His right leg could not be saved.
When their mother made the frantic phone call two days earlier, Maurkice and Michael Pouncey made the trip from Gainesville. University of Florida coach Urban Meyer, his team in a national title hunt and five days from a huge showdown with rival Florida State, wasn't far behind. The Gators, en masse, were hurting for the family of their terrific twin tower offensive linemen.
Now, the two stood over the only one they'd ever called "Dad" and needed his advice.
"I was already feeling sorry enough for myself, so the last thing I needed was everybody standing around feeling sorry for me, too," Webster recalled of that day 19 months ago. "I'd always taught them to do the right thing."
This time, though, neither Maurkice nor Michael, then 19, knew what the right thing was. Their father needed them. Their teammates needed them.
So there was Webster, drowning in morphine, yet feeling their pain. Together for years -- whether on the Lakeland ballfields, alongside dad helping with his lawn-care side business or casting a line in the local fishing hole -- they'd talked and dreamed of football on the grandest stage. Now the talk was of making a decision: face FSU in Tallahassee with everything on the line or be at their father's bedside in ICU.
In Webster's mind -- even in his dire state -- there was only one choice.
"Go play," he told them.
Play they did, that week and beyond.
And play they will next season like never before.
Born July 24, 1989, and virtually inseparable in the nearly 21 years since -- from their three straight state championships at Lakeland High to the 35 wins and national title in three years at UF -- the Pouncey twins are heading out on their own this summer.
Maurkice, a first-team All-American for the Gators and winner of the Rimington Award as the nation's best center last season, opted to forgo his senior year to enter the NFL Draft. He was a first-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in April. On draft night, he vowed to take care of his financially struggling family.
Michael chose to return in school to focus on graduating and improve his stock for the 2011 draft. He inherited his brother's position on the UF line (moving from guard to center) and was elected team captain in the spring.
"He's doing his thing now," said Maurkice, the yet-to-sign rookie who is lining up as starting right guard for the Steelers this offseason. "And I'm doing mine."
Meanwhile, Robert Webster, 41, is walking again, thanks to a $50,000 prosthesis attached above his right knee. This weekend, Lisa's husband of 16 years, the man who raised her sons as if they were his own, will hobble around their home for one last Father's Day barbecue before sending these identical twins different ways.
"I'm crying just thinking about it," Lisa said.
A Package Deal
UF fans know the splitting-image Pounceys as that fun-loving and beaming duo of best friends who are always together, often finishing one another's sentences, and even dressing alike just to mess with people. One time, in fact, one twin went on a date with the other's girlfriend. And, no, she didn't know.
"Cute, cuddily and charismatic" was how a writer once described the twins, but there's so much more to them than charm and personality.
Robert Webster met Lisa Perkinson, a single mother, in 1990. His brother was dating her best friend. He took an immediate liking to her, but what struck her was Robert's reaction and subsequent interaction with her one-year-old sons.
"They were so full of life," recalled Robert, who had a son from a previous relationship and instantly sensed his "lion instincts" kicking in. "And they had a toughness about them you could see right away."
Added Lisa: "I reminded him I was part of the package deal."
Growing up in Louisiana, Webster played football and even gave the game a shot at Louisiana Tech until grades got in the way. In Lakeland, his football dreams played out vicariously through the boys, from the Pop Warner fields to powerhouse Lakeland High, which won 45 straight games and state championships in '04, '05 and '06, including a pair of mythical national titles courtesy of USA Today.
The accomplishments between the lines, though, were only half the story. The Websters fostered the boys' character by emphasizing respect for others, as well as themselves, and instilled a work ethic by insisting they put in time with their father's lawn business.
"Sometimes, we even had to buy the gas," Michael said.
The reward was football.
"We were a family and we had rules," said Robert, who also has two daughters, now 17 and 15, with Lisa. "For the boys to fear something, they had to be given something, and we gave them stability at home. Football became something they enjoyed so much. So they knew, if they lied or didn't do something right, we had something to take away from them."
Snatching that dangling carrot away was never necessary. The twins lived for their football and became two of the most coveted linemen prospects in the nation. The Pounceys originally committed to Florida State during a summer camp. In recruiting vernacular, however, it was a "soft" commitment. The brothers spoke to Bobby Bowden for less than a minute.
"We never even met coach Bowden," Lisa said. "I think he waved to us once."
The welcome the twins received at a similar UF camp was so different from the experience in Tallahassee, they called home and begged their parents to come to Gainesville.
The Websters were instantly greeted by Meyer, his assistants and their wives. By the end of the trip, the Pounceys were Gators. They went on to graduate high school early and joined the UF program in January. Their first day of classes was the same day Florida destroyed No. 1 Ohio State, 41-14, in the BCS title game. Two months later, they were competing for playing time in spring practice.
As true freshmen in '07, Maurkice started 11 of 13 games, while Michael played as a reserve on the offensive line before moving to defensive line late in the season due to injuries. In '08, Maurkice moved to center and Michael to right guard. Those switches were permanent -- at least until Michael switchs this summer.
"The complete packages," Gators offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said of the 6-foot-5, 305-pound bookends. "Not only in their size and skills, but in their demeanor and passion for the game; passion to be great fundamentally and be great in the mental component of the game. These are very, very talented guys."
