For love and the game

2012-02-04T23:45:00Z 2012-02-12T03:39:50Z For love and the gameBy Courtney Linehan courtney.linehan@nwi.com; (219)933-3367 nwitimes.com

INDIANAPOLIS | Candlestick Park was a wet, muddy mess when Zak DeOssie snapped the football to Steve Weatherford for a game-winning, Super Bowl bid-clinching, 31-yard field goal in overtime. The ball slipped low to the ground, and securing it against the bluegrass would be easy as balancing a banana upright on an oil slick.

Weatherford wasn't fazed.

"My brain is working at such a high rate, I don't think I realize how important some of the things I do really are," he says. "Holding that field goal, everybody's like, ‘Man, you must have been so nervous,' but to be honest, I was so jacked up from all the adrenaline pumping through my body, I don't remember half of it."

Weatherford's become a cult hero this week, for all the right reasons. Born in Crown Point but raised in Louisiana and Terre Haute, he famously collects teammates' gently worn cleats and ships them to kids who would otherwise wear sneakers to football practice. He has an uncanny ability to remember everyone around him, whether it's a reporter from three teams back or the kids in his old hometown. And as DeOssie points out, "the air of confidence exuding from him is contagious."

Then there's that hold, flawlessly executed in the wind and rain before 70 million television viewers, and Weatherford's exuberance as he raced across the field, grinning like mad and shouting profanity for the entire world to lip-read after kicker Lawrence Tynes made the field goal.

Yet there's a side to the Giants' punter's story few know. It's of a kid whose boundless energy turned out to be a learning disability that threatened to change his wildly infectious personality. It's of a mother fighting to keep her son focused, a father determined to channel his hyperactivity, and of the life of the party growing into a family man who loves his children more than the game that's taken him from rural Indiana to one of sports' greatest stages.

"At the end of the day, those are the only people that really care about me," Weatherford says. "I know I could have the worst game in Super Bowl history and my son would still love me."

 

'He was definitely high-wired'

Last summer, Laura Weatherford enrolled her 3-year-old son, Ace, in his first children's soccer league — and signed his dad up to coach.

Steve Weatherford remembers his own father, Sam, reading library books on soccer so he could coach Steve's first team. He wanted the same bond with his own little boy.

"It was special for me to be able to share that with him, the way my dad was always there for me as a father," Steve says. "That's something he's passed down to me: how important it is to spend that time with your kids."

Sam Weatherford grew up on Burr Street in Crown Point, and attended Lake Central High School. He and his wife, Lisa, moved back to the region after college and lived here when their second son was born in 1982.

Six months later, Steve could crawl behind couches, and soon he was climbing over them and running across the house. As a toddler he wanted a weight set, so Sam and Lisa bought a plastic barbell that could be filled with water to provide a hint of resistance. At 3 years old, they enrolled him in his first youth soccer league, Sam signing up to coach. Yet no matter how much he ran, how much he played outside with his brother, Steve's energy never waned.

He loved watching work-out montages in "Rocky" and "The Karate Kid," and would run around the house doing push-ups and sit-ups and imitating Daniel Larusso.

Around Steve's fifth birthday, Lisa noticed other oddities in Steve's personality. He needed constant discipline, and no punishment seemed to break his strong will. He would run ahead at the grocery store, never patient to wait with his mom. He began making clicking noises, almost as if entertaining himself.

"I started reading and praying a lot," Lisa says, and soon she identified the signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Worried medication would curb their son's appetite and stunt his growth, the Weatherfords tried controlling Steve's ADHD with an additive-free diet and exhaustive exercise. Steve identifies that as pivotal decision that would form him into a determined athlete with a particularly keen understanding of how nutrition affects the body.

"My mom went to the trouble of putting me on this crazy, wicked-strict diet," says Weatherford, now 6-foot-3, "which is probably why I had a six-pack in fourth grade."

It was the Feingold Program, a plan that eliminates artificial coloring, flavoring, sweeteners and preservatives from the diet. The concept is to feed children what their grandparents might have eaten, because the body was designed to process all-natural food.

Then there were the sports. Sam continued coaching Steve's soccer teams until he graduated high school, but also enrolled him in basketball and track. Lisa would take him for bike rides every morning before school, hoping to wear him down enough to sit still in class.

"He was definitely high-wired," Sam Weatherford says.

'People couldn't help but be infatuated with him'

By high school Steve had grown into a mischievous teen known to charm his way out of scrapes. He played four varsity sports; in the fall he would go to the weight room during the day and kick on the football field until soccer practice began. 

"I never did figure out why he worked out that much — whether it was for football, for soccer, for track or for the girls," says Wayne Stahley, Weatherford's high school football coach at Terre Haute North. "I had a feeling it was for the girls."

