Thu, 01 Oct 2020

Is Stephen Weatherly the most interesting player in the NFL

Carolina Panthers
23 May 2020, 05:44 GMT+10

Stephen Weatherly calls himself weird.

He's played nine instruments - though he's settled on one for now. He solves Rubik's Cubes and 3D puzzles. He previously hosted "The Weatherly Report," where he bounced around Minnesota to try his hand at things like glass blowing.

He considers himself an introvert, but when you talk to the defensive end, he's as conversational as any extrovert you've ever met.

As Weatherly describes these traits, attributes, and hobbies over the course of a 20-minute conversation, any negative connotation of that word - weird - fades away.

Instead, he's just ... interesting.

Get to know new defensive end Stephen Weatherly Intel True View look at a Stephen Weatherly sack on Aaron Rodgers Photos of Stephen Weatherly through the years

That's become an overused word, sure. But for Weatherly, "interesting" feels apt. So much so that when you ask if he thinks he's the most interesting player in the NFL, he has a one-word answer:

"Yes."

And is he proud of that?

"Very."

Selected out of Vanderbilt in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Weatherly spent his first four seasons with the Vikings before signing a two-year deal with the Panthers in March. He's played 49 games in his young career, with seven starts and 6.0 sacks. Those aren't gaudy numbers, but in Minnesota, he was behind a pair of the league's best defensive ends in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen - both of whom have been selected to multiple Pro Bowls.

So coming to Carolina means Weatherly now has a chance to earn a full-time role.

"It's everything," he said. "My position with my previous team was more of a rotational, giving-guys-a-blow type of deal, which is fine. That's what they asked me to do, so I absolutely get it.

"But a part of me choosing to come to the Carolina Panthers was the opportunity to compete for a starting job and show them what I look like as a potential full-time starter for an NFL team. So I had to jump at it."

Those, however, are standard football-player facts. It's a boilerplate notion for anyone who just came off their rookie contract to want to prove he's more than just a role player.

On the field, what makes Weatherly interesting is how he sees himself compared to the bigger picture - how he describes himself at his best.

In Week 5 of the 2018 season, Weatherly strip-sacked Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz midway through the second quarter of Minnesota's eventual 23-21 victory. Weatherly put an inside move on All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson to get to Wentz, with defensive tackle Linval Joseph picking up the loose ball before running 64 yards for a touchdown.

Weatherly considers it his signature play in the league so far - not just for the result, but also because of what led to it.

He started that game because injuries had piled up for the Vikings, who had just two healthy defensive ends. Weatherly was one of them. So he spent much of the week helping defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes prepare to play on the outside.

Holmes spelled Weatherly for the first four plays of a defensive possession during the second quarter, working a few moves he and Weatherly had discussed during the week. With the Eagles driving, Holmes tapped out before the fifth play of the drive. Weatherly came in, immediately strip-sacked Wentz, and the rest was history.

"That's the play that was all-encompassing because if we didn't take the time to develop Jalyn to play defensive end, I would have been in the whole game," Weatherly said. "And if he wasn't to the point of being great enough, then he wouldn't have been able to be in. But because we all got him to that point, I had a blow for the beginning of that series, and then I was able to come in and be fresh and make a big play."

But limiting any discussion of Weatherly to what he's done on the field is a tremendous disservice to his character. He's as well-rounded as any player in the NFL, and that starts with his upbringing.

"It's a combination of my mom and grandma," Weatherly said.

His mom, Carla, started her own business as a general contractor. His grandma, Dianna, earned degrees at Harvard and MIT.

"From a young age," Weatherly continued, "my mom would tell you that she always knew that I was destined for greatness - like any parent says about their kids, right? But she wanted me to be multifaceted because it's really easy as a young kid to be gifted in the sports realm, to be known as just an athlete.

"'He's the baller. He's the sports kid' - she didn't want me to be labeled as that. So she was like, 'You're gonna be great at anything you try or don't try it at all.' She was one of those moms.

"I was like, 'Alright, cool.' So whenever I try things, I try as hard as I can. I want to get better."

When Weatherly was young, he started playing instruments. He started with the recorder, much like everyone else in elementary school. Then, he said, he "made his way back" in band. He means this literally - as in his seating arrangement. He played the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, baritone sax, and tenor sax. Then in college, he learned drums and piano.

Of every instrument he's played, his least favorite was the tuba.

"Because you have to clean the spit valve. And if you forget to after a long period of time it gets nasty and it stinks - so bad," Weatherly said with a laugh.

These days, if Weatherly is going to play an instrument, it's the piano. He finds it calming, particularly Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." Learning it was a final for him in a college course.

"I like to play the beginning sometimes," he said.

Weatherly doesn't appear to take himself too seriously, which repeatedly comes through during "The Weatherly Report." While he sat in a chair like Lesley Stahl presenting "60 Minutes," the Vikings-produced segments were obviously lighthearted.

On one of the episodes, Weatherly learned how to craft a glass paperweight. On another, he used the skills he learned from his college major to film a game show at Mall of America.

"I studied sociology at Vanderbilt, so experimenting with humans is highly frowned upon. So I offered money just to see (what people would do)," Weatherly said. "I just talked to random people at the mall and gave them my own money. We were there for like an hour and it was crazy. We got some hilarious reactions, but just to see people being nice to each other felt good."

Weatherly has so many interests, it's difficult to distill them in one article. But he wants to be both an NFL player and a community asset, using tools he learned at Vanderbilt in sociology and corporate strategy.

"I'm planning on starting a nonprofit in the next couple of years that deals with that - taking recently laid off and unemployed individuals and retooling their skill set to put them back in the job market as quick as possible," Weatherly said. "Along with that, I have a reading program for kids - that's in KIPP Academy in North Minneapolis. I plan on expanding that, hopefully, to Charlotte, in the next couple months.

"I'm also working on a robotics program with Amazon - like Lego League. And I'm working on a financial literacy program for high schoolers because I think it's important to introduce the concept of money and how to be efficient with it before you actually get it."

It all comes off as is a lot for one person, but Weatherly doesn't think he'll be overextended. Some of that comes from what he's heard about some former players, who have felt lost after retirement.

"There are a lot of hours in the day, and I try to take advantage of them as much as possible," Weatherly said. "The time exists. I'm just efficient with it.

"So when this major piece of my life that you asked about, football, happens to come to an end - hopefully further down the line than sooner - that's a big chunk of my time gone. So what's gonna take that chunk?"

Weatherly, who turned 26 in March, currently sees football as his life's work, to be sure. But playing the game doesn't define him.

"Football is a major part of my identity, but it's not all of it," Weatherly said.

"It is an overwhelming majority of it. And I want it to be - because clearly, it's opening doors and I get the opportunity to come out here and potentially win a championship for the organization and do so much to provide for my family - my loved ones, my mom, my grandma. So it is my life, it's my identity. But I also have other things to support it."

So call him weird if you want. He says it about himself. And there aren't many who can cram all he can into a day, a week, a month, a year.

But all the things that make Weatherly different make him arguably the most interesting player in the NFL.

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