Ethan Westbrooks took quite the journey to land in Atlanta, where his assignment on Sunday in Super Bowl LIII is simple: chase down that Tom Brady fellow of the New England Patriots and say hello.
Westbrooks is a fifth-year reserve defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams with Elk Grove and Sacramento roots. He is so giddy to be on the sport’s grandest stage that he sized it up like this during Monday’s Media Day bonanza: “It’s definitely dope! Such a dope thing.”
It wasn’t always dope. Sometimes life was a bit of a drag and it tested a big kid with a big smile, big heart and enormous body.
Westbrooks was born in Oakland and grew up one of seven kids, raised by a single mother, Trisha Warren. Sports was an outlet, something fun and ferocious to do, but it didn’t click right away in football.
Westbrooks and a teammate casually arrived late for varsity team tryouts before their junior season at Franklin High School in 2007, so coach Mike Johnson made a stand. He removed both of them from the squad.
“Ethan was a stud, a man child, a big, athletic kid when he was with us, but they did this casual walk thing to the tryout,” Johnson said. “I yelled, ‘Hey, if you’re going to be late, at least sprint to practice!’
“To Ethan’s credit, he came back out the next year and was great for coach (Bryan) Prahl when I took a year off. Ethan figured it out.”
Westbrooks earned all-Delta League honors as a senior but so-so grades, including a D in Spanish, derailed any immediate hopes of a college scholarship. So he went the community college route.
He landed at Delta in 2009, turned heads in the weight room and turned games on Saturdays with 12 sacks. But this all came after he turned off the coaches at Sacramento City.
“Ethan was on our campus right out of high school,” Sac City coach Dannie Walker said. “He came to the first day of practice, and we ran a lot. But he didn’t like the conditioning, so he left.
“Told him, we’ll be seeing you.’”
Westbrooks headed to Stockton. Midway through his freshman season, another reality check hit. He became a father. He needed to earn a paycheck.
Westbrooks stepped away from athletics for a year and took a job at Toys ‘R’ Us to help provide for his child, a girl named Karina. He stocked shelves by day and then did graveyard shifts pulling nails during a building reconstruction.
But football never left him. Westbrooks knew he didn’t want to handle a hammer for a career. It took time to mature as a student, even as a man, never mind his 6-foot-4 and 275-pound frame in those days (he is now 290).
“And then he came back to us at City (in 2011),” Walker said. “I saw him walking around Hughes Stadium, and he said he wanted to come back.”
Westbrooks was told that he had to be a better student and that his transcripts had to reflect as such if he wanted to land a scholarship. And he would have to run and condition to the point of exhaustion. No shortcuts here.
He bought in. Westbrooks earned all-state honors at Sac City and headed to Division II West Texas A&M in Canyon, a town of 13,000 just south of Amarillo. It wasn’t the Division I or the FBS level Westbrooks dreamed of, but it was a scholarship and a chance to play.
He earned Small-College All-American honors, recording 19 1/2 sacks in 2012 in earning national Division II Defensive Player of the Year honors. In 2013, Westbrooks was double- and triple-teamed his senior season but still recorded 19 1/2 tackles for loss to go with seven sacks.
Westbrooks earned Player of the Game honors in the 2014 East-West Shrine Game, then later signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent. He will be a free agent after this season.
“Ethan was phenomenal for us and at West Texas A&M, definitely a next-level guy,” Walker said. “He could do amazing things on the field and moved like a 180-pound defensive back.
“I’m proud of him. He had a lot of work to do as a student. We laid out a plan here for him and he attacked it. Going to a four-year school was important to him, to his family. He took a different path, but he took the opportunities and turned them into reality.”
Said Johnson, “Everyone’s light bulb turns on at some point, and it obviously came on for Ethan.”
Johnson and Walker said Westbrooks can radiate a room with his charm, which belies his in-game nature.
“He’s always had a wonderful personality, a great smile,” Johnson said.
“Just love the guy,” Walker said. “Ethan’s a happy-go-lucky guy. His smile is contagious.”
Westbrooks now has four young children, the only things he loves more than football. Before his last game at Sac City, Westbrooks got a tattoo on the upper part of his left cheek. It reads, “Laugh Now, Cry Later.”
Westbrooks cried plenty over the years. He’s laughed even more of late.
“After working for Toys ‘R’ Us for so long, I was just like, ‘This is some (expletive) that I never want to do,’” Westbrooks said in a 2016 ESPN interview. “I was either going to make it in football or I was going to have to work at the warehouse for the rest of my life, to be honest.”