Transitioning to Coaching, Former Seahawk Leonard Weaver Plows Through Pandemic
CORAL SPRINGS, FL - Returning to his home state determined to build a quality high school football program, Leonard Weaver thought he had landed the perfect first head coaching gig.
Following two stints as an assistant coach, Weaver signed the dotted line to become the new head coach at Coral Springs High School on March 6. Though the Colts had struggled to a 4-6 season in 2019, he saw the potential for a quick turnaround with plenty of talent returning and a quality administration to work with.
Then, just 24 hours after his hiring had been announced, all of that excitement was put on hold indefinitely. With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the United States, schools were closed. Sports at all levels came to a screeching halt. The world as a whole was in a standstill.
Five months later, Weaver hasn't even been able to relocate back to his home state of Florida, which has been hit hard by the virus after the state opted to open up too quickly. As is the case for the rest of the country, uncertainty continues to be the name of the game trying to prepare for a season that may never happen.
"It's been very difficult, especially because I've had no contact with the players," Weaver explained. "I've had no contact with a lot of people, so in the midst of trying to build a booster club and a program after I got hired, literally a day after I got hired, COVID hit."
As a first-time head coach, such circumstances would be demoralizing to most people. But considering his path to this point, Weaver isn't like most people.
Born in Cocoa, Florida, Weaver eventually starred at Satellite High School, playing running back and quarterback. He wasn't highly recruited, however, and wound up committing to play college football at Carson-Newman College, a tiny Division II school in Jefferson City, Tennessee.
He began his college career playing linebacker, recording nine tackles as a redshirt freshman. Becoming a master of versatility, he transitioned to tight end the following season and eventually became a Division II All-American selection as a senior, catching 27 passes for 571 yards and eight touchdowns.
Signing with the Seahawks as an undrafted rookie in 2005, Weaver again changed positions, this time moving to fullback, a position that has been phased out of many NFL offenses. Running backs coach Stump Mitchell made it clear from day one that "if you're not moving the chains, you're not important."
"I remember him telling me that year after year," Weaver recalled. "And so for me, it was 'okay, I gotta learn how to block. Once I learn how to block, I gotta learn how to catch. And then once I learn how to catch...' So I had to make myself very valuable [to stick around]."
When Weaver first arrived in Seattle, coach Mike Holmgren didn't know his name and simply called him No. 43. But as Stump pushed him to a level he didn't know he could be pushed, he started to show off his diverse skill set in practice and the preseason, eventually earning a roster spot out of camp.
Once Mack Strong retired due to a neck injury in 2007, Weaver became Seattle's starting fullback, producing 276 rushing yards, 535 receiving yards, and three touchdowns over the next two seasons. Earning the nickname "The Face Cleaver" for his brutal stiff arms, the 250-pound bulldozer became a fan favorite for his running style and propensity for delivering punishment with the ball in his hands.
With a new coaching staff taking over led by Jim Mora in 2009, Weaver left in free agency to join the Eagles, where he broke out in Andy Reid's offense. Receiving First-Team All-Pro honors and making the Pro Bowl, he rushed for a career-best 323 yards, added 140 receiving yards, and scored four touchdowns, earning himself a three-year, $11.5 million contract as the highest paid fullback in NFL history.
Unfortunately, on his first carry of the following season, Weaver's leg got hyperextended while being tackled and he suffered a devastating knee injury. Landing on injured reserve, he would never play another snap in the NFL.
"Probably one of the most difficult things I've been through in life," Weaver reflected. "Having the game you love to play - all the hard work I put into it - I got rewarded a contract for the hard work and to come out the first play of the second series, to have my career end like that... very difficult process for the next three years of my life."
Though he smiled on the sideline, Weaver battled depression for several years. In the aftermath of the injury, he underwent five surgeries and indicated he has permanent "drop foot," the weakening or paralysis of the muscles involved in moving the front part of the foot often caused by nerve damage. Along with no longer being able to play football, this condition also limited his ability to play with his children.
But as he has done throughout his life, Weaver turned to faith to help pull through a tumultuous period. In addition, a strong support system around him, including family, friends, coaches such as Reid, and teammates, helped him turn the corner and begin transitioning to the next phase.
"I loved football, but I also understood that football wasn't my final destination in life. I understood that football was going to be temporary - I just didn't know how temporary. I knew that there was going to be another transition and I had already had myself prepared - not at the moment I got hurt - but in my mind, understanding that after football, this is the direction I want to go. It was bittersweet, but once I was able to get over that hump with the support, it made things a lot easier."
Citing his love of people as well as the game of football, Weaver opted to jump right into coaching after officially announcing his retirement in 2013. In addition to diving into real estate, he's been climbing the coaching ladder ever since, moving from assistant coach at Boca Raton to offensive coordinator at Monarch to now being a head coach at Coral Springs.
Still residing in Georgia for now, Weaver hasn't been able to work with his players and assistant coaches in person yet. But thanks in large part to an administration that has been "absolutely phenomenal," he believes all parties have made the most out of challenging circumstances, adjusting on the fly to countless obstacles as the country tries to get a grip on COVID-19.
"We've been challenged but we've been working it out. We've been doing Zoom workouts - our kids have absolutely responded, especially with the history of this program and the changing over of coaches they've had over the years."
According to Weaver, the Colts have made the most of tough circumstances, holding three or four Zoom workouts each week and averaging a strong turnout of 35-40 players per workout. They've also split up into position groups for meetings, spending extensive time teaching players essential skills such as learning how to game plan for upcoming opponents.
"It's actually been pretty good for us. We just miss the part of it getting out on the field, watching these guys run, watching them be able to play and do the things that they love, and us doing the things we love, which is motivating them and watching them excel under our coaching. So it's been difficult, but it's also been as good as it can get at this moment in time where we are."
While it remains unclear when - or if - Coral Springs will return to the field for the upcoming season, everyone involved from the players to the coaches to the athletic director have answered the call and handled everything in stride. Given Weaver's enthusiasm for the game, his passion for motivating and inspiring young people, and his own personal triumphs over adversity, there couldn't be a better coach and man to lead the charge into the unknown.