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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Brian Westbrook's Legacy Reaches its Apex with College Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement

By Rich Flanagan. Photo: Jerry Millevoi , 11/30/23, 2:15PM EST


Photos: Zamani Feelings, Mike Nance & Jerry Millevoi

By: Rich Flanagan

PHILADELPHIA – It was Stan Drayton’s first job as a collegiate recruiter, and he wanted to make an impression. 

He had made previous stops along in the early stages of his coaching career path, first at his alma mater, Allegheny College (Pa.) then Eastern Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the director of football operations. When he arrived at Villanova in 1996, he was the running backs coach and his section of the country to recruit in has been one of the most robust for both college and professional football for decades: District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, or as it is more commonly referred to as the DMV.

Temple University head football coach, Stan Drayton - PSD Photo by Mike Nance

The likes of Bruce Smith, Jonathan Ogden, and Tiki Barber hailed from the DMV prior to Drayton’s move to the Main Line, and when looking at which high schools to make regular trips to throughout the football season, look no further than DeMatha Catholic (Md.), a program that had produced a couple of NFL prospects including former All-Pro linebacker Mike Johnson.

Drayton spoke with DeMatha head coach Bill McGregor, who has won more than 300 games and 17 league championships and has helped over 375 players receive Division I scholarships since taking over in 1982. McGregor insisted he had two running backs he thought would be a good fit for the Wildcats.

One was Sean Augustus, and the other was Brian Westbrook. Both were capable runners but as Westbrook was dealing with a torn hip flexor, he was used primarily as a blocker. As Drayton watched the small sample size of film of the young back who was 5-foot-8 at the time, he immediately saw the raw power and potential that would eventually lead Westbrook to stardom.

Temple football coach Stan Drayton initially recruited Brian Westbrook to Villanova University - Photo by Zamani Feelings

“He was blocking for Augustus as a primary blocking back and the one clip on that film that I saw was a sweep where Brian was leading up the right side of the field and I watched the cleat of a linebacker go,” Drayton said. “The hit was so violent that he hit the guy and never lost stride. He went straight through the guy then made a devastating block on the safety to spur his back for a touchdown.”

He showed the film to legendary head coach Andy Talley “and the first thing he said was, ‘Stan, we’re in dire need of a running back and this is the film that you bring? Are you willing to put your paycheck on this guy?’ I’m like, ‘I just got here and we’re already talking about my paycheck and my job.’”

Drayton chose to see Westbrook in a different setting, this time on the hardwood where he was the starting point guard for DeMatha. “He sees me in the stands in the pregame and looks at me in the lineup line. The next time he gets the ball, he just dunks the hell out of it.” Drayton went back to Talley and said, “put my paycheck and job on this kid.”

Drayton had not officially offered a player to that point, but when he decided to make the decision to give Westbrook the opportunity to play at Villanova, neither of them had any idea that the running back who ran through someone would have this name and image forever immortalized alongside the all-time greats.

Westbrook will officially be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on December 5 as part of The National Football Foundation (NFF) dinner in Las Vegas, becoming the first Villanova player to ever enter the College Football Hall of Fame, joining his former coach, Talley who was inducted in 2020. He joins a historic 2023 class that includes Dwight Freeney, Reggie Bush, Luke Kuechly, Jeremy Maclin, Tim Tebow, Eric Berry, Troy Vincent, and Mark Richt, among others.

While “it’s a nod to being able to being one of the best players who ever played college football,” as Westbrook describes, he is taking a step back and reflecting on his achievements on the gridiron for the first time.

“During your career, you never have time to look around and say, ‘Hey, I’m one of the better players,’” Westbrook said. “I was so focused on the next opportunity or game, and what I had to do to prepare myself. When I look back at the record books, hear some of the stats, or listen to my kids’ friends talk about it, it humbles me and there’s a sense of gratefulness to have done so many of those things that people look up to and appreciate. It’s really only one of the times as an athlete where I’ve been able to look back and say, ‘I did pretty doggone good.’”

