Before Brian Westbrook became a Pro Bowl running back with the Eagles or broke records at Villanova, he was told that he was too small to play professional football.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times in sports, there is a disadvantage because of your size,” Westbrook said. “Coaches, scouts, and people that are judging you, they’re putting you in a box, thinking you can only be this because of your size.”
Westbrook spent nine seasons in the NFL — eight with the Eagles and one with the San Francisco 49ers. At first, teams were hesitant in the 2002 NFL draft to select Westbrook, starting with his 5-foot-8 size, a knee injury that led him to miss a full season, and coming from Villanova, a smaller program. The Eagles selected him in the third round.
If it weren’t for the doubt, Westbrook wouldn’t have utilized his strengths to become a two-time Pro Bowler with the Eagles in 2004 and 2007.
He then realized he didn’t want others to feel limited in what they can do. When asked in 2020 by Lesley Van Arsdall, a CBS 3 sports anchor, about writing a children’s book, Westbrook saw it as an opportunity to share the adversity he went through and remind children, no matter the size, that they can achieve anything on the highest level.
“Brian does have one of the best stories that I’ve ever heard,” Van Arsdall said. “I reached out to Brian, and it was kind of the perfect time in his life because he has three young kids and like me, all he does is read books to his kids. … I started from scratch after that with Brian’s story, which is better than anything I could have come up with, because his story is real.”
The two coauthored the book The Mouse Who Played Football, which was released Monday. The book takes readers through Westbrook’s career, starting with a young mouse named Brian being told, “Too small. Tough little fella, but I’m not sure he has what it takes.” The saying continues throughout the book. Van Arsdall described the theme as weakness becoming strength.
When Brian the mouse was in high school, the authors wrote that he tried to use toughness to score touchdowns, but it wasn’t working, so he used what he was good at, speeding past the stronger players and leaping over the bigger ones.
“I looked at it as my size will allow me to be even more successful,” Westbrook said, referring to his football career. “For a lot of people, they feel like your size being small, especially in football, is a weakness. I never thought that. I always thought that it was my strength because I was able to make people miss tackles. I was able to play for a long time by doing a lot of things that traditional running backs never did: Catch the ball out of the backfield, be a running threat and a pass threat, as well as play special teams.
“Again, this is a kid’s book, but there are so many real-life messages for adults as well.”
At the moment Westbrook didn’t mention in the book about being judged for his size was the Senior Bowl he played in while at Villanova. The Seattle Seahawks were coaching Westbrook’s team. The running backs coach, at the time, Stump Mitchell, approached Westbrook and said, “The scouts only think that you can be a third-down back and a special-teams player.”
Westbrook was shocked to hear Mitchell say that at the All-Star game, seen as a pipeline for college players to the NFL. Among his achievements as a Wildcat, he set the NCAA record with 9,512 all-purpose yards. Westbrook knew his worth and wanted to be an every-down back. However, it wasn’t the last time I heard those comments.
“I had to go out there and prove myself for the role,” Westbrook said. “I had to go out there and do what I can to make sure that I can be successful up to my standards, not anyone else’s standard.”
Illustrator Mr. Tom highlights the city of Philadelphia, Villanova, and of course, the Eagles throughout the book. Even former Eagles coach Andy Reid is mentioned as “Big Red.”
Reid was an important part of Westbrook’s career. I liked what Westbrook had to offer and the Eagles drafted him with the 91st overall pick. After making a name for himself, Westbrook became a featured running back with the Eagles.
“The reason why we mentioned ‘Big Red’ is that [Reid] is one of the people that I’ve respected throughout my career,” Westbrook said. “He has helped me with so many different things.”
Westbrook hopes the book will represent his legacy. After two years of working through rewrites, illustration, and finding a publicist, Westbrook and Van Arsdall are spending the next couple of weeks showcasing their book to a larger audience.
“It feels good to be able to represent some of my career in this book,” Westbrook said. “It also feels good to be able to have a story where my family can read for years to come.
“This book is way bigger than myself, it’s way bigger than Lesley Van Arsdall. It’s all about our youth and the legacy that we’re leaving for our kids.”