- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The first thing that sticks out about St. Louis Rams defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks is the tattoo adorning his face. Westbrooks has plenty of tattoos, but the one on his left cheek, not far below his eye that reads, "Laugh now, Cry later" with a picture of a happy and sad face, is impossible to ignore.
As explanations for facial tattoos go, Westbrooks at least offers something relatively easy to digest. The story goes that Westbrooks was working at a Toys "R" Us in Sacramento while playing football and going to school at Sacramento City Junior College. He didn't like the job and decided when he quit that he had no intention of working a normal job again. So he went searching for a way to push himself to attain that goal. Somehow, he decided there was no better way to do that than to have a reminder staring him in the face every time he looked in the mirror.
"I was just like I might as well go ahead and get it on the face because if nothing else, it will help motivate me to either be a guy that has a tattoo on his face looking for another job or hopefully I make it in the NFL and don’t have to work too hard to do something (else)," Westbrooks said. "I don’t feel it’s a bad thing now. I don’t regret it. It speaks for itself."
But if things go as Westbrooks hopes, he'll soon be known for much more than his most prominent body art. If he performs to the level he believes he can, Westbrooks will not only win a spot on the Rams' roster, he'll also be the guy who prevents seventh-round pick Michael Sam from making it.
An undrafted rookie free agent from Division II West Texas A&M by way of Sacramento City, Westbrooks is a 6-foot-4, 267-pound road block on Sam's path to history. Westbrooks' track record might pale in comparison to Sam, the co-Defensive Player of the Year from the nation's best football conference, the SEC. But Westbrooks has an impressive resume in his own right.
In 2012, Westbrooks earned the Division II Defensive Player of the Year award when he posted 19.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss. He earned first-team all Lone Star conference honors last year when he managed 19.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries despite increased attention. At January's East-West Shrine Classic, Westbrooks proved capable against better competition when he earned the East team's defensive MVP award after getting two sacks.
Despite that output, Westbrooks went undrafted in May because of discipline problems. He had 30 penalties in two seasons at West Texas A&M, including jumping offside for half of those flags. "I did come from a Division II (school) and there was supposedly stuff said that I had off-the-field issues and things like that," Westbrooks said. "It’s out of your hands when it comes to the draft."
Soon after the draft was over and Westbrooks' name wasn't called, his future landed back in his hands when several teams came calling with free agent contract offers. He quickly narrowed his choices to the Rams and Dallas Cowboys. He says the final decision came down to feeling more wanted in St. Louis after Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle and general manager Les Snead called him with recruiting pitches. It didn't hurt that the Rams valued Westbrooks enough to make him their highest-paid rookie free agent. The team offered a $20,000 signing bonus, big money for an undrafted rookie.
"I thought I was going to get drafted, but it definitely humbles you and shows you that you really can’t do anything about it," Westbrooks said. "You just have to lay back, and when it’s your time to put in that work, that’s what you’ve got to keep doing to get recognized. I’m just glad I got the chance to keep on continuing in my career as a football player."
Wesbtrooks walked into one of the most crowded defensive line groups in the league in St. Louis. As it is with Sam, making the roster figures to be an uphill climb. St. Louis has eight defensive linemen all but engraved on the roster, and though they've kept nine each of the past two seasons, there's no guarantee they will again.
Making matters more difficult, Westbrooks suffered a setback two weeks before training camp when he suffered a hamstring injury while training at Sacramento City. The injury landed him on the non-football injury list at the start of camp and put him behind in the race for a potential roster spot.
Westbrooks returned to practice last week and immediately showed some of the pass-rushing ability that had so many teams coveting his services after the draft. He's jumped into the mix at tackle and end since his return. Because he didn't miss any preseason games, he also didn't miss any prime opportunities to begin making a case for a roster spot.
While Sam's play has leveled off a bit since the opening days of camp, Westbrooks could be primed to make a statement in the next few weeks. For what it's worth, Westbrooks is well aware that he's standing in the way of one of the league's most compelling stories.
But with a 3-year-old daughter and family to provide for, Westbrooks knows what must be done.
"The whole me-and-Michael Sam thing, I wish him nothing but the best in his endeavors on the football field," Westbrooks said. "He has a competitive spirit, I have a competitive spirit -- what better way to really just boost one another or see what one another is really made of, to have that (competition).
"You make your friends and friendships along the way, but it’s a competitive business, and the way they put it is it’s a productive business. So you definitely have to be able to compete and produce, and with that, I guess the cream rises to the top."
Although Westbrooks' story wouldn't be a historic step for the game, it's clear he has dreams of his own. The proof is written all over his face.