Pretty doggone good doesn’t begin to give Westbrook’s career justice considering he still holds the NCAA record across all divisions with 9,512 career all-purpose yards or the fact that he's the only player in college football history at any level to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Westbrook was a dynamic back in a time when the position was primarily dominated by prototypical runners who found success in between the tackles. 

Former Villanova Wildcat and Philadelphia Eagle, Brian Westbrook will be inducted into the College Football HOF on Dec. 5th - Photo Courtesy of Villanova Athletics photographer Jerry Millevoi

Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis were carving up defenses in the NFL while Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams and Jamal Lewis were wreaking havoc at the collegiate level. 

He was a transcendent player and being included in as heralded a class as this one adds to the allure of the enshrinement.

“For awards like this, it feels a little more special because we’re talking about some of the greatest who have ever played our game on the college level and to be mentioned in the same breadth as those men is extraordinary for me,” Westbrook said.

All the success Westbrook and Villanova attained almost didn’t occur. With limited touches during his senior season and later a torn ACL, Westbrook had programs like Syracuse, Maryland, Wake Forest, William & Mary, and the University of Richmond, where two of his best friends were starters including the lead back, TyRonne Turner. Drayton continued to stay in touch and eventually Westbrook committed to the Wildcats.

Drayton’s track record of molding running backs is astounding when assessing the lengthy list of names. Arian Foster. Jordan Howard. Carlos Hyde. He won two National Championships as a member of Urban Meyer’s staff, first at Florida in 2006, where fellow inductee Tebow flourished, then at Ohio State in 2014 where he was again the running backs coach and aided Ezekiel Elliott’s maturation as a runner and eventual No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. His latest pupil, Bijan Robinson was selected No. 8 overall this past year and Drayton worked with him for two years at Texas.

Still, Drayton credits Westbrook as the first true, multidimensional back he had a major hand in developing and Westbrook showcased such versatility that it set in motion a checklist that Drayton uses to this day.

“Brian was the first special back that I had, and he set the standard for everything that I looked for after that,” Drayton said. “Number one is mindset. Brian had this chip on his shoulder because he was too small and others dropped him during his recruitment. Number two is things you can’t coach. You have got to have good instincts and vision. You can enhance those things but if you’re starting from ground zero when talking about running backs like Bijan and Brian, those guys have to already bring that to the table.”

Next, a burst to get through a hole that’s not going to stay open long. What makes those backs really special, and this is the final piece, is the ability to get yards on your own. It’s easy to run through a hole and gain five yards, but what happens when you’re one on one and it’s time to be special by breaking a tackle or making a guy miss.”

Brian Westbrook is the only player in college football history at any level to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season - Photo Courtesy of Villanova Athletics photographer Jerry Millevoi

In 1998, Brian Westbrook led all of Division I-AA players in scoring with 160 points - Photo Courtesy of Villanova Athletics photographer Jerry Millevoi

When Westbrook arrived on campus, he was playing behind Curtis Sifford, who led the Wildcats in rushing in 1996-97, and shared the field with Brian Finneran, who amassed 3,872 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns at Villanova before playing 10 years in the NFL. Surprisingly, Villanova had never won a playoff game prior to Westbrook’s arrival and in his first postseason game during his freshman season, he erupted for 107 rushing yards and three total touchdowns against Colgate to give Talley and the Wildcats that elusive first playoff victory. Westbrook and Villanova fell to Jim Tressel and Youngstown State a week later.

The 1998 season put Westbrook on the map and into the annals of college football as that dual threat running back collegiate and NFL teams now covet in racking up 1,046 rushing and 1,144 receiving yards along with 15 touchdowns. Westbrook was more than an offensive weapon as he showcased his speed and vision as a return specialist by accumulating 644 kickoff return yards. Furthermore, he led all of Division I-AA players in scoring with 160 points that season.

