Notre Dame defensive end Tony Weaver is a man because Ralph Weaver taught him to be one. And in this case, manhood doesn't equal profane gesturing, nor is it defined by overt displays of teary-eyed sensitivity. In the Weaver household, manhood is defined by the principle of showing up.
The Weaver family is founded on the principle of decisive migration. That's what brought Tony Weaver's parents together 23 years ago. Ralph -- stout, fiesty, and Irish -- met Melanie -- determined, impossibly polite, and Samoan -- at Fort Dix, N.J. He was a young drill sergeant and she was a teenager who'd flown 14 grueling hours from the South Pacific to join the Army, to be struck with the misfortune of being assigned to his company.
Love at first sight? Hardly. "He was a nasty son of a bitch," says Melanie. "I never had anyone talk to me like that. If I could have hit him in the face, I would have."
This brings a low, raspy, rumbling laugh from Ralph. "I used to make fun of her last name, 'cause I had trouble sayin' it," he says. "Opetaia? What the hell kinda name is that? Where'd you come from?"
After basic training, Melanie was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, when Ralph began writing her letters each week. Refusing to violate the military code of fraternization, Ralph waited until Melanie was gone before he launched his romantic speed rush. So what was it about Melanie that got Ralph's attention? "Well, she tried real hard," he says.
"He doesn't want to go there!" laughs Melanie.
When he got 10 days' leave, Ralph headed to Texas. He and Melanie were married the next year, and Tony was born a year later.
I'd rather not call the Weavers' two-bedroom home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., something painfully corny like "it's the house that love built." But Ralph and Melanie did build the wood cabin themselves. And Melanie did hold each plank of knotty pine while Ralph pounded the nail into it. And the basement, Tony's room, does have a jacuzzi and an indoor pond that Ralph built himself. And you can't throw a rock without hitting at least two things that contain the words "Notre Dame".
Seated in front of a three-foot blue and gold ND football banner, Ralph says, "I believe people should take care of their kids."
That's why Ralph, a retired sergeant major, who spent most of his life training kids to avoid getting hurt, has but one thing to distract him from April's draft. "I know I'm too old, but if they asked me to go to Afghanistan, I'd go right now," he says. For the first time that day, his eyes, magnified by silver square rims, lose their gleam and he looks, well, like a drill sergeant. And you see why Tony listens to his dad. You see why Tony listened when Ralph told him that each time he puts on a helmet that he has to become a different person. At that moment, Ralph becomes a different person. Still loving, still compassionate, he's hard and unyielding on this topic.
"Those are kids dying there," says Ralph. "They all belong to someone."
That sense of belonging doesn't end with Ralph and Melanie. It extends to the young man who a week from now will realize a lifelong dream. When I told Tony I wanted to interview his parents at their home in upstate New York, he offered to interrupt his pre-draft workouts in Florida, preparing for what he calls "the biggest day in his life," to catch a flight home. Of course Ralph and Melanie have always done the same for him.
They accompanied Tony on recruiting trips to Syracuse, Michigan, Florida and Notre Dame. And after Tony left for college, Melanie had a plan to fill the empty house. "I told Ralph we should adopt a child," she says. Ralph's response, then and now, was a blend of his quick humor and gruff compassion. "We need to adopt a motor home is what we need to do," he told her. Instead they settled on a silver Chrysler Windstar minivan. How else could they drive 11 hours to South Bend every Friday? By the time Tony's sophomore year rolled around, the odometer read 90,000 miles, so they replaced that van with another one just like it.
They drove to 44 of Tony's 47 college games, missing two games in California and one against Boston College when Ralph's mother passed away. Ralph is currently undecided about purchasing an RV for the next phase of their gridiron travels.
Ralph is the 13th of 14 kids, and Melanie the sixth of seven. With their endless reserve of love, it begs the question of why the Weavers don't have more kids. When Melanie senses that question is coming, she gives it away with her eyes. She squints, and then, with a blink, she erases what was once sadness, but what is now only pride and caring. She sits up straight and says, "It just wasn't meant to be."
What was meant to be was this Irish-Samoan family whose members drop everything to support each other. For Tony's high school graduation, 40 of his relatives came from Samoa and various parts of the U.S. for a luau. His aunts, uncles, and cousins performed dances representing South Pacific islands -- New Zealand, Tonga, Guam, Hawaii, and of course Samoa. Throughout the festivities, all captured on VHS, Ralph is conspicuously absent.
When asked why, his response is gruffly incredulous. "Who the hell you think was cookin' those pigs?"
The man of the house, of course.
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