Bob Ford: Brian Westbrook spent career proving doubters wrong

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Brian Westbrook retired as a member of the Eagles on Wednesday, August 29. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

When it comes to the physical talents of Brian Westbrook and the "Oh, my" moments that could take one by surprise, Andy Talley had a little head start on the rest of us.

Talley already knew that Westbrook was a great athlete and a good student and - maybe, just maybe - good enough to succeed at college football when the head coach began to recruit him to Villanova.

There were drawbacks, of course. Westbrook was generously listed as 5-foot-8 as he came to an end of his high school career at DeMatha in the suburban Washington town of Hyattsville, Md. He was a two-sport star but had also damaged his hip flexor and had a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in one knee.

The Division I-A football schools decided he wasn't a good risk, and it seemed Westbrook would either opt to play football at the I-AA level or he would take a basketball scholarship at a middling Division I school. That's when Villanova got involved, a little late in the game perhaps, and Talley traveled to DeMatha to watch Westbrook play . . . basketball.

"There was very little tape to look at, so I went to see him play," Talley said. "He came out and during warm-ups he dunked the ball. I said, 'Really?' "

If that was the first "Oh, my," it was far from the last, and Talley got to be on hand Wednesday to see the story to a conclusion when he attended Westbrook's official retirement ceremony at the NovaCare Complex.

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"I can't believe he's retired," Talley said, as if the time, like the player himself, had somehow gone too fast.

For Westbrook, it did go too fast. He will be just 33 this Sunday, but his football age is far greater than that. He took punishment through high school, college, and the pros, and his last two seasons in the NFL, in 2009 with the Eagles and 2010 with the 49ers, were payment for the debt his body incurred.

"A third-round pick who was too small, who would only be a special-teams player, to an all-pro, to a two-time all-pro selection, to the franchise leader in total yards from scrimmage. It's been a great ride," Westbrook said Wednesday.

As they do at times like these, people picked out their favorite moments from his career. Broadcaster Merrill Reese and Westbrook both settled on the 2003 punt-return touchdown against the Giants. Talley's keepsake went back further and wasn't really a moment, but a game. It was the game when he knew what he had.

Westbrook had a good freshman year at Villanova, but nothing that was off the charts. That 1997 team was undefeated, and the little running back was just one cog in a very good offense that also included receiver Brian Finneran.

In the offseason, Talley and his staff revamped the offense to take better advantage of Westbrook, giving him the chance to catch the ball more often, to operate out of the slot sometimes as well as line up in the backfield.

Villanova opened the 1998 season on the road against Pitt, and it was going to be interesting to see how Westbrook could do against a Division I-A defense.

Well, Westbrook had 428 all-purpose yards in the game. He had four touchdowns - one rushing, two receiving and one on a kickoff return. Pitt won the game, 48-41, but it was Panthers coach Walt Harris who did the congratulating after the game.

"Who the hell is No. 20?" Harris said to Talley. "Where did you get him from?"

"At that point, we knew we had something special, because he was able to do it at the next level against bigger, faster guys," Talley said. "When he left Villanova, I said I thought he could be the next Marshall Faulk, and Brian proved that he's that kind of player."

He proved it over and over, absorbing hits, working through injuries, enduring concussions, turning what had been the potential for greatness into an actually great career.

"I don't pester pro coaches about our players. That's their business, and they look at tons of film. So I never pick up the phone and say, 'You've got to take this guy,' " Talley said. "But I saw Andy Reid at a banquet [after Westbrook's final season at Villanova], and I said, 'Our No. 20 is very special.' That's all I said. I never said another word."

Apparently, he didn't have to. Now Westbrook's career speaks for itself. If it needs further confirmation, Westbrook will get it when he is honored this season at halftime of the Eagles' Dec. 23 game against the Redskins.

It did all go too quickly, but it was really something while it lasted.

"Taking him in the third round was the best chance the Eagles ever took," Talley said.

Oh, my, yes.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.