Apollo Creed took his share of big hits on the big screen in Rocky II. Carl Weathers, who famously played the fictional boxer, took a lot more as a professional football player — including as a linebacker with the B.C. Lions in the early ‘70s.
Some of them even came from his teammates.
Lions legend Jim Young got always got a kick out of seeing his former teammate go on to fame as an actor, and had a chuckle seeing him in a Super Bowl commercial with Rob Gronkowski earlier this week. He also had a bit of a laugh remembering their practice days with the Leos.
“We had one day that was quite a mix up that sticks out in my mind,” Young said of Weathers, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 76.
“All the time at practice they’re they’re pushing receivers to get to certain spots and do certain things, and the defensive coaches tell that linebacker ‘don’t you let him out of there!’ … And the offensive coaches screaming at you, telling you where you’re supposed to get. There’s always some conflict … and so it’s a fight. So it came to one day I had to borrow a chin strap and straighten him out.
“It’s always stuck in my mind because he became such a big film star. I always admired that.”
Before he was famous, Weathers was an athlete, a self-professed jock. He went to San Diego State on a football scholarship — majoring in theatre after discovering he had an aptitude for it — and made the Oakland Raiders roster as an undrafted player. He lasted one season there before he was cut, and the parting words from his coach proved to be pivotal in his career.
“I don’t know what he meant by it, but I know how I took it,” Weathers recounted to Sports Illustrated last year.
“He said to me, ‘You’re just too sensitive.’ What the f**k do you mean I’m too sensitive? Not that’s not true.
“I couldn’t let it go, man. It kind of put a chip on my shoulder on one hand and it was like a wound on the other because as a football player, certainly, as a professional football player, the last thing you want to hear is that you’re too sensitive. On the other hand, without that sensitivity, how could I be an actor? How could I be an actor of any worth, really?
“That’s what we trade on. We trade on performances that delve into the humanity of us all. So on one hand, it felt like an indictment, like I committed a crime. And on the other hand, I guess it reminded me of something that was actually necessary in me to succeed and what I envisioned doing with my life as a performer, as an artist. So, God bless John Madden for seeing something in me and naming it what it actually is: a certain amount of sensitivity.”
After Oakland, he continued to play — and hone his craft at the same time. He joined the Lions, and over the course of 18 games (1971-73) worked on his bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State University. He even got a role in The Candidate (1971) as an extra, later breaking through for his first prominent role with the same director, Michael Ritchie, in 1977, three years after retiring from football. His role as Creed in Rocky II came two years later, and he returned to Vancouver in 1985 to for the production of Rocky 4.
“I was good enough to fool ’em, but never dedicated enough to become a great player,” Weathers told the Washington Post in 1979.
“Up to a point everybody can capitalize on the fact that nobody knows what’s goin’ on. I could make coaches believe I could do what they wanted me to do, but that’s not the same as pushing yourself. The great ones are willing to work harder.
“I was still looking to hop out of football as soon as I made some headway with acting. I forced the issue by exaggerating a little. In L.A. I lied about having acting credits up in San Francisco. How can they bother to verify your claim that you studied at ACT (the American Conservatory Theatre) or worked as an extra in ‘Dirty Harry’?
“They can’t. But if you run scared, you’ll never get what you want. Naturally, you’ve gotta be prepared to deliver at some point. Actors do it all the time: ‘Sure I’ve played that, sure I can do that’. At least it can get the opportunity to prove that you can’t.
“By discreetly stretching things, I got an agent and then a dramatic coach and then the chance to audition for a real part. One thing led to another. After finally getting that first commercial, I held out for commercial assignments in which I’d be prominently featured. The same thing with bit roles and supporting parts.”
As a player, Weathers was a 6-foot-2, 200-pound snarl of defensive intensity; but too small for the defensive line, and too big to be a linebacker.
“He was what we call a tweener,” his teammate on the Raiders, Raymond Chester, told SI.
“Carl was strong and fast and had good size, but he was small for a linebacker. Today, Carl would be a safety. That would have been the perfect position for him. He had everything it took. He was smart, he could run like a deer and he was chiselled. He was a magnificent athlete.”
“Carl would be a great outside edge pass rusher in my estimation, now and then,” added another teammate, HOFer Fred Biletnikoff. “He’d be a hell of a pass rusher because he’s so active. He’s so physical. He would probably fit in really, really well as a running back. That’s what I always thought. I thought he’s somebody that you can put in the backfield and give him the ball in a short-yardage situation.”
Chester also said that Weathers was, yes, a sensitive soul — but not on the football field.
“[Madden] misread Carl, because Carl was as intense, in terms of being a competitor, as I’d ever seen,” he said. “And I knew him a lot better than John Madden knew him. But Carl is a sensitive human being. He cared about his fellow teammates. So, yeah, he was sensitive. Very sensitive. But not in a sense that it limited him from having the kind of aggressive approach to being a great football player.”
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