Small School, Big Goals: Would-Be Redskin Westbrook Can Taste the NFL

By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The manila folder belonging to student No. 1113408 is stuffed with athletic evaluations -- 40-yard dash time (4.4 seconds), pounds squatted in the gym (460) -- and e-mail correspondence. Sherman Wood, coach of the Division III Salisbury University football team, has stored the paperwork in a black plastic box behind his desk. It is the only individual file he's kept in nine years as head coach.

This file is unique because it catalogs the career of Byron Westbrook, the former football standout for the Salisbury Sea Gulls. Westbrook, a Fort Washington native, is attempting to become the first Salisbury graduate to make a 53-man NFL roster.

"It's very exciting for us," Salisbury president Janet Dudley-Eshbach said. "There are special moments in a president's life, and it sounds goofy, but the possibility of Byron Westbrook playing for the Redskins is one of those moments."

He has gone through training camp as a cornerback and special teams player with Washington,which is searching for capable backups for Shawn Springs, Fred Smoot and Carlos Rogers.

Westbrook, fourth-round draft pick Justin Tryon and Leigh Torrence are among those vying for time at cornerback. Westbrook also has been used this preseason as a punt and kick returner.

The Redskins kept Westbrook as a practice player last year. And Westbrook isn't even the most famous football player in his own family; his brother, Brian, is a Pro Bowl running back with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tethered to his older sibling's success, Byron has battled to create his own name. But he also has had to overcome the stigma of coming from an athletic program better known for its eight-time national championship lacrosse team and from a college town better known as the headquarters of Perdue Farms, the chicken producer.

Salisbury, a public university of about 7,500 students, is on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Its football stadium seats 2,500, and its training complex resembles a high school weight room. The athletic department is housed in a converted physician's office, with linoleum-tiled hallways and former examination rooms transformed into coaches' offices.

"We have to be creative with what we have," said Sam Atkinson, the sports information director for all of Salisbury's 21 varsity sports.

Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Dan Quinn, New York Jets defensive line coach, are Salisbury alums. But in 36 years of Sea Gulls football, Salisbury has not been represented on an NFL playing roster. The program does not have a pro day, like many Division I schools, and scouts bother to show for one player every two or three years.

"In the end, it was a good fit for me," Westbrook, who graduated in 2006, said of Salisbury. "Just because it was a small school, if you're good, scouts will come out to see you."

Playing at Salisbury was a shift for Westbrook, who attended DeMatha. The Stags won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship with an 11-1 record his senior season. Training there was so intense that Westbrook added 15 pounds of muscle with a summer regimen that included climbing the stands at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House. Westbrook's teammates attended division I schools such as Syracuse, Kent State and William & Mary.

"It was very serious as far as playing because we wanted to uphold the tradition at the school," Westbrook said. "There were a lot of great teams at the school, and we didn't want to come in and let down the tradition."

Westbrook received a handful of recruitment letters, small in comparison to the mound his brother piled in the family room. "I don't know if he had a true division I-type school show interest," DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor said. Westbrook ended up at a community college in New Jersey after graduation.

But one of Westbrook's cousins, Mark Hannah, played football at Salisbury. Players there would have to hold fundraisers to support the program. They would have to stuff two buses -- not charter flights -- and make nine-hour road trips for games in upstate New York. Not glamorous, but Westbrook might be able to play there. So he visited with his mother, taking a one-hour tour, and decided to attend.

Said Wood: "We just felt, 'Should we tell you more? Is there something we can do for you?' His mind was made up. He wasn't asking a whole lot of questions."

Westbrook started playing the following fall. He had eight interceptions during his sophomore season, 56 tackles from the defensive backfield and two punt returns for touchdowns. In the spring of that year, Westbrook entered Wood's office and asked for his highlight tape. Just to show his family, he said. Westbrook came back two days later, again asked for the tapes and then broke the news: He was contemplating transferring.

"He said he always wanted to play D-I, which we get a lot," Wood said. "You don't want to take that away from a kid."

Wood met with Westbrook and his parents two weeks later at the Surratts-Clinton Public Library, a mutually convenient location off Route 5. They sat at a table behind a bank of computers, among the stacks, to discuss Westbrook's future at Salisbury.

"I'm telling you, he had a plan," Wood said. "He was going to get his education, and he was going to play football at the next level. You can say that now because you can kinda envision it."

Prompted by Westbrook's desire to make it the NFL, Wood made what might have sounded like an outlandish promise. He would commit time, he said, to providing Westbrook an opportunity at the next level.

Wood said he would dig up his little black binder with years-old business cards of NFL scouts. He knew only a handful, sure, but he could make a few calls. He would e-mail all-star game representatives and try to persuade them to add Westbrook. He would even order the university to distribute Westbrook's biography, promoting him to news outlets in the region.

But Westbrook's play spoke for itself, like the time he made the out-of-nowhere interception to hold off Widener his senior year. Or the time he juked his way to the end zone on a punt return against Wesley, leading Salisbury to its first conference championship. By the time he graduated, he was an all-American, owned Salisbury's career interceptions record (18) and had received NFL interest.

"If you're going to play Division III, and you have at least the potential ability to play next level," Wood said, "you have to dominate at Division III every game of your career. And that's what Byron did. He dominated every game."

Westbrook is now in his second training camp with the Redskins. That he has reached this point has been a benefit for Salisbury. Westbrook's poster-sized photo, displayed in the team's film room, is used as a recruiting tool. Wood said as many as 20 high school prospects call -- nobody called before Westbrook -- during a busy week in the university's recruiting period.

With the Redskins' season opener just over two weeks away, Westbrook could soon become the first Sea Gull to play in the NFL regular season. If so, Wood will be able to show the file from his office as undeniable proof.

"Maybe I just had some belief it would be a special folder some day," Wood said. "I guess I had the belief he could do it."

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