CAMERON, Texas — Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook watched from home last Monday, his eyes intent on a TV screen as ESPN announced this year’s Heisman Trophy finalists.
The reveal came alphabetically, so Westbrook was destined to be announced last, if at all. A camera was in the room to capture Westbrook’s reaction, and finally, when his name and face appeared on screen, the official OU football Twitter account posted the video for all to see.
As family and friends gathered around and cheered, Westbrook pumped a fist but stayed calm while a faraway dream meshed with reality.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
Westbrook watched silently for 20 more seconds. “That’s crazy,” he finally said again. “Check that out.”
To get here from his small hometown of Cameron, Texas, Westbrook overcame a career-threatening freak injury in high school. He returned to football after academic trouble and a year away from the game in junior college. He climbed and ran and caught his way to becoming one of college football’s most dynamic players, seemingly one of its most inspiring stories.
But there’s also more to the tale, an odd puzzle that doesn’t fit the convenient Heisman narrative.
Before his improbable rise from nowhere — before he won the Biletnikoff Award, became a finalist for college football’s most coveted trophy and constructed one of the best seasons in OU football history — Westbrook was twice arrested on family violence complaints, according to police reports and court documents obtained by the Tulsa World.
In 2012, Westbrook was accused of throwing the mother of two of his children to the ground. In 2013, Westbrook was accused of biting the same woman’s arm and punching her in the face with a closed fist.
OU began recruiting Westbrook in the fall of 2014, the semester immediately following Joe Mixon’s high-profile arrest for punching a woman in the face. Near that time, OU linebacker Frank Shannon and transfer receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had also been accused of violence against women.
OU officials declined interview requests last week for Westbrook, coach Bob Stoops, athletic director Joe Castiglione and university president David Boren but did release a statement to the Tulsa World on Sunday.
“The university conducts independent background checks on every entering student-athlete,” the statement said. “While the university has declined to extend offers in other circumstances as a result of gathered information, nothing was reported in this case.”
OU also released a statement from Westbrook.
“There were some disagreements in the past that were cleared up years ago,” Westbrook said. “We have resolved our issues and are focused on the future.”
Although he was never convicted, the two arrests, plus other incidents listed in police records, create a curious loop in the mythos of Westbrook’s ascension.
Enter Dede Westbrook’s hometown, population 5,770, from a southbound Texas highway, and Cameron — 70 miles northeast of Austin — quickly reveals much of what you need to know.
The first thing you’ll see is a white church building. Keep driving and you’ll see two signs commemorating the achievements of the Cameron Yoe High School Yoemen.
This place shaped Westbrook’s humble upbringing, raised mostly by a single mother in a little house on one of the streets named after heroes of the Texas Revolution. Crystal Montgomery raised Westbrook and his siblings on her own. Life was hard sometimes, she said, but never bad.
Westbrook’s athletic gifts developed at his grandmother’s house out in the Texas country, where he and his cousins would make booby traps and try to catch raccoons.
“When you’re in the country, you just do all types of crazy things,” Westbrook said in a press conference earlier this season.
The mailbox to Westbrook’s grandmother’s house was across the road, so he and other children in his family would rip the opening off the mailbox, stand on the front porch and try to throw rocks inside from across the way.
Westbrook’s grandmother would yell from the house: Y’all need to cut it out.
Throwing rocks turned into rock wars, and years later, after Westbrook scored a touchdown against Baylor, tiptoeing down the sideline 7 yards and staying in bounds, he credited those days dodging rocks in the middle of nowhere.
“Growing up in a small town, you’ve always dreamed big,” Westbrook said. “But at the end of the day, what are the odds?”
That’s part of the charm of small towns, places where dreams are pure and life often simple. But anyone who has ever spent time in a small town knows there is often another side to that allure.
Dede Westbrook’s spectacular rise almost didn’t happen.
As a sophomore at Cameron Yoe High School — a respected program in Texas — former coach Rick Rhoades said Westbrook took his first three JV snaps at quarterback for 70-yard touchdowns.
As a junior, Westbrook was the leading receiver on a Cameron Yoe team that finished as Texas’ 2A state runner-up. Despite Westbrook’s premier talent, Rhoades said Westbrook never needed motivation on the field. To this day, when Westbrook comes home, he’s known to gather old friends and play pickup games around town.
