After tackling himself, Webster a grateful man

January 24, 2001|By DAN RODRICKS

TAMPA, Fla. -- From the big-money seats for this year's Super Bowl -- the 50-yard line, 20 rows up, at sun-splashed Raymond James Stadium -- Larry Webster looked down upon the supreme madness of hundreds of reporters, videographers and sound engineers trying to get his teammate, Ray Lewis, to speak again of the nightmare after last year's game in Atlanta. The reporters pushed forward, in a massive V formation, like acolytes at an inquisition. Webster, who, like Lewis, came close to seeing his own football career end forever in 2000 because of "off-field problems," watched the scene from a safe distance through the lens of a camcorder.

Had he by now become a defensive tackle of wider acclaim, had his career not been marred and stalled by four violations of the NFL's drug abuse policies, Larry Webster yesterday might have been in Ray Lewis's seat -- star athlete in the national spotlight for bad decisions in his immediate past, talking about unpleasant, personal stuff instead of the joys of football and the big show.

His lesser celebrity saved him from this fate. But I found him, in his white Ravens uniform, packed into one of the not-so-cheap seats, willing to talk. I passed up R. Lewis for L. Webster, and don't regret it.

"There isn't a week, isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about it," Larry Webster said. "I think about what I missed, and it's frustrating. But I'm here. It's not luck that I'm here. It's the grace of God."

And the grace of the Ravens, who needed his services.

Like Lewis, Webster came close to never getting to Tampa, never playing in the Super Bowl.

But unlike Lewis, he was never accused of murder. Webster's problem has been drug abuse, and so his story is more like that of Kerry Collins, the New York Giants' quarterback and recovering alcoholic who came before the media on Monday and again yesterday with his heart on his sleeve and his head on straight.

"Humility is not always a strong suit of professional athletes," Collins testified to a tent full of reporters. "One of the first things I had to do when I began my rehab was to get humble. That humility comes along with realizing I do have a problem. I can't control alcohol. Unless I realized that and unless I applied that into my daily life, alcohol was going to kill me. ... I made the decision to try to become the best quarterback I could be, the best person that I could be, because I didn't want to waste [my] talent. I didn't want to look back in 20 years, in 30 years, and see that I wasted a talent."

Collins sounded genuine -- grateful to have been given another chance at all this.

But I wondered about Webster. He's on his third or fourth chance now, and maybe even the most passionate Ravens fan will consider that way too much of a break for a well-paid professional athlete in a league as image-conscious as the NFL.

Webster has violated the rules of the NFL enough that the Baltimore Ravens might have been justified in releasing him during the 2000 season. But he was suspended from play, not dumped for good. He missed 10 games as a Raven in 2000, blowing a hole in a career as a defensive tackle that looked again promising after his earlier suspensions from other teams.

Webster grew up in Maryland. He played at Elkton High School, then at the University of Maryland. He had the size and physical talent that qualified him for play in the NFL, first with the Miami Dolphins, then with the Cleveland Browns. He came to Baltimore when Art Modell moved the Browns. Webster played well, but he blew another drug test. He would have missed the Super Bowl had the Ravens not decided they needed him.

The man is as big as he is gentle-spoken -- 6 feet 5 and 288 pounds -- and he's quick; back in high school, he was a running back.

And you look at the press notes on him and you think: Larry Webster certainly can rise to the occasion. Substituting as a defensive tackle at the end of the season and in the playoff games, he had some terrific outings -- four tackles in 15 plays from scrimmage in the playoff victory over Denver in Baltimore; three tackles, two of them solo, in the Ravens' victory in Oakland 10 days ago. But there's this big hole in Larry Webster's career. He missed most of the 2000 season, and he turned 32 last week.

"I worked out, I stayed in shape," Webster said. "I didn't know if the Ravens would have me back or what. My mother, Theresa Carroll, she told me to control the things I can and not try to control the things I could not control. So that's what I did. I worked on the person Larry, not Larry the football player."

Collins said something similar: "I had a hard time separating between Kerry Collins the quarterback and Kerry Collins the person. I realized I needed to take care of myself first before I could do anything on the football field."

"I heard him say that," Larry Webster said. "It's true. You know, you get a ride up a hill, high up a hill, and then you come crushing down and that's when it hits you, that you think of failure."

And the end of a career. And a life of regret. And no Super Bowl.

Webster has a counselor, and speaks to him regularly.

"And I have a sponsor, a man who has been clean and sober for 19 years, and I talk to him a lot. I spoke to him before I came down here, and I'll call him again tonight.

"Am I grateful? Yes. Yes, I'm grateful," Webster said. "I'm grateful to my maker and to this organization for sticking with me. I think maybe I left a good impression for them to want me back. Art Modell, he cares about his players. ... And I'm a lot different than the man I was before. I don't blame others for my problems. If I'm some place I'm not supposed to be, around some people I'm not supposed to be around, those are all my choices, not someone else's. I see that now."

Today is a better day. The Super Bowl looms.

"The past is the past, but you don't forget it. You remember it, you learn from it, and go on from there."

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