- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

Michael Westbrook has dominated again this summer, looking every bit the wide receiver the Washington Redskins selected fourth overall in the 1995 draft.

Of course.

"They say that every year about me in minicamp," Westbrook said with a laugh. "But usually by the time the season starts, something has happened. And then everybody forgets what I'm really capable of."

So far, so good. No training camp holdout. No injury. No fight with a teammate. No standoff with the media. In fact, Westbrook, now 28 and entering his sixth season, is coming off a year of both career statistics and no negative attention.

Westbrook caught 65 passes for 1,191 yards and nine touchdowns in 1999, putting to rest any suspicion that he would not become an NFL standout. And although every highlight included a reference to his previously unrealized potential, that trend finally may end this season.

"I think we're getting to that point," fellow starting receiver Albert Connell said. "Without the criticism, they can say, 'He made a great play.' Or without criticism, they can expect him to make that great play."

The funny thing is, Westbrook is pretty darn smart for someone who is known for such dumb things. He doesn't drink or smoke. He follows a regimented diet. He rarely goes out at night or watches television. He constantly reads books. And he can engage lengthy discussions about literature, religion or the search for ultimate truth.

The last is the foundation upon which Westbrook stands. Inked on his back is a large tattoo of a sword bearing the statement, "The truth shall set you free."

"I compare and contrast everything I read," Westbrook said. "If I see something that I don't understand, the search is on. I've got to find out what's really going on with everything."

And now people are beginning to find out what's really going on with him. Of course, closer inspection has led them to believe that Westbrook has changed.

"I knew this would happen,' Westbrook said, laughing. "I caught 65 balls [for] 1,200 yards, and all of sudden everybody's like, 'You're a changed person.' I'm like, 'Oh my God. You just need to sit down and talk to me. You don't know who I was. All you know is what you heard.' "

But in 1997 and 1998, what the public heard was constructed without Westbrook's input. He quit talking to the media during the 1997 training camp in the wake of his infamous fight with Stephen Davis.

Bad only got worse that fall as Westbrook endured another injury, missing three games with a sprained knee, and then tainted his best game of the season by taking off his helmet after a controversial call. The penalty led to a tie against the Giants as the Redskins just missed the playoffs.

Westbrook calls the fight with Davis his lowest point, saying, "In my life … if I could change one thing, that's what I would change."

But that period in general was terrible for Westbrook. He said he felt "cast out, ostracized, by my team, by the fans, by the media … so by myself."

Westbrook believes he emerged only because the team experienced so much turnover. Ultimately, it was going to be them or him.

"I don't even consider myself a part of the 'we' of the years past," Westbrook said. "Even though I was a part of it the losing, the injuries, the attitude toward the media, the fighting all that said I just wasn't a part of that team."

Several teammates from that era corroborate Westbrook's opinion.

"[This] team has been more personable and more likeable than in years prior," said center Cory Raymer, selected 33 picks after Westbrook. "It was tough when we first came in. It was a different attitude and a different style of people."

But Westbrook's public image took a severe hit one that only now is losing its impact. Fellow receiver Irving Fryar, lured out of retirement by the Redskins last August, was stunned when Westbrook came up and made a pleasant introduction.

"Everything I heard about him, everything people said to me about him was absolutely wrong," Fryar said. "The media portrayed him to be a bad guy, a guy that had a bad attitude, a guy that was a selfish individual, a guy that was not a team guy. None of that was true."

Westbrook also won over many fans last season when he played through a fractured wrist at Philadelphia. There had been questions about his toughness, and at one point they led to a falling out (since reconciled) with Fox announcer Terry Bradshaw. The former star quarterback believed Westbrook should have played through a 1996 Thanksgiving Day knee injury at Dallas.

Asked how much his decision to play last season was based on earlier injuries, Westbrook replied: "None of it. If I can play, I'm going to play."

But by playing all 16 games and both playoff games, Westbrook built his case for the season being labeled as "breakout." He refused to call it such, though, and passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie agreed.

"Mike went out and had a good year," Robiskie said. "I think the last time I checked, there were probably 25 or 30 guys in the National Football League that caught more balls than Michael Westbrook… . If he's going to have a breakout year, he'll catch 105 balls."

That's probably not possible in the Redskins' balanced offense, which last season supported a tailback with 1,405 rushing yards and a fullback with 69 receptions. But Westbrook isn't worried about numbers or the increasingly positive opinions of fans and observers.

Westbrook finally the mature, productive receiver the Redskins once envisioned is simply happy to be happy with the game again.

"My whole career college, high school, Little League I couldn't wait to play football," Westbrook said. "Like right now. I can't wait to play. And my girlfriend [Toni Hicky] is like, 'I just know you're itching to play. You can't even wait.' She hasn't seen me like this in a long time."

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