In the span of a decade, Charles Woodson has gone from being a college football player with no NFL pedigree to an NFL legend. He is now one of the most decorated players in league history and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
Charles Woodson was a high school football player who went on to play for the University of Michigan. He became a Hall of Fame talent, but it wasn’t until his NFL career that he became a Hall of Fame production.
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- For eight years, I covered the Oakland Raiders for CSNBayArea.com and the Sacramento Bee.
- Pro Football Writers Association member
- Worked for the Los Angeles Times, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Sports Illustrated in the past.
- From 1997 through 2013, I covered the Packers for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association has named him Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year twice.
At its core, Woodson, Charles’s football narrative is a three-part tale. He had Hall of Fame talent in Oakland. He was a Hall of Fame player in Green Bay. Woodson became a legend after his comeback to the Raiders. ESPN Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez and ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky collaborated to document Woodson’s journey to Canton in the greatest way possible.
THE CITY OF HENDERSON, NEVADA — When Charles Woodson initially joined the NFL, as a Heisman Trophy-winning No. 4 overall selection in the 1998 draft by the Raiders, he was a young player doing young player things.
He’d get in a vehicle with wide receiver Andre Rison some days after practice. Woodson would take off with running back Charlie Garner on other occasions. As the vehicles drove away from Raiders headquarters for places unknown, Jon Gruden, then a young first-time head coach, would watch wistfully and mumble to himself, “Oh, no, there he goes.”
Gruden chuckles about the recollection two decades later.
“He was broken in by some crazy people,” Gruden said recently, referring to Woodson, who was his first-ever draft choice as a head coach. “We had a lot of personalities on our squad.” Characters who have a football theme. Charles was smack dab in the midst of it all.
“When he was there for us [in the draft], we were overjoyed. Peyton Manning was first, followed by Ryan Leaf, Andre Wadsworth, and finally us. Charles has the ability to play dime linebacker. Corner. Nickel. Safety. And they’re all part of the same series. He was regarded as one of the most decorated defensive players in the draft’s history. Yes, we were ecstatic. And he was like a magnet, drawing everyone to him. It was enjoyable for him. We had to reel him in on occasion.”
Woodson was awarded the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, which he shared with Gruden and the Raiders. But if he seemed to be preoccupied or allergic to practice, it never manifested itself on game day.
“You’re just sort of ready for life out of college, high draft selection,” Woodson reflected. “You’re there to play football, but you also want to live, if you get what I mean. I used to be that guy. I put forth a lot of effort in both football and off the field.”
Rison and Garner are two examples. Woodson is now wailing.
Woodson replied, “Those were my guys, dude.” “We pushed ourselves to the limit. That was the old school in me showing through. We partied hard some nights, but when it came time to wake up and perform that thing on Sunday, we were pumped.”
Do you want to go back in time?
On the football field, Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, known as the “Godfather of the Bump and Run,” agreed to let Woodson wear his old No. 24.
In his first four NFL seasons, Charles Woodson was renowned for partying excessively, but he also made the Pro Bowl three times. Getty Images/Ezra Shaw
Woodson stated, “Willie Brown was a man that made sure you knew what it meant to be a Raider.” “‘There are 31 clubs in the NFL, and there are the Raiders,’ he would say first. That’s the mindset you brought with you when you arrived. Cliff Branch, George Atkinson Those guys made it clear early on that I needed to be a tough, physical, and quick football player.”
In his first four seasons with the Raiders, Woodson appeared in four Pro Bowls and was thrice voted first-team All-Pro.
Is this Woodson’s last game under Gruden’s tutelage? “The Tuck Rule Game,” as it’s known. In January 2002, Woodson came in on a corner blitz and dislodged the ball from Michigan college classmate Tom Brady in the snow in New England, sending the Raiders to the AFC championship game.
The fumble was reversed into an incomplete pass by Brady, who would lead the Patriots to an overtime win and accelerate Gruden’s departure as well as the Raiders’ demise.
Sure, the Raiders made it to the Super Bowl the next year (when they played Gruden’s new club in Tampa Bay), and Woodson had an interception on the third play of the game while playing with a fractured bone in his right leg. However, Gruden’s Buccaneers thrashed Oakland 48-21, and the Raiders have only had one winning season and one trip in the playoffs since then.
