The single answer is Eric Weddle.
The two questions drawing that answer are: 1) What’s the best individual story going in Super Bowl 56? and 2) If you’re not a committed fan of either the Los Angeles Rams or the Cincinnati Bengals and you need a reason to root for one team on Sunday, assuming you haven’t laid stacks of cash down one way or the other on the game’s outcome, what would that reason be?
Weddle and Weddle. A double-dose of Weddle. A Weddle two-fer.
Not sure how many participants in Super Bowls through all the years have even vaguely attempted what the former Ute is doing. Not many, if any. He himself called it “the craziest story ever.”
“Things like this don’t happen all the time,” he said.
Like … well, never.
“I’m humbled by it all, and grateful.”
In short form, Weddle came out of retirement at the age of 37 to rejoin the Rams, who were in sore need of a boost in the dinged and depleted back end of their defense heading into the playoffs.
The veteran safety re-emerged after leaving pro football and a stellar and financially rewarding career in 2019 for honorable reasons — the intent of allowing his body and mind to be pieced back together again after playing 12 years in the NFL, after playing four years at Utah, and spending more time with his family, coaching and goofing with his kids, alternating taxi-driving services for the family with his wife, Chanel, living … life.
That last part is exactly what he did, what he was doing.
Until, on the turn of a dime, on the placement of a phone call, he didn’t and he wasn’t.
The game and, specifically, the Rams sent out a cry to Weddle with one urgent word: Help!
One Rams coach asked Weddle in so many words if he had morphed in retirement into the Pillsbury Doughboy. Given Weddle’s competitive nature, he should’ve already known. How many retirees build a basketball court onto their house and play regularly scheduled pickup games that often turn into veritable battles for very existence? The competitor’s response was that, no, he hadn’t.
Six days later, he was padding up for a game.
That’s right. On Jan. 11, Weddle moved himself from bumming around the house, from loading groceries out the back of the family SUV into the fridge and kitchen pantry, from playing those pickup hoop games, from watching NFL games on his overstuffed sofa, pounding ham sandwiches and powering down cold beverages, from playing fantasy football, like half the world out there, for two whole years, to suddenly starring for a team attempting to win a Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Who does that?
You know the answer.
The Rams started him deliberately, if that’s the word. He played 19 snaps in a wild-card game. Next, it was 60-plus snaps. He led the Rams’ defense in tackles in the NFC championship game against San Francisco.
“I felt good,” he said.
Now, he’s the team’s defensive quarterback, having lifted the secondary by way of his keen film study, his ability to read and recognize immediately what offenses are intending to do, by making plays. Weddle says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make was learning the Rams’ new (to him) terminology.
“It’s been a slow progression,” he said, knowing full well that there’s been nothing slow about it.
“And a lot of work,” he continued, nailing that truth. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life [as] over the last four weeks to get my mind, body ready for this.”
Part of that work has been what Weddle called, “waking muscles up.”
But it’s just as much his mental capacities that were needed.
Going back to his days playing nearly every skill position on the field as a four-year starter at Utah, that combo-pack of conscientiousness and capability was obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Another of his notable characteristics: Tenacity.
“I’m an all-in type guy,” he said.
That much was evident at Utah, where Weddle bubbled up as one of the program’s best players as a freshman in 2003 and shortly thereafter removed the “one-of” precursor. It was evident that he was Utah’s absolute best over his last few college seasons. And, in making that clear, he fought through multiple injuries, not allowing his pain to hamper his play.
Those injuries included the remnants of a ripped medial collateral ligament, a separated shoulder, a torn hamstring, and a broken elbow.
He played on — mostly as a safety, but also in specialized moments at cornerback, punter, punt returner, quarterback and slot back.
Back then, a defensive coach said of Weddle: “He’s a team leader and he’s accepted that role. He’s such a great athlete, he has great instincts, and he’s so mentally tough. He prepares for an opponent like no one I’ve ever been around.”
He expected his teammates to do likewise, and told them exactly that.
“I just want to win,” he said at the time. “My teammates know that’s what I’m all about. If we win a championship, then I’ve succeeded.”
The memory of those words stirred, again, as Weddle was interviewed this week in the run-up to Sunday’s game, as his comments were nearly identical.
He talked about trusting his preparation, his instincts, staying in the moment on every snap, not giving up big plays, the defense working in unison as an 11-member organism, filling his role, everybody filling their roles, about nothing being accomplished yet, not until the trophy has been hoisted.
“There’s a job to be done,” he said. “The job’s not finished. ... It’s going to be a huge challenge.”
But what’s happening now, after all the years, not even he could have found the enthusiasm for, the elasticity in his imagination to stretch this far.
After he retired, he figured he might have opportunities to return, but after the mental, physical, emotional tolls exacted by the game he’s loved for three decades, he thought hauling groceries, hanging with the kids, being normal was the better option.
But … what’s this, a peculiar kind of one-time, short-term, bring-in-the-reliever playoff setting? That intrigued him, and it’s paid off with his Super Bowl shot.
He’s certain that after Sunday, his playing days are done.
“I’ll be back home,” he said, “doing the family/kid duty.”
He added: “All the stars had to align for this to happen. I don’t see that happening again. … It’s cool being back, doing what you love to do. It’s been awesome to be back with the guys. It’s been a joy for me. ... I feel like I’m meant to be here in this moment.”
He reiterated the blessed insanity of the moment: “This is the craziest story ever. … I’m just doing what I can to be a Super Bowl champ.”
And then, he punctuated the story, at least until after the game, with one last concession, one final truth he could not deny:
“I’ve already won.”