The place known as “The City of Brotherly Love” has its unwelcoming warts. From Market Street to South Street, Philadelphia thrives on its hustle-and-bustle mentality. Southern hospitality is non-existent. Most people meandering through the downtown streets are focused on the task at hand.
Amidst the city’s commotion lay a landmark of solace. The Liberty Bell sits encased between Philadelphia’s busiest areas. A place for people to breathe. To reflect. To realize personal hope and potential.
From the first time Mark Webb Jr. played organized football, someone saw him as the bell’s crack.
The CYA Gators asked his father to sign a waiver ahead of the Pop Warner championship. They wanted to deem him “injured” and unable to compete. Mark Webb Sr. didn’t know much about raising a child through football at the time. He obliged.
“They didn’t think he was good enough,” Webb Sr. said, reflecting on the then-and-now of his son’s journey.
But Webb Jr. made the bell ring.
Through each stage of his football career, the Georgia defensive back always proved someone wrong. Webb Jr. shaped his journey through personal motivation and the so-called “Philadelphia Grit” into becoming a starter at the nation’s third-ranked program. He endured a position change from wide receiver and has now emerged as one of the Bulldogs’ defensive leaders.
Webb Jr.’s gentlemen-like mannerisms fit nicely into the welcoming southern culture. His hard-hitting football abilities make him a difference-maker within the SEC. Doubted no more, Webb Jr. is humbly realizing dreams while becoming a defensive centerpiece.
“Mark is fun to coach and loves football,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s been a blessing for us.”
Webb Jr. played alongside some of Philadelphia’s best. At each level, Webb Sr. watched his son play alongside a handful of athletes with NFL futures. Webb Sr. always thought his son had talent, but never that good.
“I was hoping (for this). I never would’ve thought,” Webb Sr. said. “What everyone else sees, I don’t see. I’m so used to how good (these athletes) are. I’m spoiled by it.”
Webb Jr. always got the tough coaching from his father — starting at Pop Warner with the Enon Eagles and leading to his days with Archbishop Wood. Webb Sr. hoped to support his son at the high-school level, but never saw it as a certainty.
Those around him, however, easily visualized prosperity.
“I always pushed him the extra mile,” Webb Sr. said. “He got into high school and thought ‘meh, he’s doing good.’ I didn’t know my son was going to go and excel.”
He had a few realization moments, though. Webb Jr. attended a number of showcase camps while making his presence known on the recruiting trail. He emerged at an Army All-American camp in San Antonio, Texas. Six hundred participants were split into two groups. Webb Jr. and Georgia running back D’Andre Swift won each of the Most Valuable Player awards.
A rash of college offers followed and Webb Jr. emerged as a national commodity. Every Power 5 school had his name in mind. Schools offered within five minutes of each other, sometimes in an effort to one-up a competitor who didn’t yet offer a scholarship. He narrowed it down to two options: staying home to play for James Franklin and Penn State, or a long trek to play for Smart.
Georgia won that battle, and his father — who always wanted the best for his son — came around to realize Webb Jr. as a legitimate football force. Now, he starts on a team that Webb Sr. compares to the Golden State Warriors. Family friends asked why his son didn’t start, and those remarks went through his ears without much thought.
For those who awaited the Philadelphia star’s arrival at Georgia, Webb Sr. can now tell them what his father once told him: “I told you so.”
FOR THE ONE WHO KNEW
Roosevelt Webb battled lung cancer. His treatments brought on sickness and fatigue, even more so for a man in his mid-80s. He’d do anything for his grandson, though, and sitting at a football game on a frigid Pennsylvanian night while his nose ran profusely was an afterthought.
Webb Jr. suited up for Archbishop Wood, and Roosevelt didn’t miss a Friday night of highly-competitive Catholic League football. Webb Sr. sat beside his father in disbelief, and had to put a stop to it as Roosevelt’s health deteriorated.
“‘Dad, you can’t sit out in the cold,’” Webb Sr. told his father.
It probably took some fighting for Roosevelt to walk away from Webb Jr.’s games. That’s all he knew from his grandson’s first days of playing Pop Warner football. He followed every step, leading up to a front-and-center position for Webb Jr.’s televised commitment to Georgia.
Roosevelt always had inspirational messages for his grandson, too. When Webb Sr. didn’t realize his son’s potential, Roosevelt did and swooped in as a second encourager.
“My granddad is the reason I played this game,” Webb Jr. said. “He said I could do anything, so here I am.”
