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Another piece chronicling that Mike is saying all the right things as he approaches a critical point in his career. It may just be whistling past the graveyard, but he at least seems to know what he has to do -

For Westbrook, a Promise to Keep

With a Clean Slate, Receiver Seeks to Fulfill Potential

By Liz Clarke

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, August 12, 2001; Page C01

CARLISLE, Pa. -- When Michael Westbrook first sat down with his new head coach earlier this year, he was grateful for what he heard. "It was a good conversation," Westbrook said. "He said, 'Marty Schottenheimer and Michael Westbrook's relationship starts right here. And whatever happened in the past, happened in the past.' "

With that, Schottenheimer cast aside the erratic record Westbrook had compiled in his six seasons as the Washington Redskins' featured wide receiver -- seasons marked by brilliance and underachievement and, all too often, undermined by injury.

Westbrook responded by promising Schottenheimer that he would soon prove his worth, even though he was still limping from reconstructive surgery on his left knee, as an explosive offensive asset.

So far, Westbrook has delivered, making impressive catches during training camp, mentoring the team's young receivers and adapting to Schottenheimer's rigorous workouts.

"I'm a different person," Westbrook said in a recent interview. "We all change with time. I was obviously a young guy -- didn't know anything about the league, a little hot-tempered at times. I've learned a lot."

For Washingtonians, it has become almost a rite of August. Westbrook appears in camp sculpted and sleek, as if he sprang from a gene pool concocted by the football gods, and tantalizes fans with the promise of the season to come. Often, that promise hasn't materialized. September's injury, a torn knee ligament that ended his 2000 season in Game 2, was his latest setback. It was followed by a tumultuous offseason.

With the firing of Norv Turner in December and the dismissal of Terry Robiskie in January, Westbrook lost the only head coach and position coach he had known in the NFL. Free agency emptied the locker room of what friends he had on the squad -- chiefly Irving Fryar, Larry Centers and Tre Johnson. Then came the death of his father this spring, Bobbie Sledge,

whom he had only recently gotten to know well.

A few months later, Westbrook has returned to the team a more temperate man, wiser about the ways of the NFL and, in the final year of his contract, eager to reestablish his value in the league.

It's hard to believe that Westbrook, for so long the impetuous youngster, is now 29. It's harder still to believe that along with center Cory Raymer, he boasts the second-longest tenure on the team, eclipsed only by veteran Darrell Green's 18 years of service.

Despite his career's many false starts, Westbrook has unshakable faith in his ability. "I've been here a long time; I've been around for some reason," he said. "I haven't been hanging on and not getting cut for nothing."

He backed that faith up by agreeing to renegotiate his contract in the offseason to give the Redskins more room under the salary cap by accepting a lower salary with more incentives tied to it.

In Schottenheimer's ball-control offense, Westbrook figures to be the team's principal downfield threat. He'll also be called upon to block, a role he says he now relishes.

Said wideout Kevin Lockett, a veteran of Schottenheimer's Kansas City squads who is penciled in as the other starter: "The things Coach Schottenheimer values are: One, he wants his receivers to be great playmakers; and two, he wants them to be great downfield blockers. Michael fits great into that."

Though Westbrook describes Schottenheimer as "a little nitpicky sometimes," he has been a dutiful, diligent student.

"He has a reason for the way we work: He said he doesn't want us to go into a game and have any surprises," Westbrook said. "I totally understand where he's coming from, so I just go about my business and do whatever he asks."

By all accounts, Westbrook devoted himself to his rehabilitation in the offseason. He has worked hard in camp, sitting out practice to rest his left knee only as the coach directs.

"He's the best guy we've got out here -- and that's with the injury and him having that on his mind," said cornerback Champ Bailey, who covers him regularly in practice. "He's fast, he's big and he's strong. Those are the three things that sum it up."

He is tutoring the team's other big receivers -- second-year player Derrius Thompson and rookies Rod Gardner and Darnerien McCants -- on how to exploit their physical advantage. And he has worked to develop a relationship with quarterback Jeff George, now his closest friend on the team.

In George, Westbrook sees a kindred spirit. George sees the same in him.

Both men are outsiders, loners by nature. Both are former first-round draft picks who have fallen short of their promise. Both feel they have something to prove. And each sees his best hope for doing so in the other.

"When you look at a receiver, you look at size, you look at hands, you look at intelligence -- and he's the full package," George said of Westbrook. "He's had some tough times, as well as I have. I'm excited to work with him. He's going to make me look good this year."

Westbrook's rocky road in the NFL has been well chronicled. When injury hasn't conspired against him, his own demons have.

In six years with the Redskins, he has played a full, 16-game season only once (1999). He has never been to a Pro Bowl. And he has just 20 touchdown catches.

Westbrook arrived in Washington as the fourth overall pick of the 1995 college draft, flaunting a seven-year, $18 million contract and plenty of attitude.

"I had the mentality, like, 'You don't respect me in no kind of way!' " Westbrook recalled. "I mean, that's just how I was born and raised. But [the NFL] isn't about how you're born and raised; it's about how you're living now. And I had to learn that the

hard way."

Knee and ankle injuries early in his career tagged him as a "soft" player. And his own foolishness (punching teammate Stephen Davis during practice and drawing a penalty for ripping off his helmet on the field) labeled him a liability.

Today, he shakes his head at the memory.

"If I could take back a lot of days, I would," Westbrook said. "But I can't. I've just got to move forward."

Fryar's arrival in 1999 helped steady Westbrook. Despite a 10-year age difference, the two hit it off.

"We're a lot alike," said Fryar, who retired after last season. "We have a lot in common. I come from a rough background, and so does he. We became friends right away. We kind of got together like glue."

Their first season together, Fryar offered Westbrook just one piece of advice: Above all, vow to play in every game. For the first time in his career, Westbrook did, posting career numbers in catches (65), yards receiving (1,191), average yards per catch (18.3) and touchdown catches (nine).

After a promising start, his 2000 season ended with the knee injury. In spring, amid his rehabilitation, his father succumbed to cancer.

"At first, it was very hard," Westbrook said, recounting their relationship's course. It had gone from virtually no relationship as a child to a strong bond in the last years. His father began attending his games, and looked on proudly from the suites as his son played.

"Once we started laughing, and started to figure out how much we were alike, it was like, 'This is fun! I have a father,' " Westbrook said. "Our ways were just alike. It was like my twin; I mean, I'm his twin. We look alike. We act alike. We make the same sounds. We both put our left hand on hip sometimes when we get upset. We learned all this new stuff in the last two or three years, and we started having fun. . . . We started growing a great relationship, and he came down with cancer."

While Westbrook said he has learned to live with the loss, Fryar knows what the absence of a father means in a man's life.

"In order to be a man, you've got to see a man," Fryar said. "I can testify to that."

Today, as he prepares for what may be his final year with the Redskins, Westbrook hopes to play another five or six years -- ideally in Washington; if not, so be it. And he hopes that George, who is suffering from tendinitis in his throwing arm, is soon back in the lineup so they can show, together, what they can do.

Fryar, for one, predicts that if George stays healthy this season, Westbrook has a great chance at making his first Pro Bowl.

"When you go through turmoil, it's either going to make you or break you," Fryar said. "In order for steel to be made, it's got to go through fire. Michael has been through fire."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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