EAGAN, Minn. – Stephen Weatherly gave Panthers Blue a whirl, but he's pumped to be back in Purple.
The Vikings re-signed Weatherly Monday, the team announced. Originally a seventh-round draft pick in 2016, the defensive end spent four seasons in Minnesota before joining Carolina last spring in free agency.
"Thank you to the Panthers for the opportunity," Weatherly told Twin Cities media members. "But I'm super excited to be back here."
During his one-season stint in the NFC South, Weatherly started nine games before undergoing a season-ending surgery to repair a finger on his right hand. He totaled 17 tackles (league stats), a tackle for loss and three quarterback hits.
He'll now be reunited with Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson. Weatherly said the latter – who stood on a table to draft him out of Vanderbilt – especially played a significant role in his desire to return to Minnesota.
"Just knowing the man he is, the coach that he is and what he has been able to do with my career from 2016 to when I left," Weatherly said of Patterson. "I was super excited to get back under his tutelage and take another step forward and keep rising. No more step-backs."
Weatherly isn't the only Viking on the roster to sign with a different team in free agency and return to his old stomping grounds. Fellow defensive lineman Shamar Stephen spent 2014-17 in Minnesota, signed with Seattle for the 2018 season and then rejoined the Vikings in 2019.
Although Weatherly hasn't yet picked Stephen's brain on the experience, he says he intends to connect with his new (old?) teammate and do just that.
As happy as Weatherly is to once again call himself a Viking, he learned about himself as a player – and a person – during his one-season detour.
"Leaving here and then going to Carolina, I picked up a couple of new things in the pass-rush game from being around guys over there," Weatherly said. "But also one big thing I learned is the importance of speaking up and saying something and that anyone can do it, no matter your age or how many years you've been in.
"Once everyone gets to the point where they feel comfortable speaking up and saying what they see out there, then it helps everyone be better," he continued. "That's definitely something I want to bring back here, just that open line of communication and everyone being able to speak and communicate with each other and be efficient on the field.
Weatherly later emphasized the importance of never allowing himself to feel "safe" as far as spot on a roster goes. He openly admitted that a bit of complacency set in after signing the multiyear contract with the Panthers.
He won't be repeating that mistake, Weatherly assured.
"That can't happen. No matter what, I need to be striving and reaching for the next step, and if I do slip or if I do fail, I failed because I was reaching for greatness – not it was snatched away from me holding onto something so tight," he said. "It's definitely one more thing I'm bringing back. That fight, that grind. Never let complacency set in again, especially when it comes to something like this, like football."
It's only been a year since Weatherly last spent time on the Vikings roster, but the team's defensive line group nonetheless looks significantly different. Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph no longer are with the team, and he'll have a new teammate in Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. He also will meet D.J. Wonnum, who showed flashes as a rookie and also hails from the Atlanta area.
And don't forget, Minnesota also last spring named Patterson and Adam Zimmer, who previously served as linebackers coach, as co-defensive coordinators.
Weatherly is eager to seeing how the coaches "put their spin" on the system.
"I already know how the overall defense works, but to see how each one of those two coaches put their own little flare on how we play, like blitzes or anything like that, I'm really looking forward to that," Weatherly said. "When I was here, 'Dre had some really good ways to pull at the defensive ends and help out everyone on defense, so super excited to see how that's going to look, how that plays out."
The Vikings are happy to reunite with Weatherly, who has a solid grasp of the defensive scheme and has played a significant role in Minnesota's defensive line rotation.
But in addition to his on-field prowess, the Vikings are also grateful for the high character and commitment to the community that Weatherly brings.
Weatherly, who will turn 27 this month, officially launched The Stephen Weatherly Foundation while playing in Carolina. He plans to continue his philanthropic efforts in the Twin Cities and said he hopes to re-join the Vikings Social Justice Committee.
"I feel like it's more important, or at least there's been more importance placed on, our ability as athletes to reach and to connect with our local market and the people in our community – the same people who [invest] their time and their money into us," Weatherly said. "I feel like it's only right that we fight for their behalf on a bigger platform – bring awareness to issues that can be overlooked. Especially after what happened here with George Floyd.
"I'm excited to be back here and ask to be back on the committee," he added.
He's also sure to continue with one of his (many!) hobbies, glass-blowing.
Weatherly regularly practices the art in Minnesota with his friend, Jeff Sorenson, and also found a studio in Carolina to keep up his craft.
His affinity for glass-blowing even earned Weatherly the unique opportunity to appear as a guest judge on the Netflix series "Blown Away."
Weatherly is no stranger to seeing himself on a big stage … wearing a football helmet and jersey. Self-scouting his reality-TV performance was a different beast, but he found himself approaching it similarly.
"I watched it like I was watching film," he said. "I rewound it a couple times, watched it with mute to see my mannerisms and stuff like that. I never really broke myself down [before], like not in football, but I did for this. It was pretty dope.
"The whole experience was amazing. I watched it, no lie, probably like 30 times — the whole episode," he added with a laugh.