Villanova junior tailback Brian Westbrook slouches in his chair
and cringes at the memory. It was February 1999, and Westbrook
had recently completed one of the most prolific seasons in
college football history--during which neither opposing defenses
nor a partially torn ACL in his left knee could stop him. He was
walking back to his dorm during a storm one frigid night when he
slipped on a patch of ice and fully tore that ACL, which he'd
injured 3 1/2 years earlier, as a senior at DeMatha Catholic High
in Hyattsville, Md. Two operations followed, and Westbrook had to
sit out last season. "A patch of black ice," says Westbrook,
shaking his head. "After all the hits I'd taken, a patch of ice
is what got me. At times that was pretty hard to accept."
In 1998 Westbrook, then a sophomore, became the first collegiate
player to amass more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in
the same season. He also racked up 836 return yards and probably
would have gone over 1,000 had coach Andy Talley not taken him
off punt and kick returns with three games remaining. "I wish I
hadn't done that," says Talley, who feared Westbrook might get
hurt. "I wish he could have that third 1,000 next to his name."
After his fall on the ice, Westbrook expected to come back for
the 1999 season and went through six months of intense
rehabilitation. However, two weeks before preseason practice,
with his knee filling up with fluid, it was clear it still hadn't
recovered sufficiently, and he was forced to undergo complete
reconstructive surgery. "I was deflated," says Westbrook. "It was
a long road back, but Coach always told me adversity not only
builds character, it reveals character. I tried to remember
Watching the Wildcats go 7-4 and miss the Division I-AA playoffs
gave Westbrook extra motivation during his second wave of therapy
sessions--twice a day, six days a week for six months, from August
1999 to February of this year. He participated in noncontact
drills during spring practice, and now it seems Westbrook has
regained his record-breaking form. Through seven games, Westbrook
leads Division I-AA with 1,763 all-purpose yards and has scored
15 touchdowns in leading Villanova to a 5-2 start. "He hasn't
lost a step," says Wildcats running backs coach Stan Drayton.
"He's actually come back bigger, stronger and faster."
Westbrook has the speed (4.4 in the 40) and size (5'9", 220
pounds) to break runs in the open field and in traffic. In
addition, he often lines up as a receiver in the slot. "I've
never seen anyone as versatile as Brian," says Talley. "We've
tried to implement an offense that gets him as many touches as
possible. If you get Brian the ball 28 to 30 times a game, he's
going to get you three or four touchdowns. He's that explosive."
Westbrook wasn't heavily recruited out of DeMatha, mostly because
he missed a large part of his senior season with the knee injury
and a hip flexor he sustained while participating in a slam dunk
contest in the summer of 1996. Villanova stuck with him, and
Drayton was sold when he watched Westbrook play basketball--he was
a two-year starting point guard for legendary DeMatha coach
Morgan Wootten. "When I saw him get over the rim in warmups, I
knew the injury wouldn't be a problem," says Drayton. "He was a
natural leader and had a toughness that I loved."
A business major with a 3.0 GPA, Westbrook in 1998 earned
Division I-AA All-America honors and was named to the Atlantic 10
all-academic team. Last summer Westbrook was an intern at the
NASDAQ in Washington, D.C. He's scheduled to graduate in May but
might return for another season--he was granted a medical redshirt
year in 1999--and start work on an MBA if he isn't projected as a
high NFL draft pick. "I like school and I like football," he
says. "No matter what happens, I'm in a win-win situation."
Villanova will win its share of games with a healthy Westbrook
and should return to the playoffs after a two-year absence, but
Westbrook cautions those expecting him to repeat as a 1,000-1,000
guy. "Of course I'll shoot for it, but we have such a good team
this year, I won't have to make all the plays," he says. "I
realize that what I did two years ago doesn't happen very often."
Last year Westbrook lived in an on-campus apartment, but this
year he's back in his old dorm, and nearly every day he passes
the spot where he slipped and fell. "I've learned my lesson," he
says. "I won't be going outside when there's fresh ice on the
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON
"After all the hits I took, a patch of ice is what got me. At
times that was pretty hard to accept."