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Nick Wass, AP
Baltimore Ravens free safety Eric Weddle stands on the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Baltimore.

SALT LAKE CITY — Eric Weddle, who is beginning his 12th year in the National Football League, is up and out the door every morning at 5:30, arriving at the Baltimore Ravens’ practice facility 90 minutes before his teammates.

He lifts weights, stretches and recovers in a cold tub, and that is just the beginning. Then there is a full day of meetings and practice. It is a routine he has maintained since he was drafted out of Utah. For years he has tried to recruit teammates to join him, but on the rare occasions when he coaxed a few to try it, none stuck with it until recently.

“It’s not for everyone,” says Weddle, as he drove to the team hotel the night before a game. “This year I’ve recruited a few guys and they’re doing it. They’ve seen how it helps me. It gets your body and mind going.”

Following the last of the team meetings, he stays behind by himself and studies film, sometimes arriving home after dark.

“The way I approach the game is to treat every day like it’s my last,” he says. “I get everything out of myself to get the most out of my dream. I never take anything for granted.”

Perhaps because of the extra work and preparation, Weddle has been remarkably durable, especially for a man of modest size (5-foot-11, 200 pounds). In a little more than 11 seasons, he has missed only seven games. He has played in all 16 regular-season games eight times. He also missed only one of 49 games at Utah.

“I’ve played through a lot of injuries that could’ve sat me down,” he says. “If I don’t push through an injury and my job gets taken away from me, I don’t think I could live with myself. I push through it. I can handle pain.”

Weddle has played through shoulder separations, acromioclavicular (AC) joint separations and injuries to his neck, hip and back. “As long as I can run, I can play,” he says. “I couldn’t not be out there. I love this game so much. I know what it takes.”

The 33-year-old Weddle is among the premier defensive backs in the NFL and one of the greatest players ever to come out of the Utah collegiate ranks. Only Merlin Olsen, Steve Young and Larry Wilson — the state's only Pro Football Hall of Famers — and Todd Christensen — who should be in the Hall — and Steve Smith — who will be in the Hall — rank ahead of him in NFL accomplishments.

Weddle is a five-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first-team All-Pro and a three-time second-team All-Pro. He has collected 29 interceptions (four returned for touchdowns), 785 solo tackles and 224 assisted tackles, and this past offseason he felt every one of them.

It took four months for the pain to go away. It hurt to get out of bed, it hurt to take steps down the stairs, it hurt to bend down and tie my shoes, it hurt to work out.
Eric Weddle

“This last offseason was a struggle, more than the others,” he says. “It took four months for the pain to go away. It hurt to get out of bed, it hurt to take steps down the stairs, it hurt to bend down and tie my shoes, it hurt to work out. I couldn’t even do some of the workouts I had always done. It was hard to wake up every morning knowing how much pain I was going to be in and having to get ready for next season. But a week before we reported in April, I started feeling better. Now I’m physically as good as I’ve ever been.”

He said this the day before the Ravens’ first game of the 2018 season, and he knew that meant the onset of more pain. “After Sunday, it’s not going to be fun for four months,” he said. “It comes with the territory.”

At first glance, it is not apparent what makes Weddle such an exceptional football player. He is hardly a prepossessing physical specimen. Urban Meyer, Utah’s head coach at the time, was skeptical when his assistant coach, Kyle Whittingham, wanted to sign Weddle out of the California high school ranks.

Whittingham recounted for PressBoxOnline.com that Meyer asked him, “Are you sure about this guy? Is this guy for real?'" As Whittingham explains it, this was “because he looked like 10,000 other high school players. I mean, there was nothing really special about him, just looking at him. … When you watched the tape, and when you watched him, he was a four-sport guy. There was nothing he couldn't do. I said, 'Trust me, Coach,' this guy is special.'"

Meyer had another reason to be skeptical; no one else was recruiting Weddle his senior year. He had been widely recruited as a junior by Pac-12 and Big Ten schools as a wide receiver and defensive back. The Utes were also recruiting him, but the competition was so fierce that they backed off.

As a senior, Weddle was moved to quarterback and the team’s performance dropped off, along with interest from recruiters. Not a single D-I school wanted him — except Utah, which renewed its pursuit when the competition dried up. “I had never thought of Utah,” Weddle says.

He signed with the Utes. “Otherwise, I would have gone to a JC,” he says.

By the time he was finished with his collegiate career in 2006, Weddle’s value was considerably different. The San Diego Chargers not only made him the 37th overall pick of the draft, they traded their second-, third- and fifth-round picks in the 2007 draft, plus their third-round pick in the 2008 draft, to move up in the second round to select him.

