'You can't make this up': How 37-year-old Eric Weddle went from retired to expected Super Bowl starter

Jori Epstein

Los Angeles Rams All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey saw the text pop up on his phone the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 11.

“Call me,” Ramsey’s former teammate, 13-year NFL safety Eric Weddle, had messaged.

Ramsey glanced nervously at what was now three Weddle messages he hadn’t returned. Did a lecture await, another reminder of which tight end route he’d covered too leniently or which technique he hadn’t executed to standard?

“It was not what I was expecting,” Ramsey said. “It was like, ‘Oh, that’s what you want to talk about? Let’s go.’”

Ramsey was among a Southern California contingent whom the 37-year-old Weddle surprised that Tuesday afternoon when the Rams asked Weddle, who played for them in 2019 before retiring, to return to help chase a Super Bowl run. Rams safety Taylor Rapp had suffered a concussion; fellow safety Jordan Fuller had sustained a season-ending ankle injury in the regular-season finale. The Rams sought depth from a player whose fitness and capacity for playbook mastery were sufficient to suit up six days later.

Or as Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris had posed the question: “You’re not fat and out of shape, are you?”

Three games, 131 snaps and 13 tackles, including a key fourth-quarter tackle for loss later, Weddle has shown the Rams and NFL he isn’t. He’s helped Ramsey lead the Los Angeles defense to a Super Bowl berth, contagious energy and sharp film study lifting his own play — and that of the entire Rams defensive unit.

Family, friends and teammates describe Weddle’s improbable unretirement as simultaneously a dream they can’t believe and a stars-aligning-perfectly moment that’s utterly expected from the physically and mentally toughest person they know. As the biggest stage awaits, Weddle is leaning in.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “You can’t make this up.”

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Eric Weddle enters the field before the NFC championship game at SoFi Stadium.

‘Playing chess, he wants to take your soul’

Chanel Weddle knew her husband wasn’t joking.

“Because I wouldn’t believe him,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “So I knew he was serious and it was for real.”

Still, Chanel tried to wrap her head around the news. Just one day earlier, Eric had marveled at the size and speed of NFL players ... two years removed from his last snap. Now, he was ... joining them? His best friend, Morod Shah, was in shock when he answered a call for advice.

“I need your God-honest opinion,” Shah recalled the conversation to USA TODAY Sports. “Do you think I could play 10-15 snaps in the NFL tomorrow if I have to?”

Shah went blank.

“I was like, ‘If anyone can do it, it’s you,’” he said. “Whatever he does, whether it’s a pickup basketball game or golf game, or shoot, if you’re playing chess, he wants to take your soul.”

Weddle’s dozen NFL seasons were evidence of that tenacity. He started 16 of 16 contests in 10 different seasons, never missing more than three games in a year. Weddle amassed 1,179 tackles, 38 tackles for loss, 29 interceptions and 98 pass deflections while playing for the Chargers, Ravens and Rams.

So throughout the last two years, he was happy to reject a stream of offers to unretire. The Weddles had settled into a happy routine of organized chaos, Chanel and Eric switching which parent fixed breakfast for the kids while the other prepared lunch, each shuttling kids between activities, including football, basketball, volleyball and acrobatics. The “Weddle Taxi Service” became a term of endearment, not complaint. Eric didn’t miss the aches and pains.

For two years, Weddle satiated his schematic craving by coaching son Gaige’s 12-U Pop Warner team (the Broncos went 11-1 and won the championship, he wants you to know) and his competitive, athletic itches with weekly full-court basketball games at the Weddle home’s NBA regulation court. In retrospect, he and Shah say, those Wednesday night games maintained his fast-twitch muscles, short-area quickness and reactive backpedaling about as well as a leaned-down, retired player could.

Pair that fitness level with Weddle’s decision to watch every snap of the Rams’ and Ravens’ seasons — he took copious notes to both integrate into Pop Warner game plans and to offer unsolicited advice to former teammates like Ramsey — and Weddle’s steepest climb would be a shift in scheme language. That excited, rather than intimidated, him.

“I have a keen sense to look at a play and defense and pick it up quickly,” Weddle said. “When it comes to the defenses and intricacies and verbiage ... I’m able to apply it after I look at it maybe 1-2 times. So to be able to come in and learn the system in a day or two, go out and execute it at a high level, that’s why they reached out to me in the first place.

