The minutes before meetings in the Vikings defensive line room are time for casual chatter, for the members of what might be the NFL’s best defensive front to get to know one another.
It’s not a group short on personalities, with two players born on Caribbean islands (Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter), a defensive tackle (Tom Johnson) who’s played for teams in three countries and the ever-boisterous Everson Griffen. Increasingly, though, the focus of fascination is second-year defensive end Stephen Weatherly.
“We found out today he’s played nine instruments,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Right now, he’s on a major kick with Bitcoin. We’re in the [locker room] one day, and a couple of the offensive linemen told him, ‘All right — you’ve got 60 seconds to tell me about Bitcoin.’ This guy went off on a rant, and within 10 seconds, I get up, and I’m like, ‘I kind of want to hear about this.’ ”
One day, it might be the investments Weatherly has made in mining Bitcoin. The next, it might be his musical background, his love of chess, the fact his can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes, his study of Italian cooking, his travels to Germany in high school or his time as the captain of his high school robotics team.
Through all of it, his teammates are learning Weatherly is part pass rusher, part Renaissance man.
“The guys love him,” Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “They give him a bad time about some of the stuff he’s involved in, but there are things he’s involved with that they get interested in. … I think that’s good for the guys in my room, that it’s not just about video games and football. There’s more to life than that.”
For Weatherly, there always has been.
His grandmother, Dianna Johnson, holds certificates from Harvard and MIT, where the thesis she wrote about safe summer programs for children inspired the Atlanta city government’s response to the series of murders that killed 28 African-American children, teenagers and adults from 1979 to ’81. Later in her career in the Atlanta mayor’s office, part of Johnson’s job was coordinating events for dignitaries such as George H.W. Bush and Nelson Mandela. Weatherly’s mother, Carla, went into business for herself as a general contractor, bringing her son to job sites “as soon as I knew the difference between a Phillips and a flathead [screwdriver].”
Weatherly took apart his first Xbox to see how the circuits worked, hiding it under his bed when he couldn’t figure out how to put it back together. His high school robotics team qualified for the national championships, and Weatherly planned to major in mechanical engineering until it became incompatible with the demands of football at Vanderbilt. He started playing the flute in his elementary school band, eventually moving to clarinet, and then on to trumpet, trombone, baritone, tuba and tenor saxophone. In college, he learned to play steel drums and piano.
“My mother and my grandmother always preached, ‘First, you’re Stephen, and then you’re these other things on top of that,’ ” he said. “Whatever I showed interest in, they allowed me to go explore it.”
Raised to take chances
After graduating from Blayton Business College and working a handful of jobs in her 20s, including as a programmer for TV Guide, Johnson began her career with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson in 1976, working to improve the city’s criminal justice system and community development efforts as part of the mayor’s crime analysis team.
Her work for Jackson — the first African-American mayor of any major Southern city — led her to a Community Fellows program at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning from 1979-80. It put her in an eight-person cohort, with people from Boston, Cincinnati, Seattle, Puerto Rico and West Africa, in the throes of the racial unrest spurred by Boston’s busing crisis in the 1970s and ’80s.
“It was like a foreign country — nothing like Atlanta,” she said. “Racism in the South and racism in the North are not the same. I had never seen the kind of racism that goes on in the Northeast at that time. It was horrible. But, I didn’t know to be afraid. All I knew is, ‘I’m here, and I’m going to make the most of it.’ ”
Johnson returned with her three girls to Atlanta once the MIT program concluded, implementing her thesis as part of the city’s “Safe Summer ’81” program to keep children active and out of the streets during the Atlanta youth murders crisis.
In July 1981, while her daughters were on a trip to the Bahamas — as the result of a connection Johnson had made while working on Atlanta’s Caribbean Carnival — Michael Jackson and his brothers came to town for a benefit concert.
“My greatest goal at that point was to be back here in time for the concert,” Carla Weatherly said. “It’s really been a blessed life. We’ve had so many different experiences that you take for granted.
“We grew up in a neighborhood where the neighbor across the street was Hank Aaron — while he was getting to 755 [career home runs]. A couple other Atlanta Braves players, Maynard Jackson, [civil rights leader and future Atlanta mayor] Andrew Young, the president of Morehouse College — these are our neighbors. Doctors, lawyers. We were living the ‘Cosby’ life long before ‘Cosby’ came on TV.”
Carla Weatherly said her upbringing “definitely gave you motivation to accomplish something positive in life,” and after earning degrees in math and architectural science, she had an epiphany while looking at the gleaming Atlanta skyline.
