COLUMBIA - He seeks signs that he has made it. He wants to know his struggle to become a Missouri defensive leader has delivered him reward. So linebacker Sean Weatherspoon searches, here near a trophy case in the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex lobby, and discovers fuel for the future from his past.
"When I came in, I knew nothing about this game," Weatherspoon said, smiling. "(Former linebacker) Dedrick Harrington used to always tell me that when I dropped back into coverage, I would always be drifting. In the college game, you have to get back in your spot and stay put, because you have those good quarterbacks. Unlike high school, guys are going to make those throws."
at No. 6 Missouri (2-0)
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
TV: Fox Sports Net
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
JACKED: Follow the game online with Jacked, a second screen Web platform you can find online at ColumbiaMissourian.com. Track statistics as they happen, chat with a Missourian reporter covering the game, view photos, video and link to other media, all while the game is being played.
It's one of many lessons the 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior has gained over his two-plus years at MU. Without an interception before this fall, the junior linebacker has matured into the face of MU's early season success. Weatherspoon intercepted Illinois quarterback Juice Williams twice in the season-opener, including a 35-yard touchdown return late in the fourth quarter that snuffed the Illini's second-half comeback. Last week, in the second quarter against Southeast Missouri State, he returned a 65-yard interception for a touchdown, becoming the first player in school history to return interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive weeks. Weatherspoon's journey from a special-teams unknown to a vocal leader is a product of his maturation, and MU's defense has benefited.
Before he became the face of MU's early season success, Weatherspoon was lost in the crowd.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus couldn't believe it. He was attending a combine at Beaumont (Texas) West Brook High School, and most didn't give the lanky prospect in a tight dry-fit T-shirt a second look. Coaches from glamour programs such as LSU and Texas were present, but their eyes danced with visions of more decorated jewels. Eberflus decided to follow Weatherspoon, hoping to discover a diamond in the rough.
Eberflus' instincts didn't fail him. He watched Weatherspoon perform drills and sprint the 40-yard dash. Major recruiting services rated the Jasper (Texas) High School linebacker as a two-star prospect, but Eberflus thought, "Man, this is a good-looking guy."
Soon after, Eberflus formed a relationship with Weatherspoon. He began making home visits. In December 2005, Weatherspoon committed. He chose MU over Iowa State, Houston, Tulane and SMU, among others. Weatherspoon's journey had begun, and he had no idea how difficult it would soon become.
"Coming out of Jasper, Texas, he was overlooked," MU running back De'Vion Moore said. "I think he takes that very personally. That's the great thing. He feels like he's going to show the world what he's going to do. He came in as a two-star athlete, and ‘Spoon is a five-star athlete in my eyes all day."
Before he became the face of MU's early season success, Weatherspoon struggled to find his place.
He was shoveled into the fire. During his freshman year, there wasn't time to hesitate. His responsibilities blurred with the speed of a high-plains twister. He played in the 2006 season-opener against Murray State, but coaches said he needed to perform better in practice if he wanted to break another defensive huddle on Saturday.
He sought direction. He talked to his father, Develous, and his mother, Elwanda. He spoke to his pastor and older linebackers, Harrington and Marcus Bacon. He needed an outlet, someway to channel his frustration.
He found it.
"I just became so frustrated with not being able to play more defense, then I just channeled all my energy toward special teams," Weatherspoon said, "and tried to do something on special teams ... which brought me out of that deep valley that I was in."
He won MU's special teams player of the year award, leading the Tigers with nine tackles on kick coverage. He gained confidence, and he began to establish himself within the program. In 2007, as a first-year starter, he continued his progression. He led the defense with 130 tackles. He broke up eight passes and was named a first-team Associated Press All-Big 12 Conference selection.
He became a leader. After the Cotton Bowl, teammates noticed a change. Weatherspoon had always worked hard, but he carried himself with elevated focus. He knew he could achieve more, and he wanted to lift MU from a bitter BCS snub.
He entices others to match his passion. He croaks oldies lyrics in stretch lines. He cracks with offensive coordinator Dave Christensen about creating a set that allows him to play both sides of possession. His personality has become infectious, and teammates look to him for inspiration.
"He's the loudest guy on this team. He's the most obnoxious guy on this team," quarterback Chase Daniel said. "You can hear him in stretch lines just talking.
"He's such a vocal leader that this team needs."
Weatherspoon said: "I'm just trying to keep it rowdy out there and make sure guys are having fun when they're playing, because if you're having fun when you're playing, then you'll make a lot of plays when you're having fun."
Now that he's the face of MU's early season success, Weatherspoon knows there's unfinished business.
Back at the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex, the trophy case behind his shoulder serves as a symbol of unfulfilled ambition. He knows it's early, but it doesn't stop him from dreaming. A Big 12 Conference championship and beyond are out there.
There's more to accomplish.
"We definitely have a goal around here, and I really can't talk much about the goal," Weatherspoon said, smiling again.
"Hopefully after this season or maybe next season, whenever we do it, I want to look back 10 years from now and know that we did it, and nobody can take it away from us."