“Everyone has their unique traits about themselves, and I think that’s one of mine.”

What began as a 3 p.m. Tuesday gauging of interest progressed to an evening sign-off from head coach Sean McVay and the Rams front office. By roughly 8:30 p.m. local time Jan. 11, Weddle had agreed to a practice-squad contract. Chanel and Eric told their children at 9:30, and Eric fired up the engine to his car around 10.

He arrived in Thousands Oaks, California, 160 miles north of his Poway home, by 1 a.m.

And by 5:45 Wednesday morning, Weddle entered the Rams facility with seemingly boundless energy.

Slipping back into the system

Practice felt natural. Weddle embraced how the Rams’ defense invited players to read and react, leveraging instincts and short-area quickness. Fellow defenders joked he read calls so well he might as well have been on the team all season. Ramsey laughed when Weddle correctly read one look but used the verbiage from 2019 coordinator Wade Phillips’ system.

Even so, Ramsey and Weddle slipped back into the cohesion they’d discovered as teammates for nine games in 2019.

“If you know how smart he is and how he sees the game, how he views the game, we can speak a whole other language to each other,” Ramsey said. “He’s a detail guy.”

Teammates immediately appreciated Weddle’s insight in the film room and practices, Weddle eager — overeager? — to assess how this feeling would translate to the game.

He says he played his first two snaps in the wild-card game vs. Arizona “way too fast, overzealous.” Then he settled down. The Rams blew out the Cardinals 34-11. Los Angeles coaches pulled Weddle after 19 snaps, unwilling to stress his body given what was a 28-0 lead.

But at Tampa Bay the next week, he played 61 snaps.

Weddle contributed three tackles on a second-quarter drive that would fizzle, including a 1-yard stuff of running back Leonard Fournette three snaps before a missed 48-yard field goal attempt. The record book would note just one more tackle in the game, on a 42-yard gain by tight end Rob Gronkowski. But Rams safety Nick Scott credited Weddle's communication and film study as helping Scott anticipate what became an intercepted pass from Brady to Gronkowski. The Rams withstood an attempted Bucs rally, and Los Angeles won 30-27.

By the NFC championship game, Rams coaches elevated Weddle to a starting role. He played every defensive snap and notched a team-high nine tackles, including a key tackle for loss. San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had handed the ball off to running back Elijah Mitchell with 11:23 remaining in the fourth quarter with San Francisco leading 17-14. 

Weddle blew up the middle of the field to down Mitchell for a loss of 1. The 49ers punted on the drive, and Los Angeles subsequently connected on a 40-yard field goal to tie the game.

San Francisco wouldn’t score again, the Rams edging them 20-17 to advance to the Super Bowl.

“Go, read, react,” Weddle described his play. “Eliminate and anticipate.”

‘Craziest story ever’

Weddle’s comeback isn’t complete. He tells family, friends and himself that after Sunday, “the clip will be empty.” No next game or season to save himself, no priority bigger than winning a ring he didn't earn in 12 prior seasons. He has been sore – "These old man bones need to get treatment,” he told Shah – but his neck and frame have just one contest left, and Chanel estimates he’s regained 8-10 pounds to absorb hits.

Eric is now studying the Bengals intently, marveling at quarterback Joe Burrow’s combination of moxie and coverage recognition, the Bengals receiving corps’ explosive threats — and particularly rookie Ja'Marr Chase’s knack for racking up yards after the catch. He lauds second-year receiver Tee Higgins’ jump balls and tough catches over the middle, also in tune with under routes, pivots and third-down catches that he remembers Tyler Boyd flashing even before Weddle retired.

“They’ll exploit any mishaps we have,” he says, “coverages or communications if we’re not on our game.”

The Weddle Taxi Service will be on its game this weekend, too, ensuring 10-year-old Silver doesn’t desert her trio in an acrobatics meet in the Los Angeles area on Saturday before the family arrives at SoFi Stadium decked in Rams swag on Sunday.

“Chanel and I try to teach our kids: Opportunities come, and it’s whether you make the most of them,” Eric said. “You’ve got to take it one day at a time but also understand the opportunity that you’re here (and) this doesn’t happen, being retired for a couple years and being back now in the Super Bowl. Like, nah.

“So I’m just trying to do whatever I can to make it a reality and be a Super Bowl champ.

“This is the craziest story ever.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.