American football player
In a sport where an average pro career lasts just underfour years, Woodson's 15 and counting NFL seasons make him a legend as much for his longevity as for his daring on the field. Named to the Pro Bowl at three different positions—cornerback, free safety and kick-returner—and one of only five active player to be named to the NFL 75th anniversary all time team, Woodson stands undeniably among the best players in league history. As cornerback he faced the best wide receivers in the game and years of experience taught him that consistency
is paramount. He told Sports Illustrated, "You've got to resign yourself to the fact that you can't stop the perfect pass. Let the receiver catch the ball but then tell him, 'I'll be here all day. I'm not going anywhere. Next time you are going to have to pay.'" It is just that mix of good sense and stubbornness that has gotten Woodson so far in football and has made him one of the most feared defensive players in the NFL.
The youngest of three boys, Woodson grew up facing racism head on. His father, James, was African American and his mother, Linda Jo, is Caucasian. Both white and black racists targeted the Woodson family in their home-town of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Members of the Black Muslims attacked Linda Jo, pushing her and knocking her down. The Klu Klux Klan made threatening phone calls and sent disturbing packages through the mail to the Woodson home. Yet even while James worked two jobs and Linda Jo kept many part-time jobs to make ends meet, the Woodsons taught their boys to be proud of their mixed heritage and to use humor to deflect racism. Rod explained to Sports Illustrated, "When you are mixed, you have three options; stay in the middle, pick a side or stand on your own. My parents let me know I didn't have to pick a side, because I always had a friend in the family."
Playing football was a way to stay close to his brothers and out of trouble. Woodson told Sports Illustrated for Kids, "There is nothing good in the streets for a young kid. I never knew who my true friends were, so I had to stick with my own. The only people I knew who were mixed, like me, were my brothers and that made us a very close and protective family." Woodson confessed that he, "… started playing football because [he] wanted to play with [his brothers]."
In high school, Woodson was a three sport athlete playing football, basketball, and running track. The high school football coaches were tough on him and in the tenth grade he almost abandoned the sport altogether. Fortunately, Woodson's track coach convinced him to give it another try, telling him that there was nothing worse than quitting. During his senior year, Parade named Woodson an All-American football player at both the cornerback and running back positions. He also earned high honors as part of the all-conference basketball team and twice took the state championship in low and high hurdles.
College football coaches pursued Woodson at graduation time and he chose Purdue University, staying close to his family. At Purdue, he was a four year starter for the Boilermakers, played 44 consecutive games and setting 13 team records, including 320 solo tackles and 11 interceptions.
On the football field Woodson could go anywhere and do anything. He played various positions and excelled in them all. Woodson's coaches switched him around right up until his final game at Purdue, in which he played tailback, cornerback, returned kickoffs and punts, and covered kicks on the special team units. In that game he rushed for 97 yards, caught three passes for 67 yards, made 10 tackles and returned three punts for 30 yards. At the end of his college football career Woodson earned All-American honors and was the runner up in votes for the Jim Thorpe Award, which honors the nation's best collegiate defensive back.
Learning to Play Well
The Pittsburgh Steelers chose Woodson with the tenth overall pick in the NFL draft of 1987. The biggest challenge to Woodson in his first year in the NFL was mastering one position. He had to buckle down and take the time to learn the cornerback position in earnest. "I was a nervous wreck," he admitted to Sports Illustrated. "I'd relied too long on my speed and physical talents, and I didn't understand the game." The Steelers played Woodson as a defensive backup and as a kick returner in that first year. He revealed to Sporting News magazine, "I had to make myself play well." And play well he did. By 1989 he led the NFL in kick returns with a 27.3-yard average. That year he won the respect of his fellow players who elected him to play in the Pro Bowl as a kick return specialist.
