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'The epitome of a comeback story': How Pitt's Rashad Weaver became an All-American
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'The epitome of a comeback story': How Pitt's Rashad Weaver became an All-American

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Rashad Weaver wanted you to notice.

Before every game last season, Pitt’s pass-rusher wrapped his left wrist with medical tape before retrieving a Sharpie from his locker. If the tape was white, he grabbed a black marker. If the tape was black, silver was the choice. In bold letters, Weaver wrote on his wrist: “1st Round.”

“I wrote it where I could see it, where my teammates could see it, where the opponent could see it. You can see it in pictures. I hope they’ve seen it on TV. I hope everybody’s seen it,” Weaver told the Post-Gazette, his voice heightening with excitement. “If you have goals in silence, nobody knows you didn’t reach them, so it’s not as big of a deal. I made sure everyone knew.”

Weaver describes himself as someone who likes to speak things into existence. He always had it in him, but Pitt’s star defensive end — a consensus All-American and an NFL draft pick come April — only recently discovered that voice. It took a devastating knee injury and a year of rehabilitation for Weaver to zero in on what he wanted to accomplish and, more importantly, what it would take to get there.

In Weaver’s mind, he should be in the NFL by now. After leading Pitt in tackles for loss and sacks in 2018, he was dead set on declaring after the 2019 campaign. But Weaver didn’t expect to go down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in training camp two years ago. He didn’t expect to need surgery in August 2019.

After his procedure, Weaver had a conversation with Pitt defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who re-centered the pass-rusher for the path he was about to go down. “One of the first things we talked about was, ‘Hey, this doesn’t change your goals. It just changes your timeline ... It delays it. It doesn’t demolish it,’” Partridge told the Post-Gazette. “Thankfully, that held true.”

What followed was Weaver’s zealous pursuit of All-American status.

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They don’t know what’s coming in 2020. They don’t even know. It’s about to be crazy.

Weaver screamed at himself in the mirror at Pitt’s South Side facility day after day. The 6-foot-5, 270-pounder let it all out. It didn’t matter that he started doing so in September 2019, a month removed from surgery. The 2020 season was a year away, but that mentality got Weaver through the following months of rigorous rehab.

Meanwhile, the Panthers’ strength staff looked on in bewilderment. Weaver specifically recalls Austin Addington-Strapp, Pitt’s former assistant strength coach, calling him a “sicko” on more than one occasion during workouts. When asked about that claim, “Coach Strapp” couldn’t help but laugh.

“Yeah, I can’t deny that,” Addington-Strapp said. “The way he went about his business, it was like he was a glutton for punishment.”

Weaver loved rehab. It aggravated him. It bothered him. And he hated it. But he loved it because it fueled him.

Throughout the 2019 season, Weaver rehabbed in Pitt’s training room two or three times per day, an hour each session. There, he worked with Dale Thornton, now Pitt’s interim head athletic trainer, on leg movement and strengthening exercises. He’d also lift with Addington-Strapp and the strength staff while the team was outside practicing.

It was during those lifting sessions that Addington-Strapp saw Weaver for what he was: a sicko, maybe, but more than anything someone hellbent on achieving in 2020 what he set out to do in 2019.

“What was so different about Rashad’s recovery and rehabilitation process was his mentality,” Addington-Strapp said. “Typically, it’s like a breakup; you go through this roller coaster of emotions. There are days when you’re up, days that you’re down. Some days are in-between, and some days you’re just punching that time clock. But with Rashad, every single day he was able to maintain the vision for where he was going to end up.

“It wasn’t common the way he approached his work days. And it yielded uncommon results.”

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Everyone’s probably seen the Aaron Donald knives video by now.

If not, nearly three years ago, the former Pitt star and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was working out at the Panthers’ indoor facility when he was filmed dodging knives during a hand quickness drill. Of course, the knives were fake, made of hard rubber. Still, the video of Donald went viral across social media.

The man wielding those knives is Al “Poodie” Carson, a longtime police officer who teaches Krav Maga. In the case of Donald, Khalil Mack and other NFL stars, Carson has used Krav Maga, a mixed martial art, to instill “football combatives” and train pass-rushers.

“Our philosophy is, why dance with someone?” Carson said. “Your job isn’t to stand there and fight with an offensive tackle. Your job is to brutalize him within the rules, get away from him and make your money in the backfield.”

Take one look at his film from 2020, and it should come as no surprise that Weaver is one of Carson’s recent proteges.

The two met after Pitt’s 2018 campaign. Weaver started training at Carson’s facility in Trafford over that summer, even more so after his ACL injury. Weaver would rehab at Pitt’s facility, then drive 30 minutes to train with Carson for two hours. He did that two, sometimes three times per week throughout the 2019 season. Carson ran Weaver through drills honing in on the pass-rusher’s first step. Weaver punched and struck a heavy bag. He put his body through more conditioning. And he excelled in the now internet-famous knife drill.

