Each week, when Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb shows up to do his radio show at the Al Packer Ford dealership in White Marsh, fans eagerly await, the majority of them hungry to get his autograph. During commercial breaks, they stand in line until it's their turn to shuffle forward and enthusiastically thrust a football, a picture, a jersey or a hat into his hands.
The ritual of signing autographs still feels a tad surreal to Webb, even though this is his third year in the NFL. Even if you could get him to concede he has quietly become one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL -- a statement that makes him smile, but one he's reluctant to make on his own -- there is a part of him that still feels like the skinny, shy kid who grew up in tiny Opelika, Ala., dreaming of big things.
Because of this, Webb does not merely sign autographs. He lingers for a moment with each person, unconcerned the line is moving slowly. He always makes eye contact, especially with kids. He asks questions, poses for pictures and he gives out high-fives. For some professional athletes, signing autographs seems like a weary exercise, something to be done with your head down and with mechanical efficiency. But for Webb, it's a constant reminder of life's many blessings.
Fans will be expecting him to play well this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, but Webb's own expectations are even higher. He would like to be a great player, certainly, but along that journey, he'd also like to be known as someone who connected with his community.
"I know people aren't just coming to get autographs; they want to meet you," Webb said. "They get to keep the autograph to say, 'OK, I met this guy. I know him.' But if I'm their favorite player, I want them to have an actual moment to remember. Because I remember a lot of them. Some of the kids, I'll even remember their names. I love kids, and I hate to see kids struggling. I hate seeing kids in need. So if I can do anything to positively influence their lives, if I can help them stay off the street, I'm down for it. That makes my day."
A number of Ravens have charitable foundations and make appearances, but Webb is one of the youngest players to take on such an active role. This summer, he held a free football camp for 300 kids. In October, the Lardarius Webb Foundation hosted a charity bowling event to raise money for underprivileged families. At Thanksgiving, he helped teammate Ben Grubbs provide Thanksgiving dinner for those who couldn't afford it. He's hosting an American Idol-themed karaoke party this month to raise money for cancer research, and he and his teammates will take turns behind the microphone. He's already nervous about singing in front of a big crowd, but he's leaning toward doing his version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It."
"I'm hoping I have the nerve," Webb said. "I'm going to be there, happy and joyful, either way. But I don't know how much singing they'll get out of me."
Webb's desire to connect with people, however, would feel like little more than a footnote with fans if he hadn't blossomed into one of the best cornerbacks in football this year. Name a statistical category and he's already left his mark. He leads the team with four interceptions; he's third on the team in tackles with 55 (trailing only Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain); and he's had a sack, a forced fumble and a defensive touchdown. In the Ravens' Thanksgiving win over the San Francisco 49ers, he made one of the biggest plays of the game, making an interception just before halftime, never losing focus, even though receiver Braylon Edwards was yanking on his dreadlocks as he caught the ball. Barely a week goes by that one of Webb's teammates doesn't lobby for him to make the Pro Bowl.
"He's already a great corner, but he's on his way to being one of the best," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "He's a shy guy, so he doesn't like to talk about himself. But every day he's going to come to work and try to get better at something. When he has to make a tackle, boom, he's going to make a tackle. When he needs to break up a pass, he's going to go up and do it. He's the kind of teammate you want to have, a guy who is always trying to get better. Being good isn't good enough. He's on his way to greatness."
Even if Webb merely continues to play at his current level, he will still likely go down as one of the Ravens' great draft-day steals.
Webb led the state of Alabama in interceptions as a high school senior, which led to a scholarship offer from Southern Mississippi. And his first two seasons there, he showed tremendous potential, finishing sixth on the team in tackles as a sophomore. But after his second season wrapped up, he was kicked off the team for "violating team rules," and it left him with an uncertain football future.
"I always put it back on me," Webb said, when asked about his time at Southern Miss. "I was around the wrong people. I didn't make the best decisions for my life. I wasn't used to being away from home, and it was too much partying with friends, all the women, drinking, whatever. I was thinking college was supposed to be fun, but there is a lot more to it than fun."
With just two weeks to pick a new school before the spring semester began, Webb chose Nicholls State, a Football Championship Subdivision school in Louisiana, because the Colonels' defensive coordinator, Steve Ellis, vowed to mentor him.
"He's the guy who influenced my whole turnaround," Webb said. "He's the one who gave me the confidence that I could still make it. You need somebody like that in your life, and sometimes I try to be that same guy to kids. I made it harder on myself. It was harder to make it to the NFL from a smaller school, and it taught me if I wanted it bad enough, I had to step my game up."
Webb was so gifted, Nicholls State wasn't exactly sure where to play him. The first game he played for the Colonels, he intercepted three passes and ran one back for a touchdown. Nicholls State used him at cornerback, running back, quarterback and as a returner. Eventually the coaches stuck him at safety and asked him to do his best impression of Ed Reed. He became the only player in NCAA Division I history to receive the conference awards of Offensive Player of the Week, Defensive Player of the Week and Special Teams Player of the Week in a single season.
Even though he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any defensive back at the scouting combine, plenty of teams wondered whether he could made the transition to strictly playing corner in the NFL. Even the Ravens were a little concerned, but they couldn't resist snagging him in the third round when he was still there with the 88th pick in the 2009 draft.
"I think part of the reason he was a college safety down at Nicholls is because he was their best player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "So they just put him in the middle of the field and let him run all over.
He was sideline to sideline and pretty much made every tackle for them. So he was fast enough to play corner."
It took awhile, though, for Webb to answer how good his technique could be. Even he had occasional moments of doubt. "I had never truly been out on that island before," Webb said.
A promising rookie year was cut short when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a game against the Chicago Bears. After eight months of rehabilitation, the Ravens needed him to give the team whatever he could, even though he knew he wasn't quite 100 percent. Webb acknowledges now that he was a little frustrated that fans -- and if he's being honest, the team -- didn't show him a bit more patience in 2010.
"I feel like, whether it was the Ravens or the fans, they kind of forgot that I was coming off eight months of rehab," Webb said. "They rushed me back on the field. But if they put you in, you've got to play. It's a business. People want to say that I'm playing good ball now like it's a surprise, well, it's not a surprise to me. You knew I was good. I knew I was good. But I was coming off an ACL. What did you expect? ... Some of the same people who are telling me how great I am, and how they going to vote me into the Pro Bowl, are the same people who were cussing me out on Twitter after I gave up the third-and-16 against the Pittsburgh Steelers [in the AFC divisional playoffs]."
A lot of that frustration fueled Webb's desire to become a great player this season. When the Ravens used their first-round pick on cornerback Jimmy Smith, and then re-signed Chris Carr to a four-year, $14 million contract, Webb didn't blink. He was convinced he was going to make an impact somewhere, even if all he did was return punts and kicks. But when Smith and Carr were injured at the start of the year, the Ravens had to lean on him. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, for Webb and for the team.
"I just think he's a guy that takes the craft of playing corner very seriously," Harbaugh said. "He pays attention to detail and really tries to be a technician. There are still a lot of things he'll tell you he could do better. But when we talk to opposing coaches, they have a lot of respect for the way he plays."
Webb isn't particularly interested in talking about his chances of making it to the Pro Bowl. He feels like his teammates respect him a ton, and for now, that's enough. But every so often, when a little kid comes to his radio show and says he wants to take a picture with "the best corner in the NFL," Webb finds himself unable to suppress a big smile.
It might not be true, at least not yet, but Webb likes the way it sounds.