August 05, 2015
Brian Westbrook was a contradiction of sorts. Despite often being the smallest player on the field, the 5-foot-10 back seemed to always make the biggest plays in the biggest moments.
The punt return against the Giants. The touchdown pass to Todd Pinkston. The 4.6 yards-per-carry he averaged in the postseason. The 71-yard touchdown reception in the 2009 Wild Card game against the Vikings. And the list goes on.
Even when Westbrook came up short of the end zone, it was special.
And on Tuesday, the Eagles announced another special moment for the franchise leader in career yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards. On October 19th, he'll be inducted -- along with Maxie Baughan -- into the Eagles Hall of Fame.
The team the Eagles will be playing that night? The New York Giants, a team Westbrook victimized throughout his career. And no, it isn't a coincidence.
"When Mr. Lurie called me he said, ‘We couldn't have chosen a better game to kind of induct you to the Hall of Fame than when we play against the Giants,'" Westbrook said. "And he just said, ‘You took so much pride in playing against those guys.' For me it was a great matchup and a great opportunity to show people close what we can really do here and what I can do as a player, but it's kind of fitting that I'll go into the Hall of Fame against the Giants."
"Fitting" may be underselling it a bit.
In 12 career regular season games against the Giants, Westbrook scored 13 touchdowns (7 rushing, 5 receiving, 1 return), more than any other opponent, and averaged 108.6 yards from scrimmage per game (70.1 rushing, 38.5 receiving). And of course, this:
For Westbrook, the importance of that return went beyond the outcome of the game. It put him on the map.
"I think about it all the time," Westbrook said of the game-winning punt return against the Giants in 2003. "I kind of label that game in my mind 'the game.' It was kind of my breakout game, my coming out where people kind of knew what I was, but it's not until you make big plays like that consistently that people can know that the team can hand you the ball and know you have that capability as a player.
"Just like Rocky, they love the underdog," Westbrook said. "They love a guy coming from a small school just willing to work his butt off, to dedicate himself to the game.
"It wasn't really until that point that people actually saw the talent I was able to have. As a player, that boosts your confidence and takes your confidence to a whole other level. It allows you to go a little bit more freely, and it allowed me to open up my game a little bit as well."
And while that moment ranks right up there with winning the NFC title for the former Eagle, he remembers the times he spent with his teammates just as fondly.
"I think, personally, the punt return against the Giants means a lot," Westbrook said, to the surprise of no one in the room. "Winning those playoff games, beating Minnesota, beating Atlanta here to go to the Super Bowl means a lot to me.
"When I think about the memories of playing football here, you just think mostly about the time you shared with your teammates, those times in the locker room, times on the practice field. You really just messing around, just guys in the locker room messing around, hanging out. Those are the things that you think about, but you also think about the games that you won. We won an awful lot of games while I was here..."
And all that winning certain endeared Westbrook, along with his teammates, to the Philadelphia fans.
A few months ago, we asked fans to vote on the greatest living Eagle, and three of the top four played during that same era: No. 1 Brian Dawkins, No. 2 Donovan McNabb and No. 4 Westbrook. The other, No. 3 Tommy McDonald is already in the Eagles Hall of Fame, along with Dawkins and McNabb.
Even with all that talent, however, the Eagles were unable to win a Super Bowl, something the 35-year-old says still hurts.
"I don't think time ever heals it," he admitted. "It just doesn't because you watch the NFL Network, and they show the game and they show the playoff and the Super Bowl. That's a game that we should have won. That's a game we had in our hands. A few too many turnovers and it hurt [us].
"But that losing, it never goes away, never stops eating at you because when you said you're a Super Bowl champion, that's something no one can ever take away from you. Now, of course playing in the game is special, but winning it, that's the ultimate goal, the ultimate prize. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do it."
Still, that era of Eagles football will go down as arguably the franchise's most successful in the last 50-plus years. And to be a part of that, and now the Eagles Hall of Fame, means a lot to Westbrook.
"It means a lot to me," Westbrook said of joining the other Eagles greats. "I mean it means a lot to my family as well. I worked hard to be honored like this, and I played with a lot of guys that got me to this place. I just mentioned out there that they say how did you get here? Well, I played with an awful lot of good players, and they made my job a lot easier. For me to just go out there and make people miss and gain yards is the easy work, but those guys in front on the offensive line and those guys outside blocking helped me a lot.
"The people in the stands, that's me. That's who I am. ... It wasn't just because of the team. It wasn't just because we wanted to win. ... They inspired us to win"
"But, this is a great honor. I never really thought about it. I've seen guys like Dawk [Brian Dawkins] and Donovan [McNabb], those guys that carried this team for so long get inducted to the Hall of Fame, and I believe they got their numbers retired. Of course I congratulated them. I celebrate those guys because I know that they were great players. I never really knew I was going to get the opportunity. But, my day came and it's a blessing."
