OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Brian Billick stepped off the podium after receiving the AFC championship trophy and spotted defensive tackle Larry Webster, who was still savoring the moment.
"Look kid, you almost missed this," the Baltimore Ravens coach said, giving the lineman a big hug. "How great is it to feel like you feel, and how would have felt if you weren't here? Cherish this moment. Learn from it. And don't ever do that to yourself, and to me, again."
Webster, who started the season serving an NFL-mandated suspension, will end it playing in the Super Bowl.
"It's been a true roller coaster ride, with ups and downs and twists and turns," Webster said Thursday after the Ravens held their first practice session for next Sunday's game against the New York Giants.
Webster started in all 16 games in 1999 and recorded a career-high 44 tackles and two sacks. The eight-year veteran signed a three-year, $5 million deal with the Ravens in February, but in April he received an eight-game suspension from the NFL for a third violation of the league's alcohol and substance abuse policy.
"I still don't know how that test came back positive," he said.
What Webster did know at the time was that his career was in serious jeopardy.
"When I signed the contract, that was the roller coaster going up to the top," Webster said. "Then came the suspension, and I went straight down into the loops and turns. But I had faith. If it was meant for me to come back, great. If it wasn't, I had to go on with my life. The only thing I had control over was the impression I made on this organization, and I think that was in my favor."
He had the support of his teammates, including linebacker Ray Lewis, who had effectively rebounded from a different kind of hardship, returning to the Ravens after being cleared of murder charges in Atlanta.
"The adversity Ray went through, it meant a lot when he called me. He told me everything would be all right if I kept believing," Webster said.
Webster was freed to play after Baltimore's 10th game and has been a key backup for Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa in the middle of a line that has been among the best in league history against the run.
"Once he got his legs back to playing football, he was really outstanding," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "Larry is thankful for the opportunity. He goes out and works to prove that every day."
Webster's career is as much defined by his off-the-field woes as it is tackles and sacks. The University of Maryland product broke into the NFL in 1992 with Miami, where he reportedly twice tested positive for marijuana. Then, as a member of the Cleveland Browns, he was suspended for six games after testing positive during the 1995 season.
His next suspension was for the entire 1996 season. Webster said the sanction came after he drank a beer at his bachelor party, but NFL rules prohibit drinking alcohol after one substance abuse violation.
All that is behind him, yet Webster knows that one more slip could end his career for good.
"The rewarding thing is being here and going to my first Super Bowl," he said. "Sometimes you make mistakes, and putting the team in that position was a dumb move, a mistake on my part.
"Right now I'm walking on rice paper and trying not to break it," he conceded. "These people went out on a limb, taking criticism to bring me back here. I'm grateful, and I count my blessings. Not too many people get the chances that I have had."
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