But during the first district game of Westbrook’s senior year in 2011 against McGregor High, Rhoades said, Westbrook was playing defensive back when he went up for a jump ball.
As the receiver fell, his knee raised up.
“It wasn’t an abnormal play,” Rhoades said.
Westbrook was wearing a $75 rib protector. In Cameron, there was only enough money for certain players to have equipment beyond the basic.
Westbrook’s falling body, though, rammed into the receiver’s knee, the kneecap catching Westbrook right under his padding.
Westbrook came off the field in terrible pain. Trainers looked at him, but couldn’t figure out the problem. Westbrook left in an ambulance. He threw up blood for several days as doctors struggled to find the cause. Eventually, per a story on OU’s official athletic site, a CAT scan revealed Westbrook ruptured his small intestines.
After 18 staples and later a six-inch scar, Westbrook missed the rest of his senior season. Westbrook has said doctors told him another such hit could be fatal and advised him not to play football again. In a recent interview with 247Sports, Westbrook explained.
“Of course, I didn’t listen,” he said.
The first arrest
On July 15, 2012, two officers arrived at Cameron Oaks apartment complex, responding to a neighbor’s call about a tall, slender man breaking through a window.
The report from that night states Decrick Deshawn Westbrook told an officer he came to see his child, but the mother wouldn’t let him inside. Westbrook, then 18, admitted to getting angry and breaking the window west of the apartment door.
The woman, who is two years older than Westbrook, later told police she and Westbrook began dating in 2009 but were no longer in a relationship. The woman said she didn’t want to press charges and claimed there was no physical altercation.
But on Aug. 24, the woman came into Cameron Police Department seeking a criminal trespass warrant against Westbrook, telling police she “just wanted Decrick to stay away from her and her residence.”
The woman went on to explain that the night police were called, she finally went to open the door after hearing the window break. Then, she said, Westbrook grabbed her by the arms, threw her to the ground and told her, “Don’t you ever do that s- — to me again.”
Per the report, Westbrook then went into the woman’s bedroom, grabbed a picture frame and threw it against the wall, shattering the frame.
When officers asked the woman why she hadn’t told them earlier about Westbrook allegedly putting his hands on her, she said Westbrook played football in school, and she didn’t want to mess anything up.
Cameron police eventually issued a warrant for Westbrook’s arrest on a family violence complaint. He was arrested on Aug. 29, 2012, but the Milam County District Attorney’s office rejected the charges in December, according to police documents.
Multiple attempts to reach the woman were unsuccessful. She is not named in this story to protect her privacy.
To Blinn and back
In the fall of 2012, Westbrook’s college football career began at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, about 65 miles away from Cameron.
In addition to Westbrook’s injury, bad grades in high school routed his path through junior college, often a wild-west world for players clinging to bigger dreams.
Former Blinn coach Ronny Feldman recalls Westbrook always having a smile on his face, always happy, always friendly. Westbrook, Feldman says, is “a true junior college story.”
“Very, very lazy in the classroom,” Feldman said. “Really a sharp kid. Once he got into classes and school, he never had any problems academically whatsoever. But his tough home life back in high school, all that stuff … just a small-town deal. And maturity level just wasn’t there.”
Westbrook had a successful beginning to his college career, emerging as a deep receiving threat at Blinn from his first game. But as the season went on, Westbrook’s problems mounted. He had children back in Cameron and had been arrested for an altercation with their mother in August. Also, in an Oct. 12 Facebook post that season, Westbrook wrote he strained his knee and wasn’t able to play.
Feldman says there were days Westbrook would walk off the field, upset and unable to handle everything going on. Eventually, Feldman said Westbrook came to him with a decision.
Coach, I just can’t do it. I got to go home.
From this point, former coaches paint a fuzzy timeline.
Rhoades, Westbrook’s high school coach, said Westbrook returned to Cameron after leaving Blinn. That, Rhoades said, “was probably part of his downfall freshman year.”
“I was really kind of disappointed in him,” Rhoades said. “I felt like he had a lot of God-given ability. At that point in his life, I felt like he was almost throwing it away.”
Westbrook has said in interviews this season he left Blinn to be a better father. Last season, he said he took a year off because of “an academic issue.”
