What do these four NFL names have in common? They’re each well-known, active players who went to a Division-II college. And the Rams’ undrafted rookie
Westbrooks first attended Sacramento City College before transferring to West Texas A&M, a small university about 20 miles south of Amarillo, Texas. There, he was arguably the most dominant player at his level in 2012, recording 60 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss, and 19.5 sacks. Even with defenses attuned to his ability in 2013, he was able to put together a solid season with 43 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, and seven sacks.
Now, the 6-foot-4, 267-pound rookie is trying to crack the roster of a team full of talent at his position. The Rams have carried nine defensive linemen in the past, and with the first eight slots looking firmly entrenched, Westbrooks -- who plays both end and tackle -- seems to be fighting to be the ninth. Of course, there are no guarantees for how the roster will be constructed in 2014, but Westbrooks knows he has to fight every day for his spot.
“You definitely do because you want the coaches or even other players -- you want to gain their respect just as much as the coaches,” Westbrooks said after the game on Saturday. “You don’t want to have them feel like, ‘Oh, he doesn’t belong,’ or, ‘This undrafted, D-II guy, why did they even bring him in here?’”
“Honestly, I was kind of upset about the last play that I could’ve got on [Packers quarterback Matt] Flynn,” Westbrooks said. “I felt good about it overall, but it’s always that one play that you miss that sticks out in your mind more than anything.”
That doesn’t take away from what Westbrooks has done on the field, though. According to stats from the coaches’ film review, the rookie is second on the team in preseason tackles with eight. He’s also tied with
“He’s making plays,” head coach Jeff Fisher said on Sunday. “He’s playing well against the run. He’s got pass rush ability he’s shown. He’s put a lot of pressure on the passer.”
You don’t have to watch much of his game to realize Westbrooks has the potential to be a force on the defensive line. But off the field, he’s pensive -- almost soft spoken. And the first thing you notice about him is the tattoo on the left side of his face, a permanent mark reading “Laugh now, cry later,” which he says helps him stay motivated to make a career in the NFL.
“It keeps me with thoughts of, ‘You’ve got to do this. Do you want to go back home and really have to search for a job and try to think of ways to cover up this tattoo? People are going to judge you already,’” Westbrooks said. “You just have to make the best of it that you can while you’re here.”
“You really can’t just go back or think about maybe football isn’t for me, no matter how hard it gets,” he added. “I definitely just felt like this was my blessing, so I definitely should ride it until the wheels fall off. And that’s what I’m doing.”
While riding the wave, Westbrooks has seen his detractors, those who don’t think that a D-II player can hack it in the NFL. But they don't bother him. In fact, despite others telling him not to, he said he embraces them -- even enjoys what they say.
“I’ve read stuff on Twitter that’s said, ‘Oh, Westbrooks isn’t going to last,’” he said. “If you let other people get to you with things that they say and they don’t even know you, or they might have just started out hearing about you, they’re late. It doesn’t matter anyway. You’ve got to keep eating and do what you did to get here in the first place.”
Still, staying on the path to an NFL career can be difficult -- a grind, he says. Westbrooks is clear that he’s enjoyed every moment with the Rams, but recognizes that with his playing background, he has no choice but to be on point for every rep that comes his way.
“You come in as an undrafted free agent from a D-II, you’re not even supposed to be here, some people would say,” Westbrooks said. “I’ve got a couple of friends I know in D-II that are playing, and I really just want to show that if you work hard enough, you can definitely get to the NFL and ball out.”
And yet there’s more to Westbrooks’ drive to be successful in the pros. He realizes that the league represents a unique opportunity to provide for his family.
“That’s the biggest motivator in it all, is that I would like to be able to make a long career out of this and hopefully one day have my daughter say she’s proud of me,” Westbrooks said. “That, to me, would be the biggest accomplishment. Even aside from football -- to me, that would definitely bring tears of joy to my face.”
Westbrooks’ journey has only just begun. But so far, it looks like “Ethan Westbrooks” just might be the next name to go beside Woodhead, Jones, Jackson, and Vinatieri.