Iroquois Park is just 90 minutes west of the University of Kentucky. Venture down there on July 30, 2023, and it will be difficult not to notice 6’5″, 244-pound Wildcats outside linebacker, J.J. Weaver, a crowd of kids, and 100 bicycles. It might be a short distance from his football home, but Weaver has come a long way as he uses his experiences to help others.
J.J. Weaver Proves the Perfect Fit for the Kentucky Community
“When I was growing up, we didn’t have that,” Weaver explains about the motivation behind “The Perfect Fit Bike Drive” that comes to Iroquois Park, Louisville later this month.
The initiative is just the latest from the Kentucky pass rusher, who has drawn on his life experiences and weaponized his platform as a football player to make a significant impact in the Kentucky community.
“Nobody came to our school, nobody did what we’re doing,” Weaver continues. “We didn’t have any football camps, we didn’t have any bike drives. I can put a smile on people’s faces for free, it never costs anyone anything. Seeing people smile, having fun, laughing and joking, running around. It makes me happy.”
Weaver will take 100 bikes, purchased from his own pocket and donations to his “The Perfect Fit” foundation, down to the park where the first 100 children will get to take them home as their own. The Kentucky linebacker will take the kids on a lap of the park, among other activities, before delivering a message of love, inspiration, and hope—one that comes from the heart.
“My favorite line, just be yourself,” is the message for those Kentucky kids from their Wildcats captain. “Don’t let nobody tell you that you can’t do anything. Conquer the world. Just overlap everybody, keep working hard, keep being an inspiration.”
Personal Experience Drives Weaver to Make an Impact in the Community
Weaver is able to deliver this message in an engaging, compassionate way because the Kentucky outside linebacker is an inspiration. His journey to Iroquois Park has been long; it has been difficult; it has been beset by setbacks, tragedy, and being on the receiving end of some of the less positive elements of humanity.
Rather than crush or destroy him, it has defined him. Life’s obstacles have given him a deep vault of experiences from which to draw, to share, and ultimately inspire. The Perfect Fit Bike Drive is the latest charitable endeavor to come from those experiences, but by no means is it the first.
To understand the wide-ranging impact Weaver has had on the Louisville community, you have to go back to a time before he was a standout pass rusher and visible leader on and off the field at the University of Kentucky. Football has given him the platform to benefit others, but it has also formed the foundations of his charitable endeavors.
“My whole family is big on football,” Weaver begins his story. “My Dad put me in football when I was four. My grandad put my Dad in football when he was four. We live and die football, coming from Florida. My Grandad was one of my best friends, like my Dad. They’ve been the great leaders in my life.”
In 2015, when J.J. was in eighth grade, Freddie Weaver—his grandfather—passed away after a battle with cancer. Hit hard by the loss, Weaver wanted to do something to honor his grandfather’s legacy. The foundation “15 for Freddie” was born in his ninth-grade year, combining his grandfather’s name with the year that he passed—a lasting reminder of his influence.
While most kids of that age are laser-focused on football, Weaver found a way to combine his pursuit of athletic excellence with a burning desire to have a positive impact on the local community. His early endeavors with “15 for Freddie” centered around feeding the homeless in the local area in honor of his grandfather.
A noble initiative, and one that came from a place close to home.
“I know the feeling,” Weaver explains the motivation for his early work. “I remember not eating meals at night sometime. I remember sleeping on the floor with my two brothers. I know the feeling. I just wanted to give back. It’s more than about handing out money, it’s about love.”
Weaver Finds the Perfect Fit at Kentucky
Weaver’s life experiences have shaped and molded the man he wants to be, the leader he wants to become, and the impact he wants to have in the local community. That started with the formation of “15 for Freddie” and has morphed into “The Perfect Fit” following his arrival at the University of Kentucky.
The Wildcats’ outside linebacker was born with a rare condition called polydactyly that can lead to extra toes or fingers on one or both of your feet or hands. Weaver has an extra, fully functioning finger on his right hand—as highlighted by a segment on ESPN’s College Gameday in 2021—and he explained how that led to a name change for his foundation.