The '08 Gators were a talented team, but that was the season they lost an early home date to Ole Miss, prompting quarterback Tim Tebow to read his now-legendary "Pledge" after the game. The Gators won their next seven games by an average of nearly 41 points to clinch the SEC East Division title and a berth in the conference championship game against unbeaten Alabama heading into the season finale at FSU.
Then came the phone call of Nov. 24. Webster was at work unloading feed from a railcar. He'd tried to set the brake, but it malfunctioned. The car was moving toward another. When he tried to hop on the second car to avoid the collision, Webster's foot got caught on the track and the rail car rolled over his leg.
His life was in danger.
"When we got there, we were just thankful he was alive," Mike said. "We weren't thinking about football."
"But he was," Lisa said of her husband.
Webster thanked Meyer and his assistants for coming to his side, but he also knew how important the week was. He wanted his sons to play. Meyer asked if there was anything he could do to let the other players know the Pounceys' father was with them.
"Maybe you can mention my name," Webster said.
Meyer did more than that.
The Gators went to Doak Campbell Stadium that Saturday each wearing wristbands that said, simply, "RW."
In the hospital, Webster was touched by the gesture, but with some apprehension.
"We'd been playing almost perfect football for all those weeks without those bands," he said. "I thought I might jinx them."
Instead, the band made for motivating lucky charms. The Gators steamrolled the Seminoles, 45-15, amassing 502 yards of total offense, including 317 yards rushing. Those in the locker room for pregame swore they saw garnet and gold fire in the Pounceys' eyes.
"They're always driven to play well, but that game they played with a real sense of purpose, a sense of pride," Addazio said. "They knew their dad would be watching."
The Gators went on to defeat the Crimson Tide for the SEC title and upend unbeaten and top-ranked Oklahoma in the BCS championship game at Miami. And, yes, Robert Webster was there for the latter.
He wore an "RW" band.
'Still feels blessed'
Webster rolls up his blue jeans to reveal his titanium prosthesis.
"They call it a Smart Leg," he said.
It's more like a genius one. The prosthesis, powered by a rechargeable battery, can simulate a human's gait on any terrain, using a microprocessor-controlled module that is implanted in the leg and responds to input sensors that control hydraulic joints and motors that move the ankle, knee and socket.
"If I half-step, it won't let me trip if it doesn't go through a complete cycle," Webster said. "You know, here my son gets drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the great teams, and he'll be playing up there in the cold and the snow. Real football weather, you know? Doubt I'll be able to ever go skiing or anything like that. And moving around all the stadiums is going to be difficult."
"At the same time I still feel blessed."
It took several months for Webster to fight through the emotion and depression that followed the accident. There was phantom pain, too. But the boys encouraged him throughout the recovery, assuring their father that one day he would walk, live life to its fullest and enjoy their game days again.
Webster has been doing all those things for some time now. He is back working four-hour days at the feed mill and last season attended all UF games, home and away. This fall, though, will be a different kind of test. Not because of his work schedule, either. Because of the football schedule.
Two of them, actually.
"It'll be tough, but we think we got it worked out," he said.
Lisa and Robert have always gone to the twins' games, no matter the venue, and always drove because Lisa hates to fly. That will have to change, as will their game routine. Now, they'll take turns. One parent will see Michael, the other Maurkice, and they'll rotate. The SEC and NFL did them favors in 2010, with the Steelers at the Tennessee Titans in Nashville the same weekend as the Gators are in Knoxville, and Pittsburgh playing road games at Tampa Bay and Miami. The Websters already have their "Terrible Towels. Good thing, too.
Lisa may need them for the terrible tears.
"Stop it," she said.
Earlier this year, she got a not-so-dry run on how it's going to be when the boys start down their individual paths later this summer. The day Michael left home for the second semester in Gainesville, Lisa and Robert drove Maurkice to his new apartment in Kissimmee, where he was training with workout guru Tom Shaw at Disney's Wide World of Sports. When the two said goodbye it was something she'd never seen before, but also a day the family knew would come.
"It's going to be different for me and [Maurkice], but also for the whole family," Michael said. "That's fine. He's moving on. Eventually, I will too."
"I'm excited about it," Maurkice said. "It won't just be 'Pouncey twins, Pouncey twins,' but that's OK."
"It some respects, it's hard to imagine them apart because they're so close, so synonymous with each other. But in another respect, it's kind of cool, actually," Addazio said. "Each now has an opportunity to establish who they are as individuals. That's a great and healthy thing for both of them. It's a challenge unique to them, and I think they're both looking forward to responding to it."
"We've been through a lot," Robert said. "But now, as parents, we're starting to realize that they appreciate all we've taught them and showed them, and they'll have a chance to put it all to use in life -- and I'll go ahead and say it -- in a rich man's world. That's truly a special feeling."
Happy Father's Day.
Over the years, Robert Webster made a tradition of phoning his boys with the same pregame question.
"What time is it?" he'd ask.
"Game time!" they'd answer in unison.
Starting in a few months, he'll make two calls. Go play, he'll basically say. And go play they will.
For each other.