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Fortress of Fortitude : Robert Webb Defends Hard-Fought Gains on Field--and in His Stormy Life


Nobody expected Robert Webb to be where he is now. He would be somewhere on the streets, they predicted, as he was when he was 6. Or maybe he would be selling drugs, or sitting in jail, as he was when he was 14.

He wasn't supposed to graduate from high school, they thought. He wasn't supposed to go to college. He wasn't supposed to end up living with a nice family in a two-story house with a spiked fence and a two-car garage and a bed of flowers in the front yard.

He was the kid with the temper and the attitude, the fiery troublemaker who burned his way through almost a dozen foster homes or boys' homes. But of all the places he lived--from Northridge and Newhall to Chatsworth and Hollywood--there was one home to which Webb always returned: the football field.

Football anchored his turbulent life, and Webb grew to be one of Chatsworth High's most talented linebackers--a ferocious, hard-hitting terror. He was named All-West Valley League his junior season, and his senior year he added All-City Section 3-A Division honors. He was selected as one of two Chatsworth athletes to play in the 14th Daily News All-Star football game scheduled for 6:30 p.m. today at Birmingham High.

A severely sprained ankle suffered during the first day of all-star practice might keep Webb from joining the West team on the field. His status is day-to-day.

Webb, 18, will play football at either Moorpark or Valley junior college this fall, where he hopes to boost his grades enough to earn a scholarship to an NCAA Division I school. He expects to decide between the schools by Saturday.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker attracted attention from Division I recruiters last fall, but his academics were a concern. An athlete must pass two years of a foreign language to be eligible for a Division I scholarship, but Webb had taken only one year. Additionally, his SAT score of 690 fell short of the 700 minimum requirement.

"It may be better for me to go to a junior college and get my grades up and play a little bit more ball and then transfer to a Division I college," Webb said.

"All the time I hear people saying, 'Webb, you're going to make it.' They keep saying, 'You're going to make it. You're going to go to a Division I college, you're going to make a big name for yourself and, hopefully, go to the NFL.' That's a dream of mine."

Webb grew up on the streets with his younger brother Timmy and their alcoholic parents. They didn't have a home, so they lived in their car. His older brother Danny had been taken away by their grandmother when their father had gone bankrupt a year before.

Webb would steal from supermarkets to help his family when there wasn't any money for food. While his father would go in and steal beer, Webb would grab steaks, hamburger meat and chicken. Sometimes, when he was alone, he would take candy and baseball cards for himself.

"Day by day we didn't know where we were going to stay," Webb said. "We stayed in Lanark Park (in Canoga Park) for a few months 'cause my dad knew some wino over there. We used to sleep in Reseda Park, and we slept out in front of houses. Wherever my dad would end up drunk behind the wheel, that's where we'd stay.

"My father would sometimes sleep on the roof of the van if it was summer and it was hot. But mostly, me and my brother slept on the floor. Wherever we could put a head down, we slept."

Webb often came to his first-grade class tired, unbathed and poorly dressed. He finally told teachers he was living in his father's van behind a convalescent home. Social service workers took him and his brother away the next day.

He began bouncing around different homes--sometimes with a foster family, sometimes with an aunt or uncle, other times in a boys' home. Some of his foster parents treated him well. Others treated him badly. Many of them couldn't handle Webb and his combative attitude--a front to disguise the scared, lonely boy inside.

"I was always saying to myself, 'Why can't I have normal parents like everyone else? Why am I always moving around? Why does this gotta happen to me?' " Webb said.

Webb started playing football when he was 6, and Oscar Swinton, a youth football coach in West Hills, met Webb when he was 10. When Webb was having problems with foster parents, Swinton took him into his home with his wife and three sons.

"He was aggressive, disagreeable and really angry at the world," Swinton said. "He was angry and hard to deal with. And he didn't have a lot of self-confidence."

Living with the Swintons was good for Webb. There were occasional discipline problems, but Webb idolized Rich and Jamal, former Montclair Prep standouts who earned football scholarships to Washington State and Colgate, respectively. Webb and Eliel--who will play at Stanford in the fall--played fullback and tailback together on the Chatsworth Chiefs youth team that Swinton coached.

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