AT DRAFT TIME, ANTHONY WEAVER WILL HEAR HIS NAME CALLED. THE?QUESTION?IS?WHEN
The eye in the sky don't lie. When reckoning time comes, players and coaches will tell you any performance, good or bad, can't be disputed if it's been captured on film. But from the Senior Bowl in January through individual workouts in March, NFL team reps toss that notion aside. They no longer judge prospects strictly by what they've seen on screen. For any player hoping to hear his name called on Day 1, what you've done in the past doesn't matter as much as what coaches and scouts say you're doing right now. Just ask Tony Weaver. We started watching the Notre Dame defensive tackle back in the fall of 2000. Since then, we've followed his progress at the Golden Dome, scouted him at the Senior Bowl, dogged him at the Combine and tracked his ride from first-rounder to third-round-and, just maybe, back up again.
SEPT. 23, 2000-NOTRE DAME VS. MICHIGAN STATE
The eye in the sky says go back to this game if you want to know about Anthony Weaver. He's just a junior, but in this, the best game of his college career, he draws the attention of NFL scouts for the first time. The versatile defensive end blends each element of his game into a solid package. On one play, Weaver explodes off the edge and slithers by the tackle to drop Jeff Smoker, the Spartans quarterback, for one of his two sacks. On another, he dips his shoulder, shoots a gap and makes a solo tackle in the backfield.
There's one particular sequence that's hard to miss. A tackle tries to cut-block him on a pass play, but Weaver discards him with humorous ease. In one seamless motion, he grinds the blocker's face into the turf, leapfrogs over him and heads upfield after the quarterback. When Smoker tries to throw over him, Weaver leaps into the air and comes down with an interception.
D-linemen don't come up with many INTs. But over the next two seasons, Weaver will get picks against Pitt and Boston College. "Tony has great hands," says Irish D-line coach Greg Mattison. "No one can chop-block him because he gets his hands down so quickly." You can't get to a guy's knees if you can't get past his hands.
Mattison tells another story involving Weaver's hands. It was Weaver's first game, as an 18-year-old freshman. "We were walking down the tunnel before the Michigan game," says Mattison. "I knew the kid was nervous, and to loosen him up I told him, 'Don't be trying to hold my hand or anything.'" Weaver was the first Notre Dame freshman D-lineman to start a season opener in 25 years. In the third quarter, Weaver forced a fumble that led to a touchdown in an Irish victory. "The kid played like crazy that day," says Mattison. And he did it against the defending co-national champion, before 80,012 people.
Four years later, on Dec. 1, 2001, against Purdue, Weaver starts his 34th straight game. As he leaves the field after Notre Dame's 24-18 victory, he's staked his claim as a genuine first-round prospect.
JAN. 26, 2002-MOBILE, ALABAMA, SENIOR BOWL
The week preceding the Senior Bowl is the first chance for pro scouts to get an up-close look at the 6'3", 295-pound Weaver. During practices, more than 200 NFL reps line the practice field, many standing only a few feet behind him, critiquing his every move. Weaver played end his last two years in college, but the scouts see him as a tackle on the pro level because of his lower-body strength and because, in college, he had more successs topping the run than rushing the passer. This will be his first action playing inside since his sophomore year. So the stakes are even higher. "I struggled early in the week," Weaver says. "You see a lot more double teams, and things happen a lot faster inside than they do on the outside."
On game day, Weaver's still getting acclimated to playing inside, and he's a step slow all afternoon. On one play, Tennessee tackle Fred Weary pancakes him. This is not the same player Nebraska guard Dan Waldrop saw when the Huskers played the Irish on Sept. 8. "That day," says Waldrop, "I hit him and my knees buckled. He stood me up and threw me. Actually dominated me." There is no domination today. Weaver plays only a half, and his slow start and zero-tackle, zero-sack performance have him falling from first-round to second-, maybe even third-round status. Detroit director of pro personnel Sheldon White notes Weaver is very solid in the run game and has enough lateral quickness to play tackle. "But he doesn't always play consistently," White says.
"I didn't have any stats that game!" says Weaver. "But I know my practices towards the end of the week were better than in the beginning."