“About two years ago, when NIL started getting big, I ended up getting in contact with Nike. I used to put the five finger gloves on and just squeeze two together, but Nike ended up making me my own personal glove so that it would fit. So we called it The Perfect Fit.”
Under “The Perfect Fit,” Weaver has been able to host a football camp in Louisville and also ran an event called “Back to School with J.J.,” where he bought backpacks and school supplies for 100 children in Louisville while also paying for free haircuts for kids so they could look smart on their return to school.
It’s just another example of Weaver using his own experience to ensure that he can impact other people. He knows what it’s like to look different from other people in his school and how cruel kids can be to those who don’t “fit in” with their peers. Those experiences played a large part in him remaining quiet about his extra finger until just two years ago.
“I used to get bullied,” Weaver opens up about the nervousness he felt discussing his hand. “How tall I am now, a lot of people wouldn’t expect that. But being the only person in school who had an extra finger, I used to get picked on a lot. I was just so shy and scared to open up about it. Now, I’m bigger, taller, stronger, than everybody so they can’t bully me anymore.”
“I feel like I want to show the world now.”
While admitting that he still gets a little nervous because of not knowing what people’s reactions may be, Weaver has used his platform as a football player to bring positive attention to people born with extra fingers and toes as a result of polydactyly. He’s taken on board advice given to himself in his journey and used it to have an impact on other kids who are walking in his footsteps.
“I was one of those kids getting bullied in school,” Weaver explains his feelings on the school visits to talk to kids with extra fingers — as shown on College Gameday. “When they saw me, their eyes opened up big. It’s bigger than me, bigger than life. I just want to keep being a leader, and an inspiration to kids to be themselves and to be able to open up.”
Weaver Opens Up to Opening Up
Just be yourself. It’s a three-word phrase that epitomizes Weaver and his outlook on life. It’s a three-word phrase that he takes and teaches to kids from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, going through all manners of obstacles in life.
It isn’t always easy to practice what you preach, however, and in 2020, the Kentucky linebacker wasn’t himself. In June, his father—Terrance Weaver—was murdered during a home invasion. The loss of his father and best friend, just five years after the loss of his grandfather, took a heavy toll on the young man.
“I was struggling, hard,” Weaver recalls. “It hit me hard. I tore my ACL from anger over losing my Dad. I was just out there playing football angry. Once I didn’t have football, I was so lost and confused about what to do. I was failing classes, stopped going to workouts, mentally I was messed up. I was like, man, I need help.”
Even in the modern world, there’s still an element of toxic masculinity prevalent in certain environments where it isn’t deemed socially acceptable for a man to talk about his emotions. Weaver admits that it was hard to open up and discuss his feelings about the loss of his male role models, but in a grief counselor, he found another perfect fit.
“At first, I was like, man she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Weaver begins to explain his relationship with his grief counsellor. “My counselor lost her mom, so she was still grieving. She lost her mom, I lost my dad. It was perfect timing, we were grieving together.”
Going through those experiences and learning that talking about feelings and emotions is a valuable resource has helped Weaver become a mental health advocate at the University of Kentucky. Like with his work with the local community, the Kentucky star wants to make an impact by giving fellow athletes a place to come when they need to unload a mental burden.
“What I’m about to do now, is start my own grieving group at the University of Kentucky. Last semester, I was in an internship with a grieving program, but we don’t have one at UK. With my story, I feel like I bring athletes who have lost someone they love, every other week, and sit down in a circle – I like circles because you can feel the vibes and energy.”
Under the weight of adversity, it would have been easy for Weaver to fold. It would have been easy to give up. He was born in Florida, where guns and drugs are the common answer to life’s problems. But here in Kentucky, the place he calls home, he draws strength from using his experiences for a greater good.
“When you want something so bad, you’re going to keep working at it. I want to help my community out, and be a positive role model.”
Weaver has had positive role models since arriving at the University of Kentucky, and he continuously strives to be one himself. A community that has raised, shaped, and accepted him, in many ways now depends on him. They’ve come together for the betterment of each other in what can only be described as a perfect fit.