Physically, Weaver progressed under Carson’s tutelage. He grew psychologically, too.

“He was one of the first people to tell me, I would be an All-American and I would be one of the best D-ends in the ACC and in the country,” Weaver said of Carson. “Poodie told me I was going to be a first-rounder every day. Then, I started to tell myself that.”

Weaver embraced that confidence entering Pitt’s 2019 training camp, maintained it when the season was taken away from him and let it loose this past fall — something Carson saw coming from a mile away.

“I just saw a transformation over a year where this guy went from talented to really wanting something,” Carson said. “He’s just the epitome of a comeback story.”

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While the sports world burned with uncertainty, Weaver pushed on.

Last March, Weaver was present at Pitt’s spring camp, all three practices of it. He was lively during individual drills but still wasn’t cleared or ready for contact. Then, camp was canceled while the school was on spring break due to the early goings of the pandemic. While many players understandably stayed home, Weaver returned to Pittsburgh to continue rehab.

As the days passed, though, it felt more and more likely that college football wouldn’t go on in 2020. Weaver was vocal on Twitter that he and his teammates wanted to continue despite the coronavirus, following the lead of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who popularized the #IWantToPlay movement. But even then, some Panthers had their doubts.

“There were a lot of ups and downs, putting in all the work and just not knowing if there would be a season,” Weaver said. “You could ask Pat (Jones). He just wasn’t very confident we would have a season. I was just telling him every day, ‘Bro, we’re having a season. Don’t say that. That’s the last thing that I could afford.’”

In Weaver’s eyes, people forgot about him. Not necessarily teammates or coaches or Pitt fans, but rather the wider college football landscape. He was a third-team pick on Athlon’s preseason All-ACC list and an honorable mention on Pro Football Focus’ team, while left out of the conference’s official tally. Three Pitt players were named to the 90-member watch list for the 2020 Bednarik Award, given to college football’s best defensive player, and Weaver wasn’t one of them.

Weaver, who ended up being a Bednarik semifinalist, took those omissions as signs of disrespect.

Weaver’s frustrations were compounded by his delayed start to the 2020 season after season opener against Austin Peay due to COVID-related protocols. Weaver said two of his PCR tests came back positive for the virus, while other tests came back negative. Out of caution, Weaver was held out against Austin Peay and returned for Pitt’s ACC opener against Syracuse.

“That positive test just extended what he’d been waiting basically a whole year for and then some. ... But I was really happy for him when he exploded in the second game against Syracuse,” Partridge said of Weaver’s seven-tackle, two-sack debut. “It would have been heartbreaking if he didn’t get the chance to compete this season.”

Weaver finished his much-anticipated campaign with 14 1/2 tackles for loss, 12 hurries, 7 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles and two pass breakups. Prior to bowl season, he led the country in quarterback pressures, according to PFF, doing so in only nine games. He was a first-team All-ACC selection before becoming Pitt’s 52nd consensus All-American, the Panthers’ first defensive player to earn that status since Donald in 2013. A week later, Patrick Jones joined him as a consensus honoree.

In reaching that plateau, Weaver achieved what Carson first verbalized two summers ago. It was delayed a year, but the title of consensus All-American — one held by Hugh Green, Jimbo Covert and legends of Pitt’s past — isn’t lost on Weaver.

It’s not lost on scouts and draft experts, either, who already view Weaver as a sure-fire Day 2 pick, if not higher. Ben Fennell, an analyst with NFL Network, currently has Weaver going within the first 40-60 picks in April’s draft.

“Rashad’s ability to play the run and be really strong at the point of attack against tight ends and tackles make him a well-rounded player who’s not a liability in any phase,” Fennell said. “When I’m looking at a D-end, I want to get him on the field. I don’t want these situational guys who can only play on third down. I love the fact that he’s an every-down player. ... He’s the cream of the crop in that second- to third-round group.”

All things considered — from his ACL tear to the threat of COVID canceling the season — a second- or third-round selection would be pretty good for Weaver. Making about $5 million over a four-year span is nothing to scoff at.

But Fennell’s early projection won’t satisfy Weaver. At least not at this stage, with appearances at the Senior Bowl and NFL combine still to come. He’s training now in Phoenix, away from his home state of Florida, to ensure he’s not distracted — to make sure he’s focused on fulfilling what he wrote on his wrist every game day.

“In between plays and on the sidelines I’d look down at it and it would give me chills,” Weaver said. “A lot of people dream or say things but don’t get there or don’t put in the work. ... For it to be a possibility, it’s surreal and a blessing, and I have to keep building off of that. Because to be a first-rounder isn’t an easy feat. And it doesn’t stop now.”

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