Size doesn't matter for Westbrook
Never has a touchdown that wasn't scored created such a stir. But for the Philadelphia Eagles' Brian Westbrook, a play that did not result in six points encapsulates what brought the 5-foot-8, 200-pound running back from the Division I-AA level in college to NFL Pro Bowler.
It was Dec. 16, 2007 and Philadelphia was leading the Cowboys, 10-6, with 2:29 remaining. Westbrook took the ball from the Dallas 25-yard line and was clear for the touchdown. Instead, he stopped at the 1-yard line and took a knee. That act enabled the Eagles to take three knees, kill the clock and seal the win. It is one of the most unselfish plays in NFL history.
"The professional you see right now, that's who he is. Brian would walk into a room and you wouldn't know he was in the room. He was very humble, very unassuming, and never boastful. He let his actions speak for his deeds," said his high school coach, Bill McGregor, who is still going strong at DeMatha Catholic High of Hyattsville, Md. "As great as an athlete as he is, he's an even better person."
Westbrook is the latest big-time pro to be profiled in this preps to pro series, which is designed to inspire those current high school athletes who aren't being recruited by colleges. In Westbrook's case, injury and lack of size were reasons he wasn't recruited. But neither of those things prevented him from eventually becoming an NFL superstar.
Before Westbrook could become known for not finding the end zone, he had to find a college. That proved to be especially difficult when he was injured before his senior year at DeMatha.
The summer before his senior season, Westbrook pulled some muscles in his hip when he competed in, and won, a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) slam-dunk contest. A few weeks later, Westbrook stepped in a gopher hole during football practice, tearing the cartilage and ligaments in his knee. Those injuries limited him to five games and limited his college offers.
"A lot of guys were coming in and saying he wasn't as fast as they thought he was. Or he wasn't as quick," McGregor said. "The thing is, you knew he was a great player and you're telling those guys that he's playing with a torn ACL and torn cartilage. Some guys backed off."
Some of Westbrook's collegiate offers were to play defensive back, but the player who some scouts thought too small chose Division I-AA Villanova because the Wildcats believed he could carry the ball.
And carry the ball he did.
Westbrook still holds every major Villanova rushing record: career rushing, single season rushing, career touchdowns, season touchdowns, single game touchdowns, most attempts. The list goes on -- he established 41 Villanova, 13 Atlantic 10 Conference, and five NCAA records.
Among Westbrook's NCAA marks, his 9,512 total yards set the NCAA record for total yards in a career. He amassed 4,298 rushing yards along with 2,529 receiving, 2,289 on kickoff returns and 33 on punt returns.
"You never know how great somebody is going to be or not going to be because of so many things involved. The career he had at DeMatha was phenomenal both as a football and basketball player. Kids just don't do some of the things that he did," McGregor said. "Brian has the intangibles that so many people don't have -- that drive and desire and work ethic to be good. He has the heart of a lion."
Even with that work ethic and the numbers to back it up, many NFL scouts did not think Westbrook could do the job, either. Then Andy Reid, who lives near Villanova, took a chance on Westbrook, drafting him in the third round of the 2002 NFL draft.
With incumbents Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter ahead of him on the depth chart, Westbrook's Eagles' career did not take off immediately, but in 2004 he started to make teams realize that sometimes size really does not matter.
Named the full-time starting running back in 2004, Westbrook led all NFL running backs in receiving with 73 catches for 703 yards. He added 812 rushing yards and was a key component in the Eagles' 13-3 season and Super Bowl appearance.
A foot injury caused Westbrook to miss the final four regular season games of the 2005 season, but the 29-year-old bounced back in 2006 with 1,217 rushing yards and 699 receiving. He also helped get the Eagles back to the playoffs and rushed for 141 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles' Wild Card round victory over the Giants.
Westbrook was even better in 2007: He accounted for more than 2,000 total yards and solidified his place as a team leader.
If he continues putting up numbers like he has, Westbrook could be a Hall of Fame candidate, but for all the numbers it was a choice -- to put the team ahead of himself by forgoing a touchdown -- that makes Westbrook a big-time Pro.
Mike Loveday covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.
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