Prior to his junior year, Westbrook tore his ACL again and missed the entire season. At this point, Westbrook was beginning to explore whether or not the NFL was a realistic possibility and reached out to the NFL’s College Advisory Committee, which “projected me as a third to fifth round choice and I wanted to be higher than that.” As he continued to work his way back from another knee injury, he stumbled upon the Senior Bowl while looking through his TV channels, watching Shaun Alexander, Brian Urlacher, and Adalius Thomas dazzle in their final tune-up before the draft.

He felt the Senior Bowl gave him the greatest opportunity to get to the next level and that’s when he decided to play out his final two years of eligibility at Villanova.

“I said, ‘I want to play in that game.’ In order to do that, I had to go back to school and that was my decision with the Senior Bowl in mind. I was solely and singularly focused on that.”

He tallied 1,220 yards and 15 more touchdowns in 2000, then in his final season with the Wildcats he rushed for 1,603 yards (averaged over 145 rushing yards per game) and scored 22 touchdowns in the process. All in all, Westbrook put together a career unlike anything Villanova or perhaps the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) has ever seen. He ended his career with 4,298 rushing yards and 54 touchdowns to go along with 2,582 receiving yards and 30 scores while also amassing 2,289 return yards and five more trots into the end zone, ultimately leaving Villanova as the program’s all-time leading rusher and scorer. 

Brian Westbrook ended his career with 4,298 rushing yards and 54 touchdowns - Photo Courtesy of Villanova Athletics Photographer Jerry Millevoi

He received the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS, as a senior, joining players like Finneran and the late Steve McNair to win the award.

As a result, he fulfilled his goal of playing in the Senior Bowl as one of just five FCS players to be selected. That 2002 Senior Bowl included eventual No. 1 pick David Carr, Antwaan Randle El, Deion Branch, future teammate Sheldon Brown and Freeney.

Westbrook was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles a few months later and the Senior Bowl changed the trajectory of his professional football outlook.

“I showed people that I could do things that some people thought could only be done at the I-AA level,” Westbrook said. “Because of that, it did help my draft stock and I talked to Marc Ross, who was the head of college personnel at the time for the Eagles and he said, ‘Listen, if you didn’t do so well at the Senior Bowl, we wouldn’t have drafted you.’ That matters to me and being part of that Senior Bowl class certainly added value to what I was able to do at the collegiate level.”

Brian Westbrook went on to become a two-time Pro Bowler and First Team All-Pro pick in 2007 while with the Eagles - PSD Photo

He was a two-time Pro Bowler and First Team All-Pro pick in 2007 while with the Eagles and helped the team advance to Super Bowl XXXIX. He played eight of his nine NFL seasons in Philadelphia and had a multitude of memorable moments, such as his game-winning punt return touchdown to down the New York Giants in 2003. Even after he left Villanova to pursue other opportunities, Drayton looked on from afar and kept in contact with his former star back.

For Drayton, seeing Westbrook enter the College Football Hall of Fame is a testament to the natural skillset he had and how he blossomed as a running back who wasn’t content with simply taking a handoff.

“His skillset was ahead of his time for the running back position,” Drayton said. “Brian, in my opinion, was actually the first one to bring it and have people want to use it on a consistent basis. The game is just now catching up to his skillset. It’s an absolute necessity of what they’re looking for at running back now. It goes to show you how few and far between these backs are, and when I talk to NFL scouts now, if a running back can’t catch it’s a tough go for those guys.”

Westbrook received his MBA in Management Information Systems (MIS) from Villanova and currently owns and operates Westbrook Project Solutions, a technical engineering staffing company. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Abdalla and three children. He feels his best work is to come both in his family life and career, but the accolades he accrued on the field are what made him a member of the 2023 College Football Hall of Fame class. While he is no longer involved with the game, Westbrook always strove to be the best and this momentous achievement brings an improbable dream to a close for an undersized player who was first noticed for running through another and evolved into one who will be etched in college football lore to be celebrated for generations.

“My goal growing up whether it be in middle school, high school or college was to become the best,” Westbrook said. “It became hard when I got to Villanova due to injuries and things like that, but when you are honored in the way that I am getting into the College Football Hall of Fame, it’s a nod to being able to be one of the best players who ever played college football.”