“I said, ‘I’m not sure I’m that creative. But I bet I can make sure they’re built properly,’ she said.
And after working the first three years of Stephen’s life as the superintendent for a minority-owned general contractor, Carla set out into business for herself, renovating three houses her mother purchased with money from a buyout at PNC Mortgage.
It gave her control of her own schedule, and the opportunity to help Stephen pursue whatever passions interested him.
“Even as a toddler, he showed interest in so many things,” Carla Weatherly said. “He couldn’t read, but he could look at the instructions and would know how to put together his little toys. I guess I was attentive; any time he showed interest, I just went ahead and found something that would cater to that interest.”
Flourishing in football
In between time on the chess team, band practice and robotics leagues, Stephen Weatherly first gravitated toward baseball. It didn’t take long for him to show he might be better suited for another sport.
“When he would catch, the first question he would ask was, ‘Can I knock [the runner] down when he comes into home plate?’ ” said Charles Taylor, Weatherly’s youth baseball coach. “He said, ‘When I’m sliding into home, can I knock over the catcher?’ I was like, ‘Stephen, maybe you should go play football.’ ”
He played defensive end, outside linebacker and wide receiver for three years at North Atlanta High School, where he also starred in basketball and track before transferring to Shiloh High for his senior year. His three years at Vanderbilt saw him record 26 sacks, playing defensive end for two years before switching to linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
The Vikings drafted Weatherly in the seventh round last year, adding him to their stockpile of lanky pass rushers on Patterson’s belief he could make a successful return to defensive end. He was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster at the end of last season, and after a year in the team’s strength program, the 23-year-old has Patterson’s belief he might be next in the team’s lineage of dynamic pass rushers.
“He catches on fast,” Patterson said. “Now, some of the things we do technique-wise, he had to retrain his body. Some of the things you do as a defensive lineman aren’t natural. We had to retrain him to take the proper steps, punch with violent hands and feel an offensive lineman’s body. So those were the things that took time. But as far as where to line up, what it was called and what he was supposed to do, he could spit that out, no problem.”
And when new teammates interact with him, what do they think?
“Oh, yeah, straight nerd,” Weatherly said with a smirk. “They’re like, ‘You play chess? You’re into robotics?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ They’re like, ‘You’re a crazy nerd.’ I say, ‘I can hold my own in an academic setting, if that’s what you mean.’ ”
‘It takes somebody special to be a dad’
As Stephen Weatherly grew up, his mother was running her own enterprise. His grandmother, by the late 1990s, had gone to Washington to work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and his aunt was on hand to help raise him.
His life was filled with enough strong women that it almost made up for the fact his father wasn’t in the picture. He has met his father, he said, but doesn’t have much of a relationship with him now.
The man he considers to be a father, though, was there whenever he needed a role model.
Taylor, a sheriff’s deputy in Fulton County, took a liking to Weatherly during five years coaching him in baseball. Stephen and Taylor’s son Charles Jr. became best friends, and Carla Weatherly embraced the opportunity for Stephen to have a father figure in his life. When Stephen was around 11 years old, he started asking Taylor if he could call him Dad, which Taylor said he took lightly at the time. When he introduced the boys to a co-worker as “my son Charles and his best friend Stephen,” Charles Sr. saw Stephen wasn’t joking.
“The look he gave me, it was like a nail just drove through me,” Charles Sr. said. “We sat down and talked for 15-20 minutes. I told him: ‘It’s one thing to be a father. It takes somebody special to be a dad. Is that what you’re asking me?’ From that moment on, I knew.
“The birth of my first son was a great moment. The birth of my second son [Gavin] was a great moment. But there’s nothing greater than when a young man chooses you.”
Touched by his upbringing, and affected by what he called a verbally and emotionally abusive relationship with his first girlfriend, Weatherly raised his hand when the One Love Foundation (established after the murder of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love in 2010) asked if any Vanderbilt athletes would be interested in leading a seminar about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
The program began with the athletic department and Greek houses at Vanderbilt; Weatherly said the university started offering it to all incoming freshmen this fall.
“At that point, I thought I was the only person going through [emotional abuse],” Weatherly said. “I just want everyone to be aware that, ‘You’re not alone. There will be someone here who, at the very least, will listen to you.’ ”
He sported custom cleats for the One Love Foundation when the Vikings played in his hometown on Dec. 3. When Weatherly is done playing, he might pursue a career training displaced workers to re-enter the workforce.
The NFL will likely be a chapter in Weatherly’s life, not the whole story.
“You,” he said, “can be and do whatever you want.”