As the president of a homeowner's association just a few miles from the Baltimore Ravens practice facility in Owings Mills, Long Reach's Pete Hughes isn't a stranger to NFL players.
He was there when Hall of Famer Deion Sanders took a casual walk through the neighborhood, and he got up the nerve to ask 350-pound defensive lineman Terrence Cody to put out his trash only on the designated day.
"I had to knock on his door, and then I'm standing there asking Terrence Cody to put his trash out on the correct day," Hughes said. "I had to warm up to him first, so I said, 'It looks like you can play fullback, you've lost so much weight!' He laughed, and he was very agreeable."
But Hughes also developed a friendship with one of his famous neighbors -- Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, who would be playing in Sunday's Super Bowl in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers if not for a season-ending knee injury. And that friendship led to Webb's help with the Long Reach football team for a game in October.
Living two doors apart, Hughes couldn't help but notice what a good neighbor Webb was, decorating his house for all the holidays and taking time to talk and play with the kids in the neighborhood. But it wasn't until a power outage last summer that the two had a conversation.
"He's the nicest man you'd ever want to meet," Hughes said.
Hughes and his girlfriend were waiting out the outage at the local Buffalo Wild Wings when Webb walked in with several Ravens teammates after a charity basketball game. Noticing his neighbor, Webb asked Hughes if the power was back on.
Hughes formally introduced himself as the head football coach of Long Reach High School (he recently stepped down after 17 seasons), and Webb was intrigued.
"He said, 'Oh man, that's what I want to do! What do I have to do to be an intern?' " Hughes recalled. "I told him, 'I think you're going to be playing for awhile.' "
A few months later, when Webb was doing his weekly Wednesday night radio show at the Greene Turtle in Owings Mills, Hughes approached him with a Long Reach football T-shirt and the opportunity to give a pregame speech before Long Reach played archrival Howard on Friday, Oct. 5.
"We talked every day about football, and I knew (Hughes) as a friend," Webb said in a statement from New Orleans Thursday. "He told me to come and check a game out one day."
On game day, Webb texted Hughes and told him that he'd miss the pregame, but he'd be there for the game.
"Sure enough, there he was, walking through the gates with the long dreads and the Long Reach T-shirt on," Hughes said.
At first, Hughes said, only the coaches knew they were in the presence of an NFL star.
But with Howard and its talented duo of quarterback Austin Blair and running back Michael Anderson lighting up the scoreboard (the Lions would score a season-high 62 points), Long Reach needed a spark.
So Hughes pulled aside junior defensive back Brandan Barrington, who was tasked with defending Howard speedster Josh Peoples, the recent 300-dash champion at the Howard County indoor track championships.
"Coach Hughes just said a player might be showing up," Barrington said. "I didn't know he was there until one of my coaches pulled me aside and told me to talk to this guy. He had a Long Reach shirt and Long Reach sweatpants. I just thought he was another coach. But he had the dreads and a real country accent."
Webb, who grew up in eastern Alabama and has 11 interceptions in four seasons with the Ravens, gave Barrington the lowdown.
"He was telling me to watch the quarterback's eyes and he's going to tell you exactly where he's going to throw it," said Barrington, who also plays receiver for the Lightning. "He told me if it's a fast guy, give him a little bit of room. But if it's not, then step up toward the line."
Defending Peoples out wide, Barrington gave his opponent a couple steps, and then found Blair's eyes.
"As soon as I saw the quarterback look at (Peoples), I knew he was going to throw it my way. I just jumped in front of the ball," said Barrington, who finished the season with a team-best four picks, including one against state champion River Hill. "When I came off to the sideline, (Webb) came over and gave me a hug."
Webb stuck around to give a halftime speech, which is when most of the Long Reach players realized who he was.
The Lightning was facing its fifth loss in six games, and frustration was mounting. Webb knew his halftime speech wasn't going to be about Xs and Os.
"I've seen Tom Brady fumble. I've seen Joe Flacco and the best quarterbacks in the NFL turn the ball over," Hughes recalls Webb telling his players. "You need to support your quarterback."
For Webb, the halftime speech was a chance to practice what he wants to do after his playing days are over.
"I love kids. I want them to grow up and be successful. I wanted to be able to give them some keys to life and anything they needed answers to try to make it easier on them," he said. "It’s a privilege to be able to give back.”
Less than 10 days later, Webb suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a game against Dallas.
After his surgery, Hughes brought Webb — who had moved to Finksburg — a football signed by the Long Reach team. Webb told Hughes he would find a place for it in his office. After all, the experience on Oct. 5 was one Webb wants to remember as well.
“When I was their age, we never had an NFL player come to one of our games. Just the look in their eyes when I popped up, it was great,” Webb said. "Just seeing myself again on the sidelines and remembering when I was in their shoes. It felt like that was my ball club."
Unlike Barrington's interception, Long Reach's season didn't end with a storybook finish. The Lightning went on to lose to Howard, 62-29, and finished the season 3-7 for its losing campaign in 15 years.
But 20 years from now, that won't really matter, if it's even remembered.
"An NFL player coming to our game," Barrington said. "That was pretty special."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun