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Lardarius Webbdidn't intend to speak to reporters last week after one of the Ravens' rookie-camp OTA practices. He just happened to finish up his daily rehab session and walk through the locker room as reporters were being let in. The next thing he knew, he was surrounded by cameras, microphones and notepads, and questions were coming his way.
How does the knee feel?
Are you ahead of schedule?
What is your daily routine?
Webb, 24, didn't seem to mind the intrusion. He smiled as he answered every question, offering plenty of insight. He estimated his injured right knee was about 70 percent healed. He admitted he couldn't stand sitting on the sidelines during practices. When someone asked if the injury, suffered on Dec. 20, had been a "blessing in disguise" because it enabled him to slow down and learn the pro game better, he nodded.
"I like the way you say that, 'blessing in disguise,'" Webb said. "I think God did it for a reason, put me down at the perfect time to help me learn some things, give me time to read some books, learn some things, mostly stuff off the field. It couldn't have come at a better time."
That is one positive-thinking young man, I thought. His knee injury, a torn anterior cruciate ligament, curtailed what had been a superb rookie season with the Ravens; a third-round draft pick from Nicholls State in Louisiana, he had risen through the ranks to become a starting cornerback, injecting freshness and urgency into a secondary that needed bolstering, only to be struck down on a kickoff play just as he was becoming invaluable. But six months later, he could see the positives.
When the questions petered out after 10 minutes, he thanked the group and headed for the door, and I thought about what I had learned in the impromptu session. Mostly, that if Webb could bottle and sell the sheer, unabashed drive he exudes, he could make a fortune. To say he is determined not to let the injury short-circuit his NFL career is an understatement. He said he has been at the Ravens training facility seven days a week since the season ended, missing only two days to attend his grandfather's funeral.
He walks through the door at 7 a.m., lifts weights to strengthen his upper body and then rehabs his knee until the early afternoon. Then he comes back and does it all again the next day.
"This year I didn't have an offseason," he said. "I'm just trying to get back. That lets you know how much I love the game, how much I'm willing to put into it.
"I play football. That's my life. That's my career. That's my job. If I don't have my ACL, I can't do my job. So I want to get it working as soon as possible. I've been here since I hurt it. Sooner or later, I'll be back."
It was when someone asked about the possibility of his returning kickoffs again that his drive really flashed. That was his primary role with the Ravens for most of 2009, and he was adept at it, averaging 26.2 yards on 35 returns and taking one 95 yards for a score. But first-rate cornerbacks are harder to find than good return men, and some have wondered whether he should continue in that role.
"What's your opinion?" someone asked.
Webb's eyes flared and his tone turned sharp. "My opinion? I love football. That's my opinion," he said. "I love the game. [Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh] can tell me to play punter this week and I got it for him. He can tell me to do anything."
He went back to a smile when it was pointed out that his hard work seemed to be paying off, that he looked noticeably thicker and stronger through the chest and arms.
"I've never stopped working on the upper body. That never stops with Harbs," he said. "My upper body has gotten so much stronger. I can tell my body feels great. I can't wait to get out there. Last year was last year. When I get better, I'm a new person this year. I'm bigger, stronger, faster. I'm way smarter. It's a different year."
Put simply, this is a guy you want on your team.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.