FEB. 3, 2002-NEW ORLEANS, SUPER BOWL XXXVI
Weaver's chances of being a top pick are revived on this day, and it has nothing to do with any game or workout. Fans watch New England win the Lombardi Trophy while the other 31 teams focus on the Patriots defensive linemen, in particular tackles Brandon Mitchell and Richard Seymour. In a trend-happy league, New England's defense follows the blueprint of the Ravens, who won the big one a year earlier on the backs of their big tackles, Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. Today, the defensive tackle position-Tony Weaver's position-has been established as the pillar of the modern game.
There are two breeds of tackle. The first is called a one-gap player. He's the quick, Warren Sapp type, the one who slashes through his gap and burns up the backfield. Then there's the two-gap tackle, the run-stopper, the Tony Weaver type. He has the thankless task of occupying fat-butt guards and tackles and absorbing sweaty double teams so middle linebackers like Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis can take their three-digit tackle counts to the Pro Bowl. It's the two-gap tackle's job to go home happy and anonymous.
MARCH 1, 2002-INDIANAPOLIS, NFL COMBINE DAY 1
If Weaver wants to show he's the defensive tackle teams are looking for, he can't afford to be anonymous this week. And he knows it. As league reps look on, North Carolina's Ryan Sims, Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth and Washington's Larry Triplett are among the DTs who pass through the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Weaver is determined to remind scouts of the player they saw the past four seasons at South Bend, and not the one they saw in Mobile." They don't know how fast I am," he says. But he vows to show them the nimble tackle who picked off three passes in college, not the one who went statless in an all-star game.
Those picks bring a smile to Weaver's face. "Some of my favorite plays," he says. "You think someone might put me back in the secondary?" While he admits to being nervous, Weaver has a sober take on the evaluation process. "The way I see it, we all come here as third-rounders," he says. "You either move up or down based on what you do here." Weaver's movement hinges on what he does in front of the scouts on the field and how he conducts himself in a series of private interviews.
MARCH 2, 2002-COMBINE DAY 2
At the hotel, Weaver navigates through a cluster of small conference rooms, each housing a nylon-jacketed NFL coach. For the weekend, he's dressed like all the other players in a standard-issue charcoal-gray sweatshirt, with the characters DL 36 stenciled over his left pectoral muscle and WEAVER on the back. In one room, Browns coach Butch Davis peppers Weaver with questions: "What are your hobbies? Are you a leader?" Before he can answer either, Davis fires another: "What makes you a leader?" With the eye of a camera staring him down and no air circulating in the room, Weaver says this was more interrogation than interview. "I felt like I stole something," he says. There are 10 more coaches waiting to conduct their own interviews when he leaves Davis.
For up to a half-hour, each coach shucks him like an oyster, searching for flaws, seeking pearls of character. No matter his physical talents, all talk about player evaluation ends with the c-word. The fall of Lawrence Phillips, the tragic implosion of Rae Carruth, the puzzling antics of Randy Moss. All are on football minds as the draft approaches. The old cliche "football builds character" is turned on its ear here. It's character that builds football players-and football teams.
When you meet Weaver's parents, it's obvious where his character comes from. At the Combine only one set of parents waited to see how their son performed: Weaver's father, Ralph, stout, feisty and Irish; and his mother, Melanie, dignified, kind and Samoan. They met when Ralph was Melanie's drill sergeant in the Army 23 years ago.
After Tony left for college, Melanie had a plan to fill the empty house. "I told Ralph we should adopt a child," she says. Ralph's answer? "We need to adopt a motor home, is what we need to do." From their home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., they drove to 44 of Tony's 47 college games. Tony's face is an animated blend of his father's square jaw and his mother's dark eyes. "These are my best friends," he says. "My father is the most genuine person I know. And my mother is the most accountable."
That's how Weaver's college teammates describe him. Notre Dame junior defensive tackle Kyle Budinscak will tell you he's never met a guy as chill off the field and as eerily intense on it. He'll tell you that after one particularly embarrassing film session, when coaches rode him so hard he felt like quitting, Weaver draped a big arm around him and shared some words he'd heard from his dad: "Never let success go to your head and never let failure go to your heart." Budinscak will tell you he's starting because of Weaver.
NURTURING A BUDDING PRO ATHLETE IS NOT EASY. BUT WHEN IT'S DONE RIGHT, IT CAN BE A LOT OF FUN. ALAN GRANT