Eric Weddle is one of those feel-good stories that Rochester tight-end-turned-broadcaster Roland Williams has followed closely in recent weeks. Late in the season, when a rash of injuries depleted the Los Angeles Rams secondary, coach Sean McVay rang Weddle to see what kind of shape the 37-year-old defensive back was in and if he would be interested in coming out of retirement. Weddle took all of a nanosecond to say ‘yes,’ and now finds himself on an incredible journey that has seen him trek from sofa to Super Bowl.
“Guy thought it was all over, but it wasn’t,’’ said Williams, the former East High, Syracuse University and Rams standout. “Good story for all us old guys.”
A story for the ages and aged. A story worth following when the Rams host the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl this Sunday.
In the years immediately following his retirement from the NFL in 2005, Williams occasionally fantasized about making a similar comeback. He doesn’t anymore. These days, he’s quite content holding a microphone rather than a football or a block. “At the ripe, old age of 46, I’m an antique,’’ he joked. “I’m officially done with that stuff.”
Not that he would have time for a comeback any way. The man’s just too busy juggling his many entrepreneurial and philanthropic ventures. A decade ago, Williams moved to Southern California, where he contributes to Rams post-game coverage for an ABC television affiliate and operates several businesses, including a recently launched and highly successful medical supply company. And he continues to stay true to his Rochester roots, flying cross-country once a month to mentor at-risk middle and high school students at the Champion Academy he founded seven years ago. “I’m still bi-coastal Roland,’’ he said, chuckling. “I’m still living my life on Pacific and Eastern Standard Time.”
And still bleeding Rams yellow and blue. Although he spent eight years in the NFL with three different teams, his most memorable moment came with the Rams, who drafted him in the fourth round out of Syracuse after he had earned All-Big East Conference honors as a senior in 1997. On January 30, 2000, Williams fulfilled a dream, becoming the first player from Section Five to win a Super Bowl, as the Rams, then based in St. Louis, outlasted the Tennessee Titans, 23-16.
“As a player, there is nothing better than playing in and winning the big one,’’ he said. “A lot of guys never get the chance. I’m just blessed I got mine.”
Though quarterback Kurt Warner, dual-threat running back Marshall Faulk and wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce received the lion’s share of the credit for a record-setting Rams offense that became known as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” Williams pitched in considerably. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end was a punishing blocker, often springing Faulk free on long runs, or giving Warner an extra second to complete a downfield pass. There were occasions when Williams got in on the fun, too. During that championship season, six of his receptions went for touchdowns and another 14 resulted in first downs. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see an offense as dominant as that one,’’ he said. “There was such a high probability of us scoring every time we touched the ball. I do see some similarities with this year’s team. With (quarterback) Matthew Stafford and receivers like Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham, Jr., they definitely have some firepower.”
Enough firepower, in fact, to merit a nickname of their own: “The Greatest Show on Surf.”
Williams likes this team’s moxie. He was impressed by how the Rams didn’t panic after falling behind by two touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game against their division-rivals, the San Francisco 49ers. Led by Stafford, Kupp and Beckham, Los Angeles stormed back to win the game and earn its second Super Bowl berth in four seasons. “I’m especially happy for Stafford,’’ Williams said, referring to the quarterback who had spent his first 11 NFL seasons with the woebegone Detroit Lions before being acquired by the Rams a year ago. “He’s always been super-talented. He just wasn’t surrounded by teams in Detroit that allowed his talents to blossom. He’s a humble, hard-working guy without a big ego. It’s great to finally see him on a team he can take all the way.”
The Rams had called L.A. home for nearly five decades before bolting for St. Louis in 1994. Establishing a relationship with a generation of fans who grew up without an NFL home team takes time. “The Rams have only been back five or six seasons, so both the fans and team are still getting to know one another,” Williams said. “Plus, you have to understand that L.A. has a championship pedigree that’s been spearheaded by the Lakers. So, there’s higher-than-normal expectations here, and a ton of other things people can turn their attention to. I think the opening of SoFi Stadium (in 2020) has helped make it more real. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight, but interest is growing rapidly, and winning it all certainly will speed up that growth.”
Williams’ son, Justice, is among the new Ram converts. Like his father, Justice loves watching the game and playing it. Last fall, the high school sophomore earned all-league honors as a 6-foot-3 wide receiver at Oaks Christian, a private school in suburban L.A. College recruiters have begun taking notice. “He’s far better than his old man was as at that age,’’ Roland said. “Definitely a lot faster. And the kid’s still growing. The doctors say he might reach 6-7, 6-8.”
Roland likes what he’s seen from the overachieving Bengals, but believes their wunderkind quarterback, Joe Burrow, will have a tough time against relentless and punishing pass-rushers Aaron Donald and Von Miller. In his admittedly biased analysis, Williams sees the Rams pulling away to win it all. And if that happens it will be difficult to determine which is more luminous – the diamonds in Williams’ Super Bowl ring or the smile on his face.
“I’m happy to share the distinction of being a Super Bowl champion Ram with the guys on this year’s team,’’ he said. “It will be great if they can experience what we did.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.