.

That helps explain why in the three games since returning, all in the postseason, he played 19 of 54 defensive snaps vs. the Cardinals in a wild-card win, 60 of 71 vs. the Bucs in the Divisional Round, and all 50 defensive snaps in the conference final vs. the 49ers, against whom he had a team-high nine tackles and a tackle for loss.

"What he's done, playing as many snaps as he has the last couple weeks, it's incredible," Rams coach Sean McVay said earlier this week. "It's remarkable, but if there was anybody that was going to be able to do it, it would be him. His knowledge of the game, his instincts, his natural toughness, his feel -- all those things were on display (against San Francisco)."

Speak to those who know him away from the field and football is a distant second when describing what makes him special. Jeff Dotseth got to know him as a San Diego media member and the two developed a friendship beyond the standard media-player relationship. For instance, consider the following story told by Jeff Dotseth, who along with Dave Palet are hosts of the Dave & Jeff Show podcast.

I was 13 when my family moved to San Diego in 1981. The first kid I met was Shane Meron, who was also 13. After graduating from San Diego State, Shane got married and had a son named Dakota. Even living in New York, Dakota was raised to love the Chargers like his dad. Shane got divorced from Dakota's mom and moved back to California; and even though they were on different coasts, Shane and Dakota still loved the Chargers and watched the team go through various struggles while talking on the phone.

In March of 2016, at the age of 48, Shane was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer. He passed away two months later on May 1. Dakota, who was 15 at the time, had flown to California with his grandparents to say goodbye to his dad. Two days after Shane's passing, a group of us got together for lunch and to say goodbye to Dakota and his grandparents before they flew home to New York.

There were 10 adults and Dakota at the table. I looked over and noticed he wasn't involved in the numerous conversations going on; he was wearing the sadness of losing his father and best friend like a jacket. I texted Weddle and said, "Hey, Eric, I don't know if you are available, but my best friend of 35 years died two nights ago at the age of 48. I am sitting at lunch with his 15-year-old son, Dakota, and you can imagine how tough this is for him. Dakota is a diehard Chargers fan like his dad was. Is there any chance I can get you on the phone with him for a minute? It won't bring his dad back, but it can send him home to New York with a fun memory."

It wasn't 3 minutes before my phone buzzed and it was Eric. "Absolutely!!" he wrote. "Is he available right now?" I texted back "yes" and my phone rang immediately. "Hey Dakota!" I yelled. "Phone is for you." All of the other conversations stopped and Dakota snapped out of the fog he was in to say, "For me?" This is what I heard ...

"Hello."

"Yes, this is Dakota ..."

"WHAT? NO WAY!! NO WAY!!"

At that point, Dakota moved to another table and sat down to continue the conversation. I looked at my watch and it was 2:15 p.m. When he brought my phone back 8 minutes later, he started laughing and said, "That was awesome!" I have never asked either of them what was said during that 8-minute conversation, but two weeks ago when Weddle made his comeback against the Cardinals, I was in the stands with my 14-year-old son, Cade. My phone buzzed numerous times with text messages from Dakota, who was enjoying seeing his friend back in action.

Dotseth says Weddle didn't make the call for publicity, but rather because that's who he is at his core: a good, caring, stand-up guy. It's why those who know him are pulling so hard for the Rams to win Sunday. They know a loss wouldn't devastate Weddle, whose priorities are in order. But it would be a fitting reward for someone who has given so much to the game and others.

The former Utah star signed with the Rams in 2019 not only because it was close to his San Diego County home but also because there was a legitimate opportunity to chase his first Super Bowl. The Rams had lost to the Patriots the previous year in the Super Bowl and returned much of their roster. But it never happened. The Rams were wildly inconsistent en route to a 9-7 record, winning three in a row, then losing three straight; winning back-to-backs, then losing consecutive games.

After a Week 12 loss to the Ravens that year, Weddle stood half-dressed at his locker stall after reporters departed. The Rams were trending in the wrong direction and he sensed it. There was frustration and disappointment. Few people knew the sacrifice he had made to return for a 13th season, like living apart from his wife and kids. It was all with a goal of chasing a championship, and now that dream appeared to be dying a slow death before finally being taken off life support in that season finale against the Cardinals.

"I rented out a restaurant to kind of host him for his last dinner with everybody -- I think we had 50 or 60 people at that last game -- we were good that that was it," says Canter. "He was healthy; he only had one minor injury situation in his entire career. He was done. He was content."

Then Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris called last month. Morris has a gift of gab and can be very persuasive, but this sell didn't require much effort. Weddle would give them whatever he could. In between coaching his son's youth football team and driving the kids to and from practices, he was working out daily, sometimes multiple times. That's just how he's wired and why he has been able to play at least 85 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps the past two games.

"Listen, I'm playing with house money, man," Weddle, 37, said on the Dave & Jeff Show. "There's no pressure on me. There's nothing. Everyone expected this to flop, and I've exceeded that -- which I knew I would because I love challenges, I love proving people wrong."

The proof can be found in the selfie he took after first putting on his Super Bowl uniform.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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