Feldman says he didn’t give up on Westbrook and tried to get him back to Blinn the next semester.
“He wasn’t a bad guy,” Feldman said. “He just wasn’t a very mature person, and nobody helped lead him.”
Feldman also said he was aware Westbrook had legal issues.
“I don’t remember all the details, and it’s not really any of my business one way or the other,” he said.
Westbrook did not play the 2013 season, and his mother said he spent that year in Cameron. Feldman resigned in November 2013.
Montgomery says Westbrook returned to Blinn “at the end of 2013,” and when Westbrook told his mother he was going back to school, Montgomery called it “the best thing he could have ever told me.”
“Let’s be honest,” Feldman said. “Eight out of 10 times that happens, the kid never comes back to school. He stays home and gets him a little job at the meat market or a place there in town and earns a minimum salary for the rest of his life. But he was so talented in football and really wanted to play, so we kind of nursed him on … I really wouldn’t have gone to those extremes, but I thought he could be saved.”
The second arrest
On April 25, 2013, police were again called to the small apartment on the edge of town.
They arrived to find the mother of Westbrook’s children, who, in a police report, told officers trouble began at the local park when the woman saw Westbrook received a text from his ex-girlfriend.
Back at the apartment, the woman told police, Westbrook grabbed an Xbox and threw it across the room, where it broke on contact. Westbrook then grabbed the woman’s wallet and several Xbox games and attempted to leave the residence. The woman grabbed Westbrook’s shirt, trying to stop him from leaving with the wallet.
The report states Westbrook responded by biting the woman on the arm and punching her in the jaw with a closed fist.
An officer noted marks on the woman’s arm that night were “definitely bite marks” and had already started to swell.
The police report states Westbrook told officers, “(the woman’s) arm swept across his teeth, and that’s how the marks got on her arm.” Westbrook also told the officer he admitted to “grabbing (the woman’s) face to push her away from him.”
After the arrest, police reports indicate he told an officer the daughter he has with the women was not his biological child. But per the report, he asked if he could get in legal trouble if he were to take the girl from the woman without her consent. The officer told Westbrook he could face kidnapping charges and advised him to consult an attorney regarding child custody matters.
Westbrook was booked in Milam County Jail on April 26, and the district attorney’s office proceeded to file misdemeanor family violence charges on May 22.
Montgomery, Westbrook’s mother, said after charges were filed, she went to talk with the woman.
“I told her, ‘You could ruin his life like that,’” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said prosecutors investigated and learned Westbrook was innocent. She said the woman went to prosecutors saying she lied about what happened.
Court documents, however, indicate the case was dismissed for “inability to locate state’s witness.”
John Redington, a Milam County assistant district attorney who worked the case, said there is no documentation of the woman responding to court correspondence. Documents indicate she was contacted by mail on May 31, 2013, but did not answer.
Westbrook and his mother appeared at an arraignment without an attorney June 12. The woman did not appear, and further attempts to contact her were unsuccessful, leading to the June 21 dismissal.
Although there was gray area in this case, Redington noted in an email that domestic violence cases are often difficult to prosecute because of poor witness contact.
Milam County victims’ assistance coordinators log any contact made with alleged victims. There is no documentation of contact with the woman after charges were filed.
A lien filed in Milam County District Court on Aug. 9, 2013, also indicated Westbrook owed the woman $8,108.13 in child support. There were no other child support liens filed in court since.
Montgomery said Westbrook and the mother aren’t involved in each other’s lives, but Montgomery speaks with the woman often and helps her care for the children in Cameron.
Saturday, Westbrook also mentioned for the first time having a third child who lives in Port Lavaca, Texas.
Return to the game
Westbrook has talked of a moment back home, speaking with friends and family out on a driveway, thinking about how far away Division I football felt.
“I think he just realized that if he was going to do it, it had to be then, because he was about to run out of time,” Rhoades said.
Keith Thomas — an OU tight end in the mid-’70s and OU’s running backs coach from 1997-99 — took over as Blinn’s head coach in December 2013. Thomas had previously served as Blinn’s housing director and judicial officer.
Thomas said he called Westbrook and arranged for him to meet in Thomas’ office. The two talked about Westbrook’s situation, how he could only see his children on Tuesdays and Thursdays, how he was planning to be done with football.
