It was nearly 33 months to the date that Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon started his last NFL football game.
His once promising career was nearly destroyed by a series of debilitating injuries.
But you’d never know it from his demeanor. He’s the one running around, smiling, calling out signals and generally having way too much fun.
There is a clear reason for his behavior.
“I’ve had the ball taken away from me before,” Weatherspoon said Thursday. “When you are not playing any football, you’re at the lowest point.”
Great things were projected for Weatherspoon when the Falcons selected him with the 19th overall pick in the 2010 draft out of Missouri.
Former linebacker Mike Peterson took him under his wings and Weatherspoon started five games as a rookie before permanently breaking into the starting lineup in 2011, when he started 16 games and had 125 tackles.
He made 95 tackles on the 2012 team that reached the NFC Championship game, but missed three games because of injury.
In 2013, injuries cut his season to seven games, all starts.
He missed 2014, after suffering an Achilles injury while rehabbing with the team. In 2015, he signed with Arizona, but was hobbled most of the season by a severe hamstring injury.
Through all of the injuries, Weatherspoon retained his passion for the game and leaped at the opportunity to return to the Falcons on a make-good, one-year contract worth $1.5 million.
He was no longer considered a rising star.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m on kickoffs or whatever,” Weatherspoon said. “I’m going to have some fun with whatever they ask me to do. When the opportunity comes, you just have to show them who you are because you can talk all you want. When they turn the tape on, that’s when you’re the loudest. When they see you on tape.”
When rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell went down with an ankle injury on Sept. 15, the Falcons turned to Weatherspoon to start against Oakland. He had not started since Dec. 15, 2013.
Weatherspoon had a settling influence on rookie middle linebacker Deion Jones, much like how Peterson used to settle him down in 2010.
He finished with nine tackles and help the Falcons defeat the Raiders.
“I thought Weatherspoon played really well for us,” defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. “He made some plays for us. We were pleased with his performance.”
Falcons veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux was happy to see Weatherspoon back on the field.
“It was great to see him out there having fun,” he said. “I’m enjoying the moment and playing with him again.”
Weatherspoon’s zeal was infectious.
“Spoon is going to always be Spoon,” Babineaux said. “He brings the energy and the juice. He loves to talk and have fun while he plays.”
Weatherspoon is expected to get another start against the Saints.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn also was impressed with Weatherspoon’s play.
“He was really solid,” Quinn said. “He didn’t have tons of reps at that position. We were playing him at (middle linebacker), but that’s where it comes back to that versatility. Can you play more than one spot?”
Quinn is clearly comfortable moving forward with Weatherspoon, until Campbell heals.
“He totally came through for the guys,” Quinn said. “He played in the system exactly in the details that you’d like him to do. I was very impressed with him over the first couple of weeks.”
Weatherspoon, who was on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl caliber player when the injuries started, doesn’t like to look back.
“That was the toughest time, because ultimately you think it’s about ball, and it’s not,” Weatherspoon said. “Ball is the central theme that brought us all together. Sometimes we take that for granted, when we get to line up and go out there and play every snap.”
Being hurt and rehabbing for much of three years changes your perspective.
“When you don’t get a chance to play every snap, that’s tough,” Weatherspoon said. “Regardless of if you’re hurt or if you’re out there and not up there in that unit.”
Weatherspoon was a backup with Arizona last season. He played in spots down the stretch of the regular season and during the Cardinals playoff run to the NFC Championship game.
“You just have to stay ready, because when your chance comes, you can’t be like, ‘I didn’t get that rep in practice,’ ” Weatherspoon said. “You have to go make the best of your opportunity. If you do that, you’ll get a chance to play some more.
“That’s the business I’m in.”
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