It was more than his diminutive size and penchant for making hugely important plays that made Westbrook such a fan favorite throughout his eight-year career in Philadelphia. He didn't come from a football factory, like Texas, Oklahoma, or USC. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He played college ball at a Div. 1-AA (now FCS) program in Villanova, where he set an NCAA (all-division) record for all-purpose yards.
And according to Westbrook, that went a long way towards making the fans relate.
"Just like Rocky, they love the underdog," Westbrook said. "They love a guy coming from a small school just willing to work his butt off, to dedicate himself to the game. But also, they can relate to the public.
"The people in the stands, that's me. That's who I am. I see how they love Brian Dawkins, and I know why because he played with his heart and soul on the field, and he left it on the field. He was able to let everyone see that side of him. I'm not the Ra-Ra guy like Dawkins on the field, but I left everything I had on the field. It wasn't just because of the team. It wasn't just because we wanted to win.
"Part of it had to do with the fans as well. They inspired us to win, and when I walked into the stadium of the Vet my rookie year and I heard the fans screaming and yelling and it's two degrees outside, whether it's 99 degrees outside, they're still giving their hard earned money. They're acting crazy and that excites you. That makes you want to do the things that we were able to do. It made me wanted to work a little bit harder, especially during the week, to get to go play where you want to play out there on Sundays. It was just meaningful."
Perhaps it took some time away from Eagles fans to make Westbrook truly appreciate how different they are. In 2010, he signed a one-year contract with the 49ers -- it would be his last year in the NFL -- and quickly realized it wasn't going to be the same.
"It was difficult for me in San Francisco because no one is going to love you like the team that drafted you, especially if you played well there," Westbrook acknowledged. "No one's going to love you that way. So, you go to a different team, the people treat you a little bit different ... but San Francisco's fan base was nothing like Philadelphia. I mean I got to walk around the grocery store, downtown San Francisco and nobody cared. I could have my jersey on, literally, and nobody would care.
"But you go to the grocery store, 7-Eleven, Wawa here and everybody wants to know how my back's doing, what's the game plan for this weekend. It's a different love for the game here in Philadelphia."
And on Oct. 19, Westbrook will get to feel that love one more time.
"The talent is there, but in the end you can have a lot of talent and it doesn't necessarily translate to wins. This team has to go out and prove itself, just like every other team. I think it's a lot easier when you have a team like we had back in the day. You know Donovan's going to be there. You knew Dawk was going to be there. You knew I was going to be there and Tra [Thomas] and [Jon] Runyan were going to be there. You kind of understood what this team was going to be all about. I think this year, you just don't know quite yet. You want to see what this team is going to be about.
"I think that's why all the fans are here today. They want to see what DeMarco Murray is going to look like in the Eagles uniform and how he's going to perform. Same thing with Bradford and Maxwell, they want to see how these guys can play. I know that they were good on the other team, but we've also seen guys that have, free agents that haven't played as well on a new team. So, that's a big, big question mark, but if you're talking about talent, this is one of the most talented teams in the league. Unfortunately, for talent potential sometimes it goes the other way. Players play, and if you get better on that football field, you're going to gain. People here in the Philly area, people around respect you a little more."
"I do. Because I work with Comcast and do the pre- and post-game I have to be a little bit objective, but I want the Eagles to win every single game because they're my team. This is where I grew up at, this is where I learned how to be a professional. So, I want them to win. I want them to do well. So, when I see DeMarco Murray out there I want him to have 2,000 yards rushing. Same thing with Bradford. I want him to have 3,000 or 4,000 yards passing, and that's what I wish for this football team. It's always exciting to be around it, and I'm excited to be here."
"I can't speak to what it's like now in the locker room. I just don't know enough to know what's going on. I read the papers and watch TV like everyone else, but I know what it was like in our locker room. I know that Andy Reid preached respect. I know that he expected the veterans to lead the younger guys, and if that you had to respect everybody. If you stepped out of line, Brian Dawkins didn't have a problem pulling you aside. Troy Vincent didn't have a problem pulling you aside. Runyan didn't have a problem, and as I got older I didn't have a problem either pulling those younger guys aside and say listen that's not how we do things here. I think as time goes on, this team will be able to do this as well. It's just knowing exactly what Chip wants and allowing that to transfer in the locker room as well as on the field."
"Well, it's tough and especially with these guys. Ryan Mathews, he was a starter in San Diego. DeMarco [Murray] is used to being on the field most of the game, and it's going to be a little tough because when you're … for me it was different because I was coming from not playing very much to playing a little bit, which felt really good. You weren't as hungry to play as much because you were kind of working in a system. But, these guys have been playing 75 percent, 80 percent of the time. So, it's a little bit different if they get that knockdown to 50 percent of the time. So, it's going to be a learning process for them, but they will stay fresh. It's hard to stay involved in the game when you're on the sidelines some of the plays where you think you should be out there. So, it becomes frustrating just a bit. But, I think in time they'll figure it out. They'll run enough plays here to make sure everybody gets an opportunity."