“Everybody viewed us in the neighborhood as these weird people,” Weatherford said.
Deeply religious, his parents gave the children a fundamentalist education steeped in scripture. While Weatherford’s dad went to work, his mother, Cathy, taught, starting each day the same way: prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, Bible reading.
It wasn’t until Weatherford’s sophomore year that he convinced his parents to let him attend a public high school. The football team there would set the course for Weatherford’s success and shield him from separate tragedies.
The first one came in May 1995, when Peter died. The second came less than a year later, when Weatherford was 16.
Weatherford sat in the backseat of a friend’s Toyota Camry as it cruised the narrow residential streets of Land O’Lakes. Weatherford told the Florida Highway Patrol that the driver was speeding before losing control.
The Camry’s right side smashed into a palm tree. Weatherford hit his head and blacked out. When he woke, blood covered the body of the boy sitting in the passenger seat. He was dead.
“It was a traumatic thing to go through at 16,” Weatherford said.
While he struggled to cope with the trauma, his coaches got him to focus on football.
Weatherford — like a Weatherford should — excelled at football, and Jacksonville University recruited him to play defensive end.
Jacksonville coach Steven Gilbert said Weatherford had a maturity level that set him apart from the other players, except in one respect. He partied.
After his freshman season, Weatherford, 19, got a second degree misdemeanor in Manatee County for using a fake ID. He pleaded guilty, paid a $200 fine and was ordered to 25 hours of public service.
After his sophomore year, now 20 and a hefty 240 pounds, Weatherford was arrested in Ybor City after the Sant’ Yago Knight Parade. When Tampa police arrived to find a brawl on 7th Avenue, others fled. Weatherford and a friend were handcuffed and charged with a first degree misdemeanor. He spent the night in jail.
He says the fight began after a belligerent drunk bumped into his 16-year-old brother, Sam.
“So I took care of it,” said Weatherford.
Asked to explain further, he said: “I think I punched him in the face. Got him on the ground, and then, when I had him on the ground, I was beating on him.
“I wouldn’t do that now,” he adds. “I was a little wild, yeah. I was a big football player, and I had a big ego.”
By his senior year, Weatherford managed his wild streak and was team captain and vice president of student government.
A freshman football player named Jason Bense joined the team that year, and coaches wanted Bense to room with Weatherford.
As the two bonded, Weatherford started hanging out with Bense’s parents, Tonie and Allan.
Weatherford was intrigued that Allan was a state representative. They’d talk for hours about politics over dinner.
“Within two minutes of meeting him,” Bense said, “I could tell he was a great person.”
Bense soon hired him. A successful businessman from Panama City, Bense was first elected as a state representative in 1998. In early 2004, he was preparing to take over as House speaker. Bense moved Weatherford to his Panama City office, paid him $22,000, and had him handle local issues for his district.