The Hall Of Fame Eagles player talks about sports, his foundation, his days at Villanova, and why size doesn’t always matter.
by Melissa Jacobs
Book Event: Sat., Sept. 24, 1 pm – 3 pm, Brian Westbrook and Lesley Van Arsdall, Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr. Registration required.
Brian Westbrook fans know that 36 and 20 carry special meaning. They are the numbers that Westbrook wore during his award-winning careers with the Philadelphia Eagles and Villanova University football teams. Now, those numbers are prominently displayed on the cover of The Mouse Who Played Football (Temple University Press), the children’s book that Westbrook wrote with Bryn Mawr resident and former sports reporter Lesley Van Arsdall.
Released Aug. 1, the book features a mouse named Brian who, although small even by mouse standards, pursues his dream of playing in the Mouse Football League. “A lot of people doubted me because of my size,” says Westbrook who, at 5’10, was considered short for a running back. “But people can doubt you because of your skin color, or because you have red hair, or because you don’t have blue eyes. None of that matters. What matters is what you have inside.”
Westbrook made a career out of overcoming naysayers. At Villanova University, he established 41 school, 13 Atlantic 10 Conference, and 5 NCAA records and was the 2001 recipient of the prestigious Walter Peyton Award. Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002, Westbrook played nine seasons for the NFL, racking up a slew of achievements. Embraced by players, coaches and fans, Westbrook is in the Eagles Hall of Fame and Villanova University Varsity Club Hall of Fame, as well as Philadelphia’s hall of fame and that of his home state of Maryland.
But Westbrook’s three young kids only know him as dad. After he read them the book for the first time, Westbrook’s kids said they loved the mouse. “I asked if it sounded like anyone they know, and they said, ‘No. Goodnight, Daddy,’ and went to bed.”
Westbrook is likely to get a more rousing reception when he and Van Arsdall appear at the Free Library of Philadelphia on August 4. The event begins at 12 pm and is free, but registration is required. Books will be available for sale via independent bookstore Uncle Bobbie’s.
Westbrook credits Van Arsdall and Mr. Tom, the book’s illustrator, with bringing to life the messages embedded in The Mouse Who Played Football. The game is a metaphor for life, Westbrook said. “You’re going to have good plays and bad plays, good days and bad days. You’re going to win some games and lose some games. You’re going to have coaches you like, coaches you love and coaches you hate. You’re going to have teammates that are cool one day and not so cool the next day. You’re going to get traded to a whole different team and have to make new relationships. What matters is your character and how you respond to challenges.”
To illustrate his point, Westbrook recounted a story from an unlikely, non-football source: Jay Wright, the beloved and recently retired coach of Villanova’s basketball team. “He said that as a team, we’re not tied to the outcome of a game,” Westbrook said. “We may win by 20 points. But I may go into the locker room and get on my team if we didn’t win the way we’re supposed to, which is by using our fundamentals and following our process. Or we may lose by 20 points, but I may be happy because my team played the game exactly the way that we are supposed to play it.”
It’s tough to imagine Wright being happy about losing a game by 20 points, but the coach was well known for emphasizing character, sportsmanship and hard work. “Villanova is a special place,” Westbrook said. “Villanova is a place where I found refuge, friendships, networking, and a place where I became a young man.”
What Westbrook learned at Villanova powered his career in the NFL. “It’s about going to work every single day, working your butt off until you are tired, exhausted and can’t do anymore – then doing just a little bit more, then coming back the next day and doing it again,” he said. “At the end of the week, there’s a football game and that game may not go your way. That shouldn’t change the dedication that you put into preparing for the next game. That should motivate you to work even harder. That’s how I look at it.”
Westbrook is passing that on to the next generation. Fifty percent of Westbrook and Van Arsdall’s profits from the book are being donated to organizations that empower underprivileged children. That’s the exact mission of The Brian Westbrook Foundation. Based on Westbrook’s Maryland horse farm, the foundation was launched in 2017 to provide vocational and educational programs to underserved kids. “A lot of companies are saying they want to have diverse workforces but don’t know where to find applicants,” Westbrook said. “It’s the job of foundations like mine to add people to that job funnel.”
This summer, Westbrook’s team organized its first sports analytics data camp, a free, two-week course for 50 young people held at Bowie State University, Maryland’s oldest HBCU. ”At the end of camp, one parent said, ‘I don’t recognize that person. That’s not the person I dropped off two weeks ago. That’s the person that I’ve been pushing my son to be for a very long time. And somehow, you got that out of him,’” Westbrook said. “They were in tears and I was in tears.”
Westbrook is all smiles when it comes to The Mouse Who Played Football and he’s excited about being a first-time author. “Things come to you at the right time in your life, because if it’s not the right time, you probably won’t see it as an opportunity,” he said. “If this book came to me when I was 21 instead of 41, I wouldn’t have seen it as an opportunity. Now, I’m raising three kids and I have a different perspective on the meaning of children’s books and how kids learn.”
Whether Westbrook’s own kids realize that the mouse is based on their father remains to be seen. “They like the book, and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “It got their stamp of approval and I’ll take that as a win.”