Time for Gators' Weatherford to find his own identity

LAND O'LAKES

The August afternoon sun squeezed sweat from kids like juice from oranges. ¶ As the Gators went into a special teams drill, football coach John Benedetto shouted: Who's first? John Weatherford didn't hesitate to step up. ¶ The 2007 season was his slim window of opportunity to be the latest Weatherford teammate turned to. Weatherfords have been a foundation at Land O'Lakes since Will began playing in 1994. Sam, Drew and Joe followed. The next three seasons belong to sophomore quarterback to be Stevie, meaning Land O'Lakes football will go three decades with a Weatherford in uniform. John had always been a year behind Joe, so this was his year.

John took the handoff in practice, avoided a pair of linemen closing like locomotives and beat one more guy racing down the sideline. He couldn't escape John Wilhide. John felt a "big crunch" in his knee and screamed. He tried to get up, walk it off and play it cool. But his knee kept buckling and ultimately brought him to the ground.

The stubborn, stoic Weatherford began to crack. He didn't want to believe he was hurt, but he knew he couldn't walk this one off. Then he cried.

"My whole life was leading up to this moment," John said. "This was my senior year. I was going to get to lead the team, to be in the roles my brothers had been in before. That got taken away before my eyes before the season started."

Seven months later John's knee is repaired and, despite missing his senior season, he landed a scholarship at Division II West Georgia (near Atlanta), where he'll play linebacker under first-year coach Daryl Dickey. He'll also get to forge his own identity at a place where the Weatherford clan is unknown.

"(The injury) just kind of changed his demeanor and gave him a bigger picture of life," Will said. "Sometimes there's not answers to what happens to us, they just happen."

Big shoes to fill

John grew up in a house with big egos, and his older brothers left Land O'Lakes to accomplish big things.

Will is a state representative for District 61. Sam played at Fordham and has since moved to China. Drew is a senior quarterback at Florida State, and Joe will battle for the starting quarterback spot at UCF. Even younger brother Stevie had a breakout season as a freshman quarterback, capturing the county's attention with his natural instincts and strong arm.

John wanted to prove to his family he was somebody.

"My dad's always telling me you don't always have to play football or go to college," John said. "Even though I was always told that I always felt the pressure to be successful. I need to do these things not only because they want me to, which I think is a big reason, but I want them to look at me as someone contributing to the family.

"I just want them to look at me with respect more than me going out and playing for myself."

Will and his parents broke the news to John about the specifics of his knee injury and how his senior season would be wiped out. John locked himself in a bathroom and cried. Tears poured for hours as he stared at himself in the mirror and had an internal debate.

How would he go to college now? He spent five days a week all summer working out, drinking protein shakes, taking vitamin supplements, dropping 8 pounds. He had never been so committed to preparation, was in the best shape of his life, and now he felt useless.

He briefly denounced God, then he prayed. He fought off the anger and realized he could still walk on in college. He believed this was God's plan.

"He's matured so much since then," Will said. "For the first time in his life he realized football wasn't the most important thing. That was a good thing."

Making a fresh start

John had been recruited by USF, N.C. State and Wake Forest. Jim Leavitt came to see him practice. After his injury many schools dropped off, though Florida and UCF offered preferred walk-on status. He also had an offer from New Hampshire, but decided West Georgia was the right fit.

"When they came here to see him in the spring of his sophomore and junior years, word got out that he was a good ballplayer," Benedetto said. "He's a Weatherford, and that had something to do with it also.

"Even though he was injured we were still getting mail for him. I guess people were impressed with how he performed as a sophomore and a junior because that's the only film we sent off."

John made it back to competitive sports, helping the Gators basketball team in its final weeks. During his time away he got straight A's for the first time, Will said.

With a fresh attitude John will head to West Georgia this fall where people will hear the name Weatherford, and their first thought will be of John.

"His opportunity to shine his senior year was robbed from him," Will said. "I know that hurt him."

Izzy Gould can be reached at izzygould@gmail.com or (727) 580-5315.

Time for Gators' Weatherford to find his own identity 03/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 11:03pm]

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