- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

When Washington Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook jumped over falling rookie cornerback Greg Walls after a reception yesterday without protecting the left knee that cost him 14 games last season, it was the latest hurdle cleared in a career of comebacks.

"That gives me confidence to not even think about jumping off my left leg," Westbrook said. "It doesn't hurt anymore. That's a great relief to me. I'm just trying to get back to playing football. My body hasn't experienced these types of movements in a long time."

It has been 10 months since Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury after landing awkwardly on the Pontiac Silverdome's artificial turf. More than 50 hometown friends and relatives watched as a promising year ended after just seven catches.

Westbrook remained with the team throughout the season despite knowing he wouldn't play again in 2000. He even needed four stitches in his hand from a locker room prank when another player tried to cut his tie off with scissors.

The offseason was even worse. Westbrook's father, Bobby Sledge, died of cancer in March. The former Alabama A&M; linebacker taught Westbrook the game before divorce split the family. The two were estranged until reconnecting during Westbrook's college days. The final years were happy, and Sledge attended many Redskins games.

"The closer we got, the more I realized how much of him is in me," Westbrook said. "I started remembering things. He's the one that showed me good hand placement. He always played catch with me when I was little.

"I'm always thinking about him. It won't be a motivation because I can't be more motivated to play this game, but I know he would want me to do well. I know he's watching over me and protecting me from another injury. I talk to him a lot."

Said coach Marty Schottenheimer: "If anyone deserved some good fortune it would be Michael. He had a very tough offseason with the death of his father, but he has worked very, very hard."

Westbrook knows the demands of rehabilitation after two knee operations, neck surgery, a broken wrist and two sprained ankles in six years. His only completely healthy season saw Westbrook catch 65 passes in 1999.

"I'm still here," he said. "I just want to compete, sling somebody around and catch touchdowns."

Westbrook dominated young defenders on the opening day of training camp at Redskin Park for rookies and players returning from injuries. He looked much like the team elder against prospects trying to make the Redskins. Westbrook even remained upbeat when safety Ifeanyi Ohalete nearly stripped him of his shorts during a tackle.

"When I was a senior in college, I felt like everybody else was in high school that's how dominant I felt. I almost feel like that now," Westbrook said. "When the rest of the veterans get in, I'll feel like a [college] senior. I feel mechanical. This offense isn't second nature to me yet. When it does, I'll feel like myself."

Said Schottenheimer: "There's a lot of people in this league that run fast, but the ones that have the opportunity to be unique are the ones who run fast and have power. [Former New York Giants linebacker] Lawrence Taylor was that kind of player. [Denver running back] Terrell Davis is that kind of player. Michael has the combination of size, speed and great power."

Westbrook is the Redskins' only established receiver, with Albert Connell and James Thrash having signed with New Orleans and Philadelphia, respectively. However, the newly installed West Coast offense is forcing Westbrook to learn new plays.

"They're completely different," he said. "I just want to go out and run my route and not think of the play. It makes a big difference."

Westbrook is entering the final season of his seven-year contract. A standout season means a fat new deal. But another injury could bring a minimum-salary one and an uncertain future.

"I would love to come back and play, but let's see what happens," he said.

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