Thomas and Westbrook reached an agreement. At least twice a week, Westbrook could pick his children up from Cameron, drive back to Brenham and leave the kids on the sidelines with trainers during practice.
“I think it was just a deal that he saw somebody cared about him and his family and saw that he could still go to school and do all that,” Thomas told the Tulsa World in October. “So he got excited about it and played.”
Thomas says Westbrook drove an old Lincoln Continental, and after practices, with the windows rolled down, Westbrook would drive the kids to McDonald’s for chicken nuggets.
“Everywhere he went, they went,” Thomas said.
Westbrook ended up having a stellar season at Blinn in 2014, catching 76 passes for 1,487 yards and 13 touchdowns in eight games.
Thomas said he called OU receivers coach Cale Gundy about Westbrook early in the year, and Westbrook committed to OU on Nov. 25, 2014.
Last spring, after Westbrook had 46 catches for 743 yards in his first season at OU, Thomas said Westbrook asked to come back and speak to the Blinn team.
“Everybody there just loves him,” Thomas said. “Doing what he’s doing now, they watch him when they can. He’s just a great person. He didn’t have much coming from Cameron. He’s kind of made everything on his own.”
Two incidents in 2016
Westbrook has twice been involved with police in his hometown since coming to Norman.
A report from Jan. 1, 2016, says Westbrook came into the Cameron Police Department at 8 p.m. and told an officer he went to pick up his children, but the mother would not let him. Westbrook said the woman slammed the door in his face and went out the back door before leaving in her car, according to the report.
Police advised Westbrook to avoid further attempts to communicate with the woman and again recommended he consult an attorney.
In a separate incident handled by the Milam County Sheriff’s Department, Westbrook was arrested for trespassing on May 23 of this year.
The report details a Cameron resident calling police on Westbrook for being on her property. The report says Westbrook was visiting the resident’s daughter, but both parties knew Westbrook was not allowed on the property because of a past altercation.
As police sorted out the matter, the resident told officers she “didn’t do black people” and “did not want this n----- on her property.”
Despite being subjected to racial slurs, the report indicates, Westbrook remained cooperative and followed a patrol car to the sheriff’s office, where he was eventually booked in Milam County Jail on a criminal trespassing misdemeanor.
There is no documentation of Westbrook facing other charges filed in Milam County, according to a court clerk.
When the Tulsa World initially called the Milam County Clerk’s office and asked for documents on Westbrook, the clerk paused while searching for files.
“Oh, that’s Dede,” the clerk said. “He’s a good kid.”
From struggles to star
During OU’s first bye week of the season in September, Westbrook spent time in his room, tossing a football up to himself, hoping to heal a hamstring that had limited his blazing speed through three games.
Westbrook started the season slow as the Sooners struggled to find a go-to receiver. But when his emergence began, it came to life rapidly.
Westbrook went on a dominant nine-game stretch to stage one of the most remarkable seasons ever by an OU receiver. Entering the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl against Auburn, Westbrook has 74 catches for 1,465 yards and a school-record 16 touchdowns.
Along the way, coaches and teammates raved about Westbrook’s high-energy personality and infectious love for dancing. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley noted earlier this season that Westbrook has “grown up a lot” since his first year in Norman.
Westbrook walked slowly off the field at home games, signed autographs for children and listened as fans chanted his name. He stood with his mother, brother, sister and two of his children on the field at senior day.
“I look at his life today and I look at his life three years ago, I can’t do nothing but thank God,” Montgomery said.
Saturday, Westbrook sat a world away from Cameron, wearing a dark suit and shiny blue tie at the Heisman Trophy Ceremony. ESPN’s Chris Fowler stood on stage at the PlayStation Theater in Times Square and told some of Westbrook’s story, eventually talking of Westbrook’s struggles at Blinn College.
“It was tough to get through some nights. He looked at the ceiling and wondered, ‘Why am I here? Is it worth it? Where is this gonna take me?’”
The answer, Fowler said, was Oklahoma — and now — New York City.
With his mother beside him, Westbrook watched as the Heisman Trophy went to Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. Westbrook finished fourth in the voting, behind Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and OU quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Westbrook looked ahead in the world’s greatest city, quite a distance between his bright future and a clouded, complicated past.