Largely underappreciated by the national media — blame it on Utah’s geographical location, its conference and his position — Weddle had had a phenomenal collegiate career. He was a four-year starter and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference, and a first-team All-American.

August Miller, Deseret Morning News
University of Utah's Eric Weddle picks up a fumble and returns it for a touchdown during Wyoming's 31-15 win over the University of Utah in Laramie, Wyoming, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006.

He was so valuable that the Utes moved him all over the field. He started at right cornerback, left cornerback, nickelback and strong safety and played running back and wildcat quarterback on offense throughout his senior season and part of his junior season (Whittingham has said Weddle could have been an all-conference wide receiver or running back). He also was the holder for field goal attempts and returned punts.

Weddle finished with 143 tackles (90 solo), 10 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, 23 pass deflections, 18 interceptions, nine forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and 10 offensive and defensive touchdowns. During his senior year, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns, one fumble for a touchdown, rushed for five touchdowns and passed for one touchdown. He gained 203 yards on 44 carries (4.6 yards per attempt) and completed two of four passes for 43 yards. In a game against Air Force, he played 90 plays.

“They’re cheating you, son,” Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry told Weddle after the game. "They ought to give you two scholarships."

Weddle was the best all-around football player in the country. Wyoming coach Joe Glenn told reporters, "He should win the Heisman Trophy … I sincerely mean that." (Weddle didn’t get a single Heisman vote.)

Weddle might not look the part, but he has extraordinary athletic skills. At the NFL combine, speed is measured by the 40-yard dash, but split times are taken every 10 yards. Weddle still holds the combine record for the 10-yard dash, along with two other players — 1.43 seconds. That acceleration — that burst of speed and that first-step explosiveness — is football speed. It gives Weddle the ability to break on the ball or a cutting receiver or a running back in the open field with lightning speed.

“I look like a regular guy, but I’m more athletic than any guy out there,” Weddle says.

Now combine that with his uncanny instincts and knowledge of the game and you have an All-Pro player who is worth the four-year, $26 million contract the Ravens offered him when he left the Chargers after the 2015 season.

“In the game, there are things I do or the way I react that I can’t explain and can’t teach,” he says. “When you get to this level, that’s what separates you. There are guys faster than me who can’t get to the ball faster than me because they don’t know what’s going on. Preparation, study, my mind … have separated me.”

At 33, Weddle is still thriving — the soreness notwithstanding — and he has certainly showed the Chargers they erred in letting him get away in free agency after he gave them nine sterling years, leading the team in tackles five times. They never made a serious attempt to sign him when his contract expired in 2015, and by then they had already alienated him anyway. It was a messy split.

Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP
San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle (32) warms up before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Jacksonville, Florida, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015.

The team seemed to go out of its way to insult him. They refused to offer him a contract extension and he skipped OTAs and made his displeasure known in the media. Weddle says the team told him he had a lot of mileage.

Then came the biggest blow: They fined him $10,000 for remaining on the field during halftime of a Week 16 game against the Dolphins with his team leading 23-0. He wanted to watch his daughter perform with a dance group. Weddle was outraged by the fine. Things went from bad to worse when the team told him there was no room for him on the team flight for the next road game and placed him on injured reserve even though he believed he was healthy enough to play.

“The Chargers are dead to me,” Weddle told reporters. “No one should be treated like that.”

Many said it was similar to the way the Chargers cut ties with two longtime, loyal superstars, Junior Seau and LaDainian Tomlinson.

Weddle entered the free-agent market and signed with the Ravens, who awarded him the contract of a younger player with fewer miles on his body. He flew back and forth between San Diego and Baltimore to attend offseason training sessions Monday through Thursday with his new team during the week while allowing his children to finish school.

When Weddle joined the Ravens, he shaved the long, scraggly black beard he had sported for several years to symbolize a fresh start, but his new teammates urged him to grow it again. He is now known as much for the beard — which hangs down below his facemask — as for his play. He began growing it in 2014 when he saw a photo of his father on a fishing trip sporting a beard. From there, he says, “It kind of grew into this mythical being in itself,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I roll with it and it's pretty awesome, it's unique."

As if to add a postscript to his parting shot to the Chargers, Weddle has been named to the Pro Bowl in both seasons with the Ravens.

He has two more seasons on his contract with Baltimore. “They hold all the cards,” Weddle says.

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Thinking back on his long, successful pro career, he says, “I’m still surprised when I think about it, when I sit back and look how far I’ve come and how long I’ve played. I’ve been lucky and blessed. I haven’t had many injuries — that’s a big hurdle for a lot of guys — and you have to be good. … I’ve always been driven to be the best. I never backed down, whether it was older kids or a new team. I was never scared, never intimidated, whether people liked me or not. I’m out to prove myself.”