He once kicked a ball so hard it crossed two football fields and hit an assistant coach in the groin.

Another time he kicked onto a pitched roof to practice getting more height on his punts, then climbed on top of the building to retrieve footballs that got stuck.

At 15, he and a neighbor kid, Jess Huffman, sneaked behind a pool shed to smoke cigars and were caught by the neighbor's dad. Steve was impressed when Jess' dad didn't tell his conservative parents.

"He was always super hyper, but my mom loved him," Huffman says. "People couldn't help but be infatuated with him because he was such a good guy — even though he was bouncing off the walls like a bouncy ball."

Weatherford spent so much time in the weight room, Stahley would banish him as a form of punishment. Yet the whole school was benefiting from his fanatical fitness routine. When the boys basketball team faced Bloomington North and future North Carolina power forward Sean May, coaches assigned the skinny-but-cut Weatherford to guard 6-foot-9, 250-pound May.

"We would have beaten them," Stahley says, "had Steve not fouled out."

In the summer of 2000, as he entered his senior year, Weatherford attended a kicking camp at the University of Illinois. The Illini had a four-year starter returning, but special teams coach Greg McMahon liked the loud mouth from Terre Haute enough to risk a scholarship on him, which was uncommon for specialists.

Weatherford liked the size of Illinois' campus, then-coach Ron Turner and the proximity to his family in Terre Haute. In February 2001, he signed with Illinois.

"We needed a punter who would come in, redshirt, and in a perfect world become a four-year starter for us," McMahon says. "Steve, with his overall athleticism, was a guy we really liked."

 

'You're only as good as your last game'

Weatherford saw a familiar neighbor when he walked into the Giants' lockerroom for the first time after signing with the team on July 29. He'd been assigned the locker next to tackle Dave Diehl, another Illinois graduate he'd known since they two were teens.

"For the past year me and him have laughed and told stories about college," Diehl says. "When he came in, Steve being who he is, people were kind of shocked. But I've known him for so long, I know it's just Steve.

Weatherford made a quick impression on his college teammates as well. At a school dominated by Chicago-area students, he was unapologetic about his love of country music, whiskey-Cokes and camouflage. A two-sport athlete who also competed in the heptathlon, Weatherford became infamous after wearing his track singlet to a college party.

Football coaches imposed a no-dipping rule after television cameras caught him spitting tobacco juice on the sidelines at a game.

Yet with the Illini finishing 11-35 during the four years Weatherford played, he had plenty of chances for on-the-field recognition. He graduated with school records for career-punt average, season-punt average, and in the heptathlon. He showed his versatility, too, when Turner's staff was fired and new coach Ron Zook asked him to change his step pattern for his senior season.

He went undrafted in 2006, but by then McMahon had landed on staff at the New Orleans Saints and fought to pick him up. When the veteran incumbent got injured, the Saints signed him off the practice squad.

It was the first of four teams Weatherford would play for before landing with the Giants during free agency last summer.

"Very few guys at the punter or kicker positions get drafted by a team, play there for 10 years, then retire," McMahon says. "A lot of guys play for a team, get cut, play for another team, get cut. It's a difficult nut to crack.

"That's the world we live in in this league -- you're only as good as your last game, and quite frankly, your last punt."

 

'That's something I want to be for my own kids and my wife'

Weatherford's last game was superb. On a weekend when specialists took center stage in both the AFC and NFC championships, Weatherford punted 12 times for an average of 46.4 yards in the NFC championship against the 49ers. Then there was that hold at the end of the game, the one where Tynes secured the overtime win.

Weatherford slipped and slid across the field, arms raised, voice trilling, profanity-laced joy oozing from every pore.

"When you feel like you're in direct correlation to a win, when you feel like -- without me I don't know if we would have won the game -- that feels good," Weatherford says. "I'm not throwing the game-winning touchdown, but if you can hem up a returner and really change field position for your defense, that's obviously going to change games."

What hasn't changed, not that much, is the punter's personality. He credits that to Laura, the wife he met at 19 and has steadied him in transition to five teams in four cities in six years. And to his son, Ace, daughter, Carney, and the baby due next September, who give him responsibility an unconditional love.

He remembers his own dad giving up the chance for extra money and a cozier life so he could spend time with his family. Now when he goes to the gym to work out, Weatherford often brings his own son, who has his own toy weights, so Ace can learn the importance of the hard work that got Dad to the big stage, and the love that will be there when the ride is done.

"We didn't have tons of money, but I always knew my dad, when he got home from work he was going to play with me," Weatherford says. "He was a great father, a great provider for me and my two sisters.

"That's something I want to be for my own kids and my wife."

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