Years from now, well into the next century, wide receiver
Michael Westbrook will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of
Fame. Oh, yes, he will. At his preinduction dinner there will be
a taped tribute from Jerry Rice, slightly gray and a little
stooped, saying, "I hate to admit this, man, but you played the
game the way I wanted to." During coffee, Westbrook himself will
limp to the podium and thank his mom, God, his teammates. He'll
say, "Coach, I told you good things would happen if you just
ordered 'em to throw me the ball 20 times a game." Several
hundred celebrants, cheesecake in their mouths, will laugh.
Nobody will remember the two episodes from 1997. Nobody will
remember that once people were asking, "When will Michael
Westbrook grow up?"
In the meantime....
Episode No. 1. Aug. 19, 1997. Preseason practice at Redskin Park
in Ashburn, Va. Several players are standing on the sideline,
needling one another. Stephen Davis, a second-year running back,
tells Westbrook he isn't worth the money he's making.
(Westbrook, the fourth pick in the 1995 draft, held out for 26
days that summer before signing a seven-year, $18 million
contract with Washington.) Davis chides Westbrook for not
playing hurt. (In his first two seasons Westbrook missed 10
games with injuries.) "You're a f------ fag," Davis says.
Westbrook snaps. He throws Davis to the ground and punches him
in the head at least five times. A television cameraman catches
every blow on tape.
Episode No. 2. Nov. 23, 1997. The Redskins are playing the New
York Giants at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. The Giants are in first
place in the NFC East. Washington is one game back. The score is
7-7 with 48 seconds left in overtime, and the Skins are facing
second-and-10 at the New York 38. Jeff Hostetler drops back and
passes to Westbrook, who is having the game of his career, nine
receptions for 125 yards. Westbrook makes a diving catch near
the 25 but is ruled out-of-bounds. While arguing the decision,
Westbrook yanks off his helmet, which results in an automatic
15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Two plays later, with
11 seconds to go, the Redskins attempt a 54-yard field goal,
which falls short. The game ends in a tie.
Now would be a good time to pose to Westbrook the very question
Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant after the latter's rendezvous with
Divine Brown: "What were you thinking?" But you can't. Michael
Westbrook stopped granting interviews after Episode No. 1.
"Michael has more natural, God-given talent than anybody I've
ever been around, except Bo Jackson," says Terry Robiskie, the
Redskins' wide receivers coach. "In time he'll be one of the
dominant players in the NFL. But right now, is he focused on all
the things in football that he should be? No, he is not."
Westbrook's friends rise to his defense. They concede that he
was impulsive and wrong to yank off his helmet in the heat of
battle but that he was responding from the heart. Their biggest
fear is that Westbrook will never escape the shadow of his
"People who know him will go to the mat for him," says Darian
Hagan, who played with Westbrook at Colorado. "Mike's major
problem is one of perception. He has been in two unfortunate
situations. I watched the helmet-throwing incident, and my heart
just dropped. I knew what the media would make of it. I had seen
him as sort of turning the corner after the fight with Davis.
Then this happens. In three seconds of life, a situation occurs,
and nothing he's done before makes a difference."
Westbrook's friends and family have seen him bounce back from
mistakes before. During Westbrook's freshman year at Colorado,
1991, Buffaloes coach Bill McCartney told his staff he was
kicking Westbrook off the team because he was doing poorly in
the classroom and showing up late for practices and team
meetings. However, Les Steckel, then a Colorado assistant coach
and now the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Oilers,
persuaded McCartney to give Westbrook one more chance. Steckel
made Westbrook his special project and, using a combination of
headlocks and gentle prodding, connected with him in a way no
other coach, and probably no other adult male, ever had. He
turned Westbrook around. "Attention, affirmation and affection,"
says Steckel. "This kid was starving for it."
Westbrook went on to catch the now famous Hail Mary pass that
beat Michigan in 1994, and his size (6'3" and 220 pounds) and
athleticism (in high school he high-jumped 6'7" and long-jumped
23'0") wowed NFL scouts. After the Redskins drafted Westbrook,
Steckel told them they were getting a great player, but he
added, "He's an emotional guy, and you have to somehow comfort
him. You have to stroke him, you have to put your arm around
him, you have to constantly let him express himself to you."
Steckel was dismayed--though not shocked--when he saw the
helmet-throwing incident. "When it happened, my heart ached for
him because I thought, There he is again, showing signs [of
pent-up anger] like so many other players," says Steckel.
"They've got this built-in hostility about not only football but
life in general. It's sad sometimes; these big, tough guys need
a little TLC. I think he needs that."
Westbrook grew up among the working poor on Burnette Avenue on
the west side of Detroit, living with his mother, Mercy
Westbrook, as well as his grandmother, an older brother and
sister, and three uncles. (The brother, Alonzo, is now a
television news reporter in Charlotte. The sister, Lisa, is a
hairdresser in Jacksonville.) The house had three bedrooms and a
lot of religion. Michael's father, a construction worker named
Bobby Sledge, who once played linebacker at Alabama A&M, lived
in the neighborhood, but he and Michael weren't close. Mercy
Westbrook supported the family by working at Frito-Lay, sorting
potato-chip bags, never earning more than $27,000 in a year.
Since turning pro, Westbrook has bought a house for Mercy,
another for his grandmother and one for himself. His, in
Sterling, Va., has a 35-seat movie theater in which he can
indulge his passion for karate flicks. In the garage is a
$250,000 Lamborghini; when he was growing up, his family never
owned a car. His bookshelves hold all of Anne Rice's novels, a
reflection of his love of vampire stories. He has televisions,
big ones and little ones, scattered throughout the house, but as
he once told Charles Mann, a former Redskins defensive end who
is now a sports reporter for WUSA-TV in Washington, "I never
watch football. I'm not even a football fan."
Westbrook, who is not married, has a 21-month-old daughter, Ky
Lisa Westbrook, who lives with her mother in Colorado. Last
weekend Ky was in for a visit, but she didn't bring her dad and
his teammates much luck. The Skins lost 23-20 on Sunday to the
lowly St. Louis Rams. Veteran cornerback Ryan McNeil was all
over Westbrook, who caught just three passes for 40 yards.
Nevertheless, McNeil had only praise for Westbrook afterward.
"He's impressive," McNeil said. "He throws guys around like
they're rag dolls. He's a fast big man. He's on the bubble of
becoming a star."
Unfortunately for the Redskins, he's already acting like a
star--a coddled one. When Westbrook came off the field after the
helmet incident, Robiskie got in his face and said, "That was
f------ stupid." To which Westbrook responded, "F--- you."
Regarding the fight with Davis, Westbrook has told a friend that
he thinks it was just his bad luck to have the punches captured
by a TV camera. That's his chief regret.
Michael Westbrook talks about becoming one of the great ones, a
Jerry Rice, better than Jerry Rice. He tells friends that all he
needs is good health and more passes thrown in his direction.
The Redskins are committed to him. They're eager to see what he
will be when he finally grows up.