Former Illini Steve Weatherford talks about being a rookie punter for the New Orleans Saints

Peter Hoffman The Daily Illini — Illinois kicker Steve Weatherford executes a punt during a game versus Indiana in Bloomington, Ind. Daily Illini File Photo

In fall 2005, Steve Weatherford finished his career in Champaign as one of the best punters in Illinois football history, holding school records for career and single-season punting averages. The Terre Haute, Ind., native signed a free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints last spring, and this fall became the team’s starting punter.

On Sunday, Weatherford and the Saints beat the Philadelphia Eagles for a trip to Chicago, where they will face the Bears in the NFC championship.

Weatherford punted three times for an average 40.3 yards against the Eagles, and turned what would have been a blocked punt into a 15-yard rushing effort in the last seconds of the first half.

During the Saints’ bye week on Jan. 7 and again after the win on Monday, Weatherford talked to the Daily Illini about life after Illinois football and coming so close to a Super Bowl appearance.

Daily Illini: What happened with that fake punt on Saturday?

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    Steve Weatherford: It was a last-minute decision, like, “Oh, they’re coming to get me.” I did get the first down, but more or less it was an important play because they didn’t block the punt and score on the block. But it was just me going into survival mode, running for the first down and then running out of bounds.

    DI: How has the transition to the NFL been?

    SW: It’s actually been pretty smooth. Honestly, the only thing that’s really changed is that I don’t have any classes. I still punt the ball the same way I did in college, I still practice the same way I did, I still do everything the same, I just don’t have classes to go to.

    DI: What’s it like playing in New Orleans?

    SW: It’s awesome. They were kind of grasping for something down here, after everything that happened, and this is the third time since the Saints came here in 1967 that we’ve won a division championship. It makes it that much more enjoyable because we’ve given everybody something to be proud of.

    DI: Did you ever imagine that you’d be starting as a rookie?

    SW: I’m not really surprised. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I’ve always known I could do it, that if I set my mind to something I could do it. I’ve always been a good athlete. I always knew God gave me enough talent to do it, but I also knew God had to give me the right opportunity. So am I surprised? No. Blessed? Yes. I know there are a lot of guys with just as much talent as me, but not as much opportunity.

    DI: You’re not the only Illini guy on the Saints.

    SW: No. Coach (Greg) McMahon is our assistant special teams coach, so I work with him all the time. And (linebacker) Danny Clark is down here. I’m really good friends with Danny; I’m getting married in a couple weeks and he’s coming to my wedding.

    We’re surrounded by Ohio State and Michigan guys down here, so it’s great to have somebody else to back you up as an Illini. And even coach (Sean) Payton coached at Illinois early in his career.

    DI: How exciting is it to be on a successful team?

    SW: It’s good. In college it never really felt like we were losers, but we were so young, especially my junior and senior years, it was hard to compete with some of the other teams in the Big Ten. Everybody treats you better when you’re winning. I had a great time in Champaign the five years I was there, but I was ready to take the next step, to start off my career.

    DI: What’s been the biggest change since your last season at Illinois?

    SW: As far as football goes, I’m facing much tougher athletes returning my punts – tougher athletes in general. So far I’ve had no punts returned for touchdowns, knock on wood. I still try to do what I did in college, but the athletes around me are much tougher.

    Off the field, I have a lot more free time, time to spend with my fianc‚e, lounge around, do fun stuff.

    DI: With the wedding so soon, a new house and time on your hands, have you been doing a lot of that nesting stuff?

    SW: Oh, I’ve spent a lot of money on stuff for the house, but you have to do that. It’s not exciting buying all that stuff, but I’m having fun with it. I’m buying a lot nicer stuff than I could afford if I had a normal job.

    DI: Have you been back to Champaign at all?

    SW: Yeah, I came back on my bye week, but I just kind of passed through town, stopped to talk to some of the coaches and stuff. I was on my way up to Chicago to hang out with some of my former teammates. But I’ll definitely be back for the spring game; I wouldn’t miss it.

    DI: What’s Reggie Bush like as a teammate?

    SW: He’s very, very quiet, but he’s a great teammate. You know me, if I’ve got something negative to say about somebody, I say it, but I’ve got nothing bad to say about him. He’s a great teammate, he works hard, he’s always positive. Luckily I haven’t had any really horrible punts, but he’s always seemed positive on the sidelines. It’s really cool having him as a teammate.

    DI: What’s the best thing about living in New Orleans?

    SW: The food. The food, and the fans. The fans down here are amazing; even when we lost two games in a row, I’d go out to a steakhouse or something and everybody was just so positive about the team.

    DI: Do you think the Saints will go all the way?

    SW: I think we’ve got as good a chance as anybody in the playoffs. We beat some really good teams this season. I don’t want to say we’ll win it all, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    DI: What do you miss most about Champaign?

    SW: I miss that breakfast place at Kirby and Neil, Merry Ann’s. I love that place. And I miss the fans in Champaign; they were awesome. That’s the thing; we lost quite a bit in my time there, and those fans always filled Memorial Stadium. We had great fans.