CHARLOTTE — Stephen Weatherly is an eclectic man whose identity draws from a diverse span of interests. While he's a defensive end in the NFL, that's not everything he is or aspires to be.
That's why he plans to wear a decal on his helmet this season that reads, "All Black Lives Matter."
"Oftentimes, when I've met with people, my life has been validated because of what I do — because I play for the Panthers and because I'm a professional athlete. So people see value, see worth in me as an individual," Weatherly said Tuesday. "But when people don't know what I do for a living, I get treated differently. And it shouldn't take what someone does, or when you learn who they are for them to deserve to be treated fairly.
"So that's why I wear a decal that says 'All Black Lives Matter, not just the ones you root for."
Weatherly realizes, at times, there's a prevailing attitude a Black man can only be successful if he's a celebrity. That can take different forms, from an athlete to a rapper to an actor. But Weatherly sees it as one of his life purposes to demonstrate there's more to life than becoming rich and famous.
"It feels like that's the only way until you show the next generation that there are different ways. You talk about it, and you make it OK, and you don't condemn those who may think differently," Weatherly said.
He pointed to his history, admitting he used to get teased and called a nerd because he enjoyed things like anime.
"But now, it's highly celebrated," Weatherly said. "There's more than one way to be successful. It doesn't have to be a microphone or a ball."
But, at least for now, Weatherly's life is mainly about football with his new team. After spending his first four seasons with the Vikings, Weatherly is used to performing with strong defensive fronts. And with just over a month until this season kicks off, he's had a positive impression of Carolina's D-line.
"The sky's the limit," Weatherly said. "The level of proficiency that we're showing with a brand new defense for everyone, I'm really liking it. Our level of communication, our ability to understand how one another plays is everything. So I think it's going to be a really good defense, and I think we're going to be able to execute early on."
"I see very similar freakish-style abilities in regards to body awareness and body control that (five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter) has back in Minnesota, in regards to Burns. He very much knows how to use his body, how to position his body to get past the tackle for pass rush. And in the run game, he may not look overly big, but he's very strong, very confident, and plays behind his hands, so he plays good edges," Weatherly said.
"Then DB, Derrick Brown, he's big. Like, I'm big, but he's big, and he does not move like he's big, which is always a great thing. So once again, learning how one another plays, that's what's going to determine how well another as a defense. Because we definitely have pieces — believe that."
While Weatherly seems to be fitting in nicely with his new teammates, he's also enjoying the longer ramp-up period this training camp.
"It helps iron out mistakes," Weatherly said.
"If I was a rookie I would be so grateful to whatever football god allowed this because when I was a rookie, when we installed, it was like a third of the playbook (for three days), and we're only on Day 5 of training camp and (the defensive coordinator) can call anything in there. But because it's a slower ramp-up, we're introducing things a lot slower, so they're able to be more confident in their ability to communicate."
Though he's all-in on playing the 2020 season, Weatherly admitted he thought about opting out due to the pandemic. Aside from the overall health concern, he doesn't like that his family won't be able to see him play. But after a conversation with his relatives, he felt better about getting on the field.
"Once I figured out how we were going to do it, then I was perfectly fine with it," Weatherly said. "I think the testing system we have really works. With the contact tracers that we wear and everyday testing, it really reassures that even though we're wearing masks throughout the building, stuff like that, you know that everyone else in here has tested negative up to this point."
While one might think taking precautions against COVID-19 would be heavily discussed among the players, Weatherly has found that to be unnecessary.
"Once you've gone through your own personal opt-out journey, and you decide to stay and play football, at that moment you also agreed to tighten down your circle, to not go out, to get more food delivered to you, have your groceries delivered to you that for the next six months during football season. It's going to be a really small circle," Weatherly said. "So no one here has been talking about it because everybody's been living it."
The pandemic may define this season, but should not do the same for a player's entire career. As Weatherly gets a chance to play a more significant role in Carolina, he's looking forward to adding "starter" to all that makes up his identity.
"I'm super excited to come out here and legitimately fight for a spot, a bigger, more expanded role," Weatherly said. "I feel like I'm ready to go out there and show what I've got, for sure."
Take a look at the first photos of the new Panthers veterans in their Panthers uniforms from production day.