*The career of Eric Weems has always been about rising above the modest expectations placed on him because of his size. From high school to the NFL, his 5-foot-9 body has been his biggest knock, but hard work and perseverance can overcome many things. At the conclusion of the 2010 season, Weems was one of seven Falcons players named to the Pro Bowl, an honor that shows how critical one of the smallest men on the roster was to Atlanta's season. *
Eric Weems has never stopped running.
As a football player in the hotbed of talent that is the state of Florida, he ran his way into all-state honors.
After most Division I colleges avoided the 5-foot-9 receiver, Weems chose to stay at home and attend Bethune-Cookman, a Division I-AA school. There, he ran his way into the record books as a wide receiver.
In high school and in college, it was always about working his way through obstacles.
"I just kept my head on straight and played football," Weems said. "I overcame all that, knowing they didn't want to take a chance on me, but I knew someone would and it worked out for the best."
Weems carried that never-say-die attitude with him to the NFL. Knowing he'd be an undrafted free agent in 2007, he continued to follow his dreams to the league, aspirations that existed since he was an 8-year-old quarterback in Daytona Beach.
The Falcons gave him a shot as a rookie free agent and he came to camp as one of the longest of the long shots. It was nothing new for Weems. The odds have always been against him. He knew one thing would get him noticed, the same thing that got him in the record books at Bethune Cookman.
"Being from a small school, you've got to take the extra step and work harder than the other guys," he said. "That's the main thing about this work: you've got to have a strong ethic."
And you've got to be able to sweat through everything and come back the next day and ask for more, regardless of the odds.
"As long as I came out, did what I had to do and play football, work hard, not take any day lightly, I knew," Weems said. "I knew I was under the radar coming from a small school so any little thing I did I knew I could be shipped out of here. I kept working and grinding hard every day."
Weems earned a role on the practice squad in '07 and worked his way to the active roster for the final game of the season. The 2008 season was the same thing all over again — earn a role on the practice squad and keep working.
Two years later and he's a Pro Bowler, a feat achieved by two of his former Wildcats teammates, Rashean Mathis of the Jaguars and Nick Collins of the Packers. The difference between Weems and his college mates is they were high-round draft picks and Weems' name was never called on draft day.
Weems is especially close to Collins, who will be his opponent Saturday, but a teammate on the NFC Pro Bowl roster. When Weems got news of the honor, his phone filled up with message of congratulations and pride from family and friends. The call from Collins was especially important and the three-time Pro Bowl safety gave the Falcons specialist a head's up on what to expect.
"He texted me and called me," Weems said. "I talked to him and he told me how things go; how practices, flights and arrangements go. He broke it all down for me."
The Pro Bowl honors came for Weems after a breakout season in 2010 on special teams, a season that saw him return a punt and a kick for a touchdown in addition to making numerous critical stops in coverage on special teams. Return duties are still fairly new to him. He began working as a punt and kick returner in college during his senior season. Weems was everywhere in 2010 and often it was exactly where he was needed to be. Atlanta head coach Mike Smith routinely described the hard-working specialist as one of his team's "core special teams players."
Smith isn't the only member of the franchise that noticed the effort Weems put forth in everything he did. His teammates routinely spoke about his play on special teams and fullback Ovie Mughelli recently shared that he did everything he could to get Weems elected for the Pro Bowl roster.
Perhaps the greatest honor is the recognition that comes from teammates like Mughelli. But often recognition isn't as public as Pro Bowl bids and locker room interviews. Often, there are moments that are glimpses into the respect held between one teammate and another.
During Week 10's victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Weems tackled Baltimore's return man Ed Reed in the game's final seconds after Atlanta had taken the lead. The Falcons' special teams coverage unit had experienced a rough couple of weeks and there was a breath-holding moment that feared the dangerous Reed would post enough of a return to keep Baltimore in the game.
Just like he wouldn't allow his talent and potential NFL career go to waste, Weems wasn't about to let his team lose that game. In coverage, Weems shot up the field like a bullet and took down Reed at the 14-yard line. It only showed up in the box score as a special teams tackle, but Weems' teammates knew how important that tackle had been.
As Weems sat at his locker room after the game, soaking up another victory, many of his teammates from all over the roster stopped for a moment at the receiver's locker to say thanks and pay their respects for a play that was as important as any other.
The modest Weems will only say that he tries to work hard and let his faith in God help him along the way. He's faced more than his fair share of barriers, but his faith sends him on his way through whatever comes up along the journey.
"I just let the man upstairs handle that," Weems said. "He guides me through certain situations and he guides me on my path.
Faith wasn't always part of his game, but over time — like his return abilities — he's added it to his life's repertoire.
"Without him there is no us," Weems said of his faith.
It's a statement many on the Atlanta Falcons would say about Eric Weems, as well.