Playing from the Shoulders Up
Woodson intercepted eight passes in 1993 and earned the title NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The honor was hard earned. That year Steelers Coach Bill Cowher had decided to push Woodson to engage the ball more in each game. Cowher explained to Sporting News, "He kind of thrives on that and has taken his game to another level. You have to get him around the football as much as you can. If you leave him in one spot, they can scheme away from him. We want him involved." Woodson told the Sporting News, "I am just trying to play more from the shoulders up this year and let my abilities take over. I am trying to think about what I am doing. In the past, I'd have two or three great games and two or three bad ones. I've eliminated those lapses." In part because of Woodson's increased contact with the football, The Steelers entered the 1993 play-offs as a wildcard team but were soon eliminated by Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.
|1965||Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana|
|1982||Named All-American Team at Purdue University|
|1987||Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers|
|1989-94, 1996, 1999||Plays in the ProBowl|
|1992||Grieves the loss of his father who died after having brain surgery|
|1993||Named NFL's Defensive Player of the Year|
|1994||NFL names him to the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team|
|1995||Tears his ACL, spends the season rehabilitating his knee, and comes back to play in the Super Bowl|
|1998||Rated the 30th best player of all time by Pro Football Weekly|
|2000||Enters the season with 54 career interceptions, second among active players|
|2001||Earns his first Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1989-94, 1996, 1999||Seven time Pro Bowler|
|1989, 1990,||Named first-team All-Pro and All-NFL six times as|
|1992-94, 1999||cornerback, kickoff returner and safety|
|1998||Named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary team; Rated 30th-best player of all-time by Pro Football Weekly|
|2001||Named first-team All-Pro by College & Pro Football Newsweekly|
The Steelers defensive lineup finished second in the NFL in 1994. While the linebackers and defensive linesmen increased pressure on quarterbacks, Woodson went man to man with receivers. He had 83 tackles, three sacks, four interceptions and 23 pass defenses and was named the AFC Defensive Back of the Year. Because of their outstanding season record, Pittsburg was set to enjoy home-field advantage throughout the play-offs. Believing the hype that predicted an easy victory over San Diego, the Steelers' overconfidence even extended to plans for a victory Super Bowl rap video. They were on the verge of becoming the first franchise to win five Super Bowls when the San Diego Chargers bested them, 17-13 with only two long touchdown passes.
An early knee injury took Woodson out of the 1995 season but the Steelers managed to reach the play-offs with an incredible eight game winning streak near the end of the season. Coach Cowher played Woodson in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery. Experts were surprised at the speedy recover Woodson made but he told the Orlando Sentinel, "God blessed me with some good talent, but with some good recovery period, too, and healing powers or whatever you want to call it to come back from this. I did all the rehab our doctors and trainers said to do." Woodson, covering Michael Irvin man-to-man, and the Steelers' defense shut down the Dallas offense in the second half but it wasn't enough to overcome the Cowboys, who won 27-17.
Woodson continued to be a strong player during the 1996 season and returned to the Pro-Bowl with a team leading six interceptions. However, he suffered a blow out early in the post season and underwent knee surgery a second time. Newly a free-agent, Woodson was looking for a chance to get back to the Super Bowl. To this end, he signed for the 1997 season with the San Francisco 49ers. "I came here for one reason—to get a ring," explained the newest member of the San Francisco powerhouse. Unfortunately, the 49ers let Woodson go after the 1997 season without winning that longed for ring. The Baltimore Ravens signed the legendary defensive player in time for the 1998 season. As a defensive player for Baltimore, Woodson could have a great game without getting near the ball. He told The Sporting News, "They've stopped throwing much my way and it can get boring after awhile." It's also bad for a player's stats. Woodson isn't much concerned with his stats these days. He declares, "What you learn in this league is that as long as you win, interceptions don't matter."
