- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Washington area is not known as a breeding ground for NFL talent. Foreign countries have produced as many Hall of Fame players as D.C.’s two. However, four of the 22 players who will start in Super Bowl XXXIX for the Philadelphia Eagles against the New England Patriots on Sunday got their football starts in the metro area.

Running back Brian Westbrook starred in basketball and football at DeMatha High School. Center Hank Fraley and linebacker Dhani Jones used to battle each other at Gaithersburg and Churchill, respectively. And defensive end Derrick Burgess was a standout at Eleanor Roosevelt.

Fraley, who wasn’t drafted out of Division I-AA Robert Morris in 2000, has started all but one game the last four seasons as the anchor of a solid Eagles offensive line.

Jones, who conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for a piece in October while wearing one of his trademark bow ties, was fourth on the Eagles in tackles after signing as a free agent from the New York Giants.

Burgess, who missed the 2002 and 2003 NFC Championship games with injuries, was critical in the Eagles finally getting over the hump with two sacks of Michael Vick in the conference title game victory over Atlanta.

But there’s no doubt Westbrook is the D.C. band’s leader, even though he didn’t plan on playing in the NFL. Growing up, he dreamed of an NBA career.

“Brian had a great feel for the game,” said former DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten, who sent several players to the pros. “He was like a coach on the floor. He understood what a good shot was.”

Despite leading DeMatha in field goal percentage and assists as a senior point guard, the 5-foot-10 Westbrook was deemed too small by major Division I basketball recruiters.

“I was a better basketball player than a football player, but nobody noticed,” Westbrook lamented.

So Westbrook opted to play football at Division I-AA Villanova. He earned his degree in management information systems, and the Eagles couldn’t help but notice a running back racking up 9,885 all-purpose yards (an NCAA record) just 15 miles from their practice facility. So Philadelphia took Westbrook in the third round of the 2002 draft.

After not playing much as a rookie, Westbrook became a critical part of a three-man backfield with Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter in 2003. He also returned punts and kickoffs before tearing a triceps in the season finale and missing the playoffs.

When Staley left via free agency last spring and Buckhalter got hurt last summer, Westbrook was suddenly the feature back. He responded with a Pro Bowl season, becoming the only NFL player with at least 700 yards rushing (812) and receiving (703).

“Brian is one of the few players who can dominate a game with his versatility,” Eagles guard Jermane Mayberry said.

And with Westbrook healthy, the Eagles ended their three-game losing streak in the NFC Championship game even though Terrell Owens was injured.

The superstar receiver might play for the first time in seven weeks on Sunday, but quarterback Donovan McNabb still called Westbrook “the fuel that runs the car.”

Philadelphia guard Artis Hicks said Westbrook’s basketball roots are evident with his proficiency in space.

“Brian is so quick and athletic with his cuts, so basically all you do is play basketball with him throwing screens,” Hicks said. “The next thing you know, you see him in the corner of your eye taking off down field.”

Westbrook can drive defenses crazy by lining up in the backfield on one play and split wide as a receiver on the next.

“They do a lot of things with Westbrook so we have to be ready,” Patriots safety Eugene Wilson said.

The Washington area, which boasts Hall of Famers Willie Wood and Len Ford, will have a presence in the Super Bowl with Westbrook and three other Eagles. Westbrook, who prides himself on proving doubters wrong, promises he’ll be as ready as the Patriots’ defense.

“I’m sure they’ll try to trip me out in the backfield and definitely be physical with me at the line of scrimmage,” Westbrook said. “I just have to come back with speed. I try to outrun people. I try to make people miss.”

Like those big-time recruiters who missed on him.

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