Thursday, February 2, 2012
Weatherford a punting contradiction
By Rich Cimini ESPNNewYork.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- This is Steve Weatherford, the New York Giants' free-spirited punter:
He likes to walk naked around the locker room, startling teammates by jumping into their conversations with, "Hey, guys, what's up?" His chiseled torso is covered by tattoos, including: "Country Grown in the USA."
He blasts Metallica and Nirvana from the Bose stereo in his locker. He pranks unsuspecting teammates by firing icy, wet cloths into their faces. His locker still is filled with holiday decorations, including lights, a blow-up Santa Claus and a Charlie Brown-like Christmas tree.
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That is the Weatherford most of us know, the on-the-edge wacko who vaulted to near-cult status by screaming at the conclusion of the NFC Championship Game, "I'm going to the f------ Super Bowl!" Lip-reading prudes across America blushed in front of their television sets.
But there's another Weatherford.
He's the guy who walks around the locker room with a shopping cart, collecting gently used sneakers and cleats that he donates to underprivileged kids in his hometown of Terre Haute, Ind.
The guy who sends autographed items to his old high school, which conducts auctions and gives the proceeds to needy families that can't pay their electric bills.
The guy who participates in celebrity fashion shows just so he can keep the designer clothes and send them home for kids to wear.
Weatherford is a contradiction, a cross between The Boy Next Door and Kid Rock.
He happens to be a pretty good punter, too, not to mention a sure-handed holder for kicker Lawrence Tynes. On Tynes' overtime field goal in the NFC title game, Weatherford snared a low-and-inside snap, calmly placing the ball into position on the soggy grass in Candlestick Park.
When it sailed through the uprights, he proceeded to run around the field like a college kid on spring break, helmet off, his face frozen in a euphoric state.
Twelve hours later, in the quiet of his New Jersey home, Weatherford -- family guy -- was greeted by his 4-year-old son, who woke up and declared, "Daddy, we're going to the Super Bowl!"
Like father, like son, sans the F-bomb.
"He doesn't care about societal norms," said long snapper Zak DeOssie, one of Weatherford's closest friends on the team. "He just wants to be himself -- and he is."
Weatherford has bounced around the NFL, going from the New Orleans Saints to the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Kansas City Chiefs to the New York Jets to the Giants. It's the itinerant life of a kicker, not a pleasant way to live.
When he got cut by the Saints, he was pulled off the team bus and handed a flight-home itinerary by a team official, written on a paper napkin. He kept the napkin as a source of motivation.
Now, after reaching the AFC Championship Game in back-to-back years with the Jets, Weatherford finally has reached the Big Dance.
"I'm trying to soak everything in, because you don't know if it's ever going to happen again," he said Thursday at the Giants' media session. "I'm having fun. It's every little boy's dream to play in the NFL and go to the Super Bowl."
At times, Weatherford acts like a kid, doing his own thing. It took him a little time to get used to The Giant Way. Early on, he showed up to a team meeting with a bowl of soup. That's a no-no in Tom Coughlin's buttoned-down world; no food in meetings. For the first road trip, he wore sneakers. Another no-no.
Remember, he came from the Jets, where coach Rex Ryan gives his players plenty of freedom.
"He was used to doing it a different way," Giants special-teams coach Tom Quinn said. "He probably wasn't used to as much structure as Tom values."
Weatherford adapted but still has managed to maintain some of his quirky personality. He and DeOssie are always playing practical jokes on each other. We're talking about covert windshield-wiper removal or perhaps the old laundry-bin-in-the-locker trick. DeOssie has been known to bombard the bathroom stall with wet paper towels, adding a twist to the phrase, "Sitting duck."
Weatherford pushes the envelope, sometimes stripping naked and parading around the locker room, nonchalantly.
"Steve will show up to a conversation, naked," DeOssie said. "We're like, 'What are you doing?' I think he has an issue with nudity. But that's Steve, he's just being himself."
On Thursday, Weatherford tweeted a picture of himself, naked from the waist up, sitting in a cold tub at the Giants' practice facility in Indianapolis. His tweet: "This can't be healthy for your reproductive organs."
He was the same way with the Jets, where he kept a cross-bow in his locker and made teammates laugh with his off-color T-shirts. He befriended quarterback Erik Ainge, who eventually was thrown out of the league because of his drug and alcohol addictions. They were quite a tandem.
Ainge, who revealed his drug use in an interview last spring with ESPNNewYork.com, said he "partied with" Weatherford. But he insisted Weatherford remained under control, always suggesting sober activities instead of boozing in bars.
"He's similar to me," Weatherford said. "We're very impulsive, with addictive personalities. Luckily for me, I met my wife at 19. I didn't go down the path he went down."
Weatherford is a health and nutrition nut, spending more time in the weight room than many of the linemen. He got his first weight-lifting set when he was 5.
He's hardcore in just about everything he does. But there's another side to him, a softer side.
On Tuesday, Danny Tanoos, the superintendent of Vigo County Schools in Terre Haute, received two large boxes from Weatherford's mother. The boxes were filled with 40 pairs of athletic shoes, collected from the Giants.
Soon, kids were walking around in Justin Tuck's sneakers and Hakeem Nicks' cleats. They felt like Giants.
"When the kids put them on, they feel like they're in the Super Bowl," Tanoos said in a phone interview. "You should see the smiles on their faces. They're beaming."
Giants' punter Steve Weatherford was honored in his hometown of Terre Haute, Ind. during Super Bowl week.
Terre Haute has fallen on hard times. The Pfizer pharmaceutical company pulled out of town, taking 800 jobs. It dented the local economy. The poverty level is 26 percent, double the state average, and 54 percent of the students in the school district receives free or reduced lunches.
So Weatherford tries to help.
He sent an Eli Manning-autographed football, and that fetched $850 at an auction. Weatherford signed a football, and that brought in $625. The money went directly to needy families in the area.
"He's a true servant of the community," said Tanoos, 54, one of Weatherford's closest friends. "He gives them hope."
On Tuesday, the community gave back.
On short notice, Tanoos organized a school pep rally for Weatherford, who made the one-hour drive with DeOsssie and Tynes. More than 2,000 showed up in the gymnasium. The band played. The mayor gave a speech, proclaiming it Steve Weatherford Day in Terre Haute. Weatherford T-shirts were handed out -- red and blue, Giants colors.
The football team -- the North Eagle Patriots -- stood up and yelled, "These Patriots are for the Giants."
Weatherford stepped to the microphone, and the iron-pumping, heavy-metal-listening, tattoo-covered tough guy broke down. His friends had never seen him that emotional.
"You're back where it started," Weatherford said. "I spent so many hours in that gym, so many hours on that field and so many hours in that weight room. It was the culmination of everything. I saw all those kids, and it looked like me 12 years ago."
Afterward, Weatherford took his teammates' to his old house, driving past storefronts with "Welcome Home, Steve" and "Go Giants!" signs. They received a quiet, home-cooked meal from his mom -- jambalaya -- and they headed back to the madness of the Super Bowl, to prepare for the New England Patriots.
Weatherford left plenty behind.
On Thursday, Tanoos checked his inbox and discovered an e-mail from a teenaged student, an African-American young man named Shaun, whose father is in prison. His family life is upside down, but the other day he showed up at school wearing dress slacks with a shirt and tie -- and a big smile. The clothes were a donation from Weatherford, who had worn them in a fashion show.
Tanoos read the e-mail and was moved to tears. The student thanked him, and thanked Weatherford, saying he never dreamed he'd be so fortunate.
"If you don't mind," the letter concludes, "I'd like to give you a hug."