When Brian Billick became the Raven's coach in 1999, he moved Woodson from cornerback to safety. After 12 years as one of the league's all-time great cornerbacks, Woodson made the switch to safety with finesse and continued to victimize offenses with game-turning interceptions, tying for the most interceptions in the NFL that season with seven grabs. "It's definitely a different challenge," Woodson told NFL.com. "Corners and safeties are different. Corners are on an island and at safety you're controlling a lot of things from different angles." Billick saw the change as a way to work in young cornerbacks Chris McCalister and Duane Stark while keeping a veteran teacher in the secondary. "What situation has Rod Woodson not been in or seen?" Billick asks, rhetorically. "And he passes that on to other guys." Though he had lost some of his dazzling speed, Woodson leveraged his experience and knowledge of NFL offenses to great effect as a safety. The change proved to pay off big. He has gone to the Pro Bowl every year as a free safety since the switch in 1999.
|BAL: Baltimore Ravens; OAK: Oakland Raiders; PIT: Pittsburgh Steelers; SF: San Francisco 49ers.|
On January 28, 2001, Woodson finally got what he was after. The Ravens defeated the New York Giants, 34-7, to capture their first-ever World Championship in Super Bowl XXXV played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Woodson was key to the furious defensive campaign waged by the Ravens that save for Ron Dixon's 97-yard kickoff return nearly kept the Giants scoreless in the game.
When he signed with the Oakland Raiders for the 2002 season, the 38-year-old Woodson joined perhaps the most aged NFL team in history. Among the Raiders starting players there were 6 veterans 35 years old and above, including League MVP quarterback Rich Gannon. The veterans led the Raiders to a Super Bowl showdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though they lost 48-21, the Raiders remarkable season was a testament to the leadership and endurance of veterans like Woodson.
Related Biography: Football Player Rich Gannon
Rich Gannon is living proof that some things only get better with age. When he was drafted into the league in 1987, the New England Patriots did not even expect Gannon to quarterback. After knocking around the league—often as a back-up quarterback, playing for Minnesota, Washington and Kansas City, the late bloomer finally hit his stride when he signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders in 1999.
Amazingly, in 2002 the 37 year-old Gannon may have had his best year so far. He led the league in passing yards, was named the NFL MVP for the season and took the Raiders all the way to the Super Bowl.
When asked in a December 2002 interview to explain his success late in his career Gannon praised his teammates. "I'm surrounded by a great supporting cast. We have some great players — three great receivers, a young tight end who is really coming on and a veteran tight end and electrifying backs who can make plays." Interestingly, Gannon credits his lean years as key to present success, "It's a position where experience is critical, and unfortunately in this day and age, some of these young quarterbacks have come into a situation not very conducive to learning. They have to play right away, and sometimes that experience can be damaging to a player's future. When young players have had an opportunity to watch for a couple of years, (they) are more prepared."
Hope for the Future
Woodson stays close to his roots in Fort Wayne by sponsoring a non-profit football camp at, Snider, his high school alma mater. The camp hosts up to 600 young players ages 8-18. "It's important for kids to be able to rub elbows with players," explains Woodson, who brings teammates and opponents alike to the camp. "It builds up a dream, a dream of hope, and that is what our society is built on for young kids. They need dreams; they need hope for the future." Woodson lives with his wife and children in Wexford, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburg. He earned his degree in criminal justice from Purdue University and serves on the board of the Leukemia Society.
Galenet.com. http://galenet.galegroup.com/ (December 3, 2002).
"It's For the Kids." Rodwoodsonfootballcamp.org. http://www.rodwoodsonfootballcamp.org/bio.html (December 3, 2002).
"Q&A with Rich Gannon Late bloomer says he's surrounded by great cast" Sacramento Bee http://www.sacbee.com (December 1, 2002).
"Woodson Remains at the Top of his Game." USATO DAY.com. http://www.usatoday.com/ (December 3, 2002).
"Woodson Still a Big-Play Man for Ravens." CBSsports line.com http://www.nfl.com (December 13, 2001).
Sketch by Paulo Nunes-Ueno