There's no room for football in Westbrook's heart
After a turbulent NFL career that took a physical and mental toll, Michael Westbrook has found fulfillment and peace of mind in the world martial arts, writes Pat Yasinskas.
'95 NFL draft
As Westbrook, 35, began giving a tour of the mixed-martial arts training facility, he was downright gleeful. Funny, but the writer and photographer he guided are members of the media, a group Westbrook collectively despised when he was playing wide receiver for the Washington Redskins and failing to live up to the lofty expectations that came with being the fourth overall pick in the 1995 draft.
He pointed out the rings where guys training for Ultimate Fighting slug each other with very few rules. Westbrook moved through another room full of weights before stopping at the door to the room at the back of the facility.The pause is appropriate because you're about to enter Westbrook's sanctuary. You're about to enter the place where Michael Westbrook truly found Michael Westbrook and forgot football. "I love my life,'' Westbrook said. "I'm having fun.''
The good fight
Life is simple and quiet for Westbrook these days. He lives in nearby Mesa ("I could live in Scottsdale, but it's too fake," he said). When he's not with his daughter and two sons, there are two staples in just about every day.
Westbrook dabbled briefly in Ultimate Fighting, defeating former NFL player Jarrod Bunch in his only bout.
"I've never gotten a good feeling from hitting someone in the face,'' Westbrook said. "I had to do it growing up to defend myself, but I never liked it. A lot of people get off on that, but I don't want to do it.''What Westbrook wants to do is roll, that's what participants call Brazilian jujitsu. There's no prize money. That's fine with Westbrook, who lives comfortably off business investments and the money he made playing football. The money, Westbrook said, is the only good thing to come out of his career. Jujitsu is Westbrook's passion. Football was his pain. "This is a lot easier and a lot more fun,'' Westbrook said. "I don't have to worry about coaches and it's not nearly as dangerous. I don't have to worry about pleasing the public and the announcers. Or getting eggs thrown at my door because I dropped a ball. I don't have to worry about any of that.''
Few fond football memories
These days, Westbrook will tell you he hates football and, aside from the big scar on his left knee, there are no visible reminders of his career."If you walked into my house, you'd never know I played football,'' Westbrook said. "There are no game balls or pictures or anything like that. I sent all that stuff to my mom. There's no football stuff left in my house.'' Or in his heart.
"I didn't like the lifestyle,'' Westbrook said. "I didn't like the guys. I didn't like living like that. Everybody was fake and thought they were something they weren't. A lot of guys weren't good people and I just couldn't live like that.''
Westbrook says he believes the injuries came because he was too aggressive, trying too hard to make impossible catches in practice."I was a stunt man as a wide receiver,'' he said. But Westbrook will be the first to tell you the reason for his disappointing career wasn't all the result of injuries. It's more than a little ironic that the guy who doesn't like to hit people in the face is best known for beating the heck out of teammate Stephen Davis in practice.
The video clips were all over the national news and Westbrook said the incident left a lot of people with the false impression that he was a homosexual. Westbrook said the details have been misreported for more than a decade.
"Stephen Davis told me I needed to shut up and all that stuff I was saying sounded like some gay [s---], like I'm soft, not like I'm gay. That's all he said. It wasn't like, 'You're gay,' but it got changed to that really quick. So the connotation is Michael Westbrook is gay.''
The connotation has faded, but not completely."My ex-girlfriend heard it about a year ago from this guy and she went nuts,'' Westbrook said. "Everybody that knows me knows that's the farthest thing from the truth. For about three years, I wanted to lock myself in the house and never come out.''
Davis, who is retired, was not available for comment and has rarely talked about the incident through the years. Westbrook said he and Davis eventually became friendly and remain on good terms.
That incident with Davis wasn't the only reason Westbrook led a hermit-like existence through much of his time in Washington. His other claim to infamy came in an overtime game against the New York Giants late in the 1997 season. On one play, Westbrook said a linebacker stuck his hand through his facemask and poked him in the eye. He left the game momentarily. On the next play back, he thought he made a catch near the sidelines. Three referees huddled and decided he was bobbling the ball as he went out of bounds.Westbrook took off his helmet and slammed it to the ground. He was penalized 15 yards and the Redskins were backed up out of field-goal range. The game ended in a tie and the Redskins finished the season 8-7-1 and out of the playoffs. If they had won, they would have been in the playoffs. If one play summarized Westbrook's career, that was it. "I was so young and passionate and wanting to win and please the coaches and the fans,'' Westbrook said. "I wanted to please everybody and I was forgetting about myself. The one thing that mattered most was completely put on the back burner for years. I never cared about myself. That's probably what hurt me most. If I had tried to please myself and thought about myself and hadn't acted that way, I'd be a lot better off.''
Where he belongs
As the excitement builds among football fans for another draft, Westbrook feels sorrow for the prospects. He knows some will end up like him and never live up to the expectations."You get drafted that high and everybody's going to point a finger at you,'' Westbrook said. "I brought a lot of it on myself with some of my actions. If I had been a good boy and I was scoring touchdowns and we were winning, nobody would have noticed the helmet or the fight. I didn't accomplish much because, in their eyes, I was just a rich kid who was crying. I just wanted to play ball and be that all-world receiver that everyone thought I should be and that I knew that I was.'' Maybe that's why Westbrook has found solace in Brazilian jujitsu. Out on the mat, it's just him and an opponent. There are no screaming coaches and fans. There are no expectations other than his inner drive to succeed. "I didn't love the glory part of football,'' Westbrook said. "That's not me. All I wanted to do was go play football and score a touchdown. I couldn't stand the fans and media getting on me when we were losing.'' Aside from occasional family and friends at his competitions, Westbrook's on his own on the mat. That's the way he likes it. It took a long time to realize, but Westbrook said he wasn't cut out for team sports. He's a loner, who finally has found his true calling. "I never even think about football now,'' Westbrook said. "I know that's weird. But the thing about it was I wasn't a football player, I was an athlete. Here, I'm an athlete with no one else to worry about.''
Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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