Webb Jr. had an opportunity to visit his ailing grandfather in Philadelphia over the winter. He had full faith in his grandfather to beat the disease and continue his life of longevity. Then, the tragic news broke that Roosevelt passed. He was 86.
Webb Sr. couldn’t think of a proper way to tell his son. There wasn’t really an easy way when someone cherishes his grandfather like Webb Jr. did. He took it painfully. Those stages of grief were tough to overcome. Then, Webb Jr. used it as his motivation. He had a prime opportunity to emerge as a starter after a transition from wide receiver to the STAR position.
Webb Jr. worked each day to please Roosevelt. He always rested on the Bulldog defender’s mind. Roosevelt couldn’t sit in the stands for his grandson’s first-ever start to open the season at Vanderbilt, but he was there.
Webb Jr. looked up toward the sky to make sure.
“I know he’s got front-row seats,” he said.
WINNING THE TRANSITION
Webb Jr. had just settled into Georgia for his freshman year. He’s quite the homebody, too, so moving over 700 miles from home already called for adjustments. Athens didn’t have his family, friends to meet on the basketball court or his favorite cheesesteak spot, Ishkabibble’s.
Within a matter of seconds, transition reached a new level.
Prior to the second-week contest at Notre Dame (a full-circle moment as Webb Jr. expects to start against the Fighting Irish two years later), Webb Sr.’s phone lit up with a text from his son. “Don’t be mad,” it read. Those words usually mean the news to follow has some significance, and the football-loving father who had seen his son tear up a premier high-school football league at wide receiver was about to be hit with a position change.
Webb Jr. continued with “They want to try me out at defensive back.” Georgia has cross-trained with other players before, and Webb Jr. played cornerback sporadically at Archbishop Wood. As a freshman, the lanky 200-pound athlete was on board because he wanted to sniff playing time in any way possible. Georgia’s wide receiver corps were deep at the time with Terry Godwin, Javon Wims, Mecole Hardman and others having cemented roles at wide receiver.
“We never discussed it (in recruiting),” Smart said. “To be honest with you when he came in he was a really good wideout, he made a couple of plays and we were like, ‘Man, we got a good wide receiver here.’ We just felt like that Mark could be one of our best 11 defensive backs. We knew that the transition would take a while.”
Still, Webb Sr. took a minute to think about how this would work. Two words answered why: Kirby Smart. He’s the defensive guru who has molded players into NFL stars, and the Webbs placed faith in Smart’s ability to do the same with a former wideout.
Webb Jr. changed his number and made the No. 23 jersey his own. Nobody knew where he’d fit in — cornerback, safety, or his eventual position of STAR — and difficulties mounted while trying to figure it out. Webb Jr. started out scared to make mistakes. His days as a high-school cornerback were successful based on his athleticism, but he had to mold himself into being physical and an efficient tackler.
“It was rough from the start,” Webb Jr. said. “(But) I understand the journey I’ve been on. I’m seeing what coach Smart has for me, and things are going in the right place.”
Webb Jr. had to spend countless hours in film study, too. Georgia’s defensive playbook features plays and coverages that are of NFL-level extensiveness. He enjoys the STAR position due to more blitzing opportunities and the challenge of reading opposing offenses.
“Mark has come a long way,” outside linebacker Walter Grant said, who played occasionally at STAR in 2018. “That would be challenging for anybody to go from one side of the ball to the other if you’ve never done it before. He’s really fit into that STAR. He’s a grown player.”
Said Webb Jr.’s roommate and cousin, D’Andre Swift: “I’m really happy for him. It’s a chore to change positions and learn an entirely new playbook. Mark has done a great job of becoming a leader on the defensive side of the ball.”
Webb Jr. led the team with seven tackles in his first start against Vanderbilt. His follow-up against Murray State didn’t fail in excitement, either. He got burnt on a 60-yard pass, then followed it with some revenge. Webb Jr. forced a scoop-and-score fumble on a hit that had a Sanford Stadium crowd in awe.
Those moments define Webb Jr.’s mentality to football. They’re also his father’s proudest moments. Webb Sr. holds immense pride for his son, and doesn’t mind denting a bank account to see his son play in the SEC each weekend.
Once someone who couldn’t clearly see his son’s potential, Webb Sr. now beams with joy watching his son blossom. He sits in the stands and has to pinch himself sometimes. He can’t believe Webb Jr.’s journey is on a path with potential for more.
He thinks back to signing that waiver, too.
“Remember that kid who wasn’t good enough to play?” Webb Jr. said. “Yeah, he’s not doing too bad right now.”