When Lee Bayman Webb ran through the tunnel of Alltel Stadium on Saturday evening for the Jaguars preseason opener against Miami wearing his bright teal number 44 Jaguars jersey, he looked into the stands and saw his mentor and brother, Joseph Toliva. Webb's father, Arthur, and legal guardian, Geraldine Turner, were unable to make the trip, but Webb knew they were back in California thinking about the game in Jacksonville.
They wouldn't miss this for anything as they understand and realize the magnitude of the journey Webb has taken to Jacksonville. It took Webb across the country and back before age 12 fighting for survival each step along the way. All the hardships were countered with hard work and perseverance that led to a standout high school football career and back-to-back national championships at Southern California.
And to where he is now, an undrafted free agent on the Jaguars training camp roster.
Webb's eyes light up and a smile creeps across his face when asked about growing up in Los Angeles eight blocks from the Southern California campus. He doesn't smile because of the happy memories. Reliving them is not easy, but he smiles because he says the journey made him stronger.
"Growing up was rough," Webb said. "I went through a lot of difficult things that are helping me right now. There are a lot of things that I took away from my childhood that helps prevent me from making a lot of mistakes."
It was at age 12 when Webb boldly proclaimed to his parents that he would someday attend USC. But no one was paying attention. Probably because when Webb was talking about his future plans in life, he was pushing a shopping cart filled with all his belongings up Figueroa Street near the USC campus. His family was homeless, trying to survive each day.
The thought of him attending school in the brick campus buildings was too farfetched for his family. But Webb dreamed, hoping it would all become a reality.
Webb would occasionally sleep at night on a bus-stop bench instead of the local homeless shelter. But those long nights didn't stop him from dreaming about suiting up for the Trojans one day in front of 68,000 fans at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Still, no one listened.
"I remember it because as the time came closer when they started recruiting me that went a long way into choosing what school I wanted to go to," Webb said.
Webb was born in Inglewood, Calif., but moved to Detroit at age five. His family, minus his mother, boarded a Greyhound bus for the Midwest to be with their extended family. After their father fell on tough times, Webb and his two brothers, Lamarr and Damont, were forced to stay in a group home for six months. An aunt took them in and that is when football became Webb's passion.
"My aunties took care of my family in Detroit when my dad couldn't," Webb said. "I have always had a good conscience. I wasn't an angel, but I definitely knew the difference from right and wrong. My aunties and uncles taught me that."
Webb became devoted to football in Michigan, earning MVP of his Pop Warner team. At age 12, his family decided to board another bus and return to Los Angeles. Webb, his father and his siblings were supposed to rejoin their mother in an apartment. The plan failed when Webb's mother changed her mind. The boys and their father were left scrambling and searching for food and a place to live.
Football wasn't a priority at the time. The family finally found an apartment near the USC campus and things began to turn around. Webb gives credit to Toliva for getting his life straight and making sure he stayed out of the streets. Webb would beg his brother for work, anything to put money in his pocket.
"He was blowing me off at first because he was short on money," Webb said. "He finally gave me a job pulling car seats out of cars. We built a relationship. He always steered me in the right direction.
"I'm not sure I would be here without him. It would have been harder to get to this point. He directed me from making a lot of wrong turns. He showed me a different way and that I didn't have to do all those things to get money and make it. Gangs and drugs were really heavy in my neighborhood. My brother shifted me in the right direction so I wouldn't go with them."
Webb was able to pick up football again in ninth grade, but more importantly, he found someone who would change his life. Mrs. Turner, who has been a foster parent for more than 130 children, took in Webb toward the end of his freshman year of high school. She became his legal guardian at age 15 and Webb now considers her 'my mother.'
"She is an amazing woman," Webb said. "We have a mother and son relationship."
At one time, Webb remembers living with 10 or 11 foster children. They all considered each other brothers and sisters and it remains the same today. His football career began to bloom at the same time under the tutelage of his high school coach at Crenshaw, Robert Garrett. Garrett noticed the talent right away.
Garrett had to convince Webb that turning it around in the classroom was a must if he wanted to fulfill his dream. Webb buckled down and spent his time preparing for his SAT and got his G.P.A. near a 4.0.
"Everyone thought I had a natural talent for football," Webb said. "I just kept fighting and pushing. My brother gave me money for good grades and my grades started to improve."
Webb's dream came true when USC offered him a scholarship. He was able to make good on his proclamation to his family. Not only did he attend USC and win back-to-back national championships, he graduated with a degree in public policy and development.
"My parents are really proud of that," Webb said. "Football has always been my goal in life, but getting my degree was neck and neck with football. In order to play football I had to go to school. I figured I might as well get my degree instead of doing all that work for nothing."
Webb, 5-11, 240 pounds, faces an uphill challenge in the preseason to earn a roster spot in the crowded Jaguars backfield. There are several USC alumni on the Jaguars coaching staff, including head coach Jack Del Rio. Running backs coach Kennedy Pola started at fullback at USC from 1982-85 and first year offensive coordinator Carl Smith served as quarterbacks coach for the Trojans last season.
Webb was fortunate to play in a NFL type system at USC under former NFL head coach Pete Carroll.
"It's the main reason that I am able to get adjusted to the plays and see it for what it is," Webb said. "The only difference is watching guys with more money. The speed is the same. But I'm still sore from practicing twice a day."
Webb's hard work and perseverance in life and on the football field not only landed him on the Jaguars' roster, but he was also recognized earlier this year with the national Wilma Rudolph Award from the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes.
It was as if the award was created for him. The award is given to the student-athlete who has overcome great personal, academic, and/or emotional odds to achieve academic success while participating in intercollegiate athletics. Rudolph overcame polio as a child and went on to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics.
The award doesn't always go to the best athlete, but the one who has made the most significant strides in life. Webb has done all that and more, overcoming living on the streets of Los Angeles to graduating with a degree at USC to landing in a NFL training camp.
But when Webb traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to receive the award in June, he was quickly humbled. He waited patiently as one of the five recipients, Rayna DuBose, was introduced before him.
DuBose, who played basketball at Virginia Tech, was hospitalized with meningococcal meningitis in April of 2002 one week after the completion of the basketball season. This rare disease is a bacterial infection that leads to the inflammation of fluids surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
In May of 2002, DuBose underwent a series of surgeries in which doctors amputated parts of all four limbs due to tissue damage caused by her infection. Webb was watching the tribute to DuBose at the event when he was left speechless.
"I will never forget seeing her walk up there to receive her award in four-inch high heel shoes with prosthesis on both her arms and legs," Webb said. "That was tough to follow."
Webb has rarely told his story, not because he doesn't want to talk about it. He doesn't like what comes from it.
"I don't want people to feel sorry for me and give me some charity," Webb said. "When they first asked me to talk about it at USC, they said it would help and inspire children who are going through the same thing. Guys on my team heard about it and they would tell me they never knew that about me."
But Webb is happy with his life and proud of the way it turned out.
"I know if it didn't kill me, it made me stronger," Webb said. "I could have easily succumbed to the gang violence and drug use I saw around me everyday. But I chose a different path. Everyone has that choice to make and I wanted people especially children to understand that."
Webb is proud of his father who has since moved to Palm Springs, Calif., and has a good job. He speaks on the phone each day with his father, Mrs. Turner or Toliva.
It was special for Webb to have Toliva in attendance at his first NFL game and he knows that his father and Mrs. Turner also took in the moment.
"I really appreciate everything they have done for me," Webb said. "My dad is doing much better now. Everyone always dreams about the NFL. I feel blessed to be here."