Injuries and problems with Gruden’s successor, Bill Callahan, signaled that Woodson’s time with the Raiders was coming to an end. Woodson fractured his right leg in Game 6 of the 2005 season. His season was over, as was his tenure with the Raiders, after he had been on franchise tags for the previous two years. As content as he was with moving on, he was even more looking forward to the next bidding battle.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to have people crawling over each other to come to me,’” he said. “I used to think I was that kind of player.”
Tom Brady has ‘discovered my voice more’ at 44. Charles Woodson, a new HOFer, has gone through a transformation. • Parsons, a rookie, will play a key role for the Cowboys. Murray, dubbed “Philosophical,” is in his third year with the Cards. • Sirianni, a member of the Eagles, adds a little of grit to camp.
Unless… The offers didn’t come in fast enough. Even Gruden, who had taken Woodson to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse in Tampa to get a feel for him, didn’t seem impressed.
“Not signing him was probably the biggest mistake of my career,” Gruden stated. “He was at the bottom of his game. There were concerns about the fit.”
People squeezing past one another to get to him? Teams were fleeing in the other direction, given his previous injury history, which has prevented him from playing a complete 16-game season since 2001.
“That hurt a little,” Woodson said. “You hear former Green Bay players, particularly Black guys, say, ‘Hey, buddy, that ain’t where you want to be.’
“That’s not the squad I want on the phone with me…. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I expected there to be many teams and a bidding war. It made me irritable.”
‘It wouldn’t be possible without Green Bay.’
The Green Bay Packers were more important to Woodson than he wanted to acknowledge at the time.
By 2006, he only had two teams to choose from: the Buccaneers or the Packers.
Woodson was coveted by Tampa Bay, but exclusively as a safety. Woodson, who was 29 at the time, still thought he was a cornerback. The Packers were the only club willing to take a risk on him.
It didn’t start off well.
Mike McCarthy’s first season as a head coach was in 2006, and he wanted guys who were excited to be there.
“When I first arrived there, things were a little rough at first,” Woodson remembered recently. “I think Coach McCarthy and everyone else around there was just trying to make my transition as easy as possible, but I was just very reluctant to allow myself to just be a Packer. We had some issues that we had to iron out our first few weeks in training camp, but Coach Mike McCarthy assured me, ‘Hey man, we want you here. You’re going to be a Packer.’
“We were able to have discussions like that throughout my career, my seven years in Green Bay, to the point where Coach McCarthy and I developed a strong connection throughout my time there. I appreciate his making me feel welcome although I didn’t want to be welcomed in the first place.”
The Packers were back in the NFC Championship Game by Woodson’s second season.
He was named Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL by his fourth season.
But it wasn’t until Year 5 that Woodson received what he really desired: a Super Bowl ring.
Charles Woodson was all smiles when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season, despite fracturing his collarbone during the game. Getty Images/John Biever/Sports Illustrated
In reality, as the NFC’s sixth seed, he became a driving factor behind their march to Super Bowl XLV.
Woodson held court with the players gathered in the middle of the locker room following the NFC Championship Game victory over the rival Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. He explained to them: “Consider one for two weeks. Let’s all think alike. Let’s unite in a single pulse. There is just one goal. There is just one aim. There’s one more game. One. Let’s get started.”
Woodson’s Super Bowl experience was bittersweet, as he was forced to leave the game in the second quarter due to a fractured collarbone. Woodson’s phrases “mind,” “goal,” “purpose,” and “heart” were engraved on the team’s Super Bowl rings, which were imprinted with the No. “1” along with the words “mind,” “goal,” “purpose,” and “heart.”
Years later, Woodson told ESPN, “You see the ‘1’ and the words, and it’s like, ‘Wow,’ you’re stunned.” “You never know what will stick when you speak with the team in whatever manner. You attempt to mention something that the boys can relate to. The fact that it was engraved on the ring indicated to me that it meant something to both the players and the coaches. Now there’s something we can really hang on to for the rest of our lives.”
It’s a stretch to suggest Woodson needed his time in Green Bay to cement his Hall of Fame numbers since, as he recently said, “I would’ve gone someplace else, created a name for myself somewhere else. It just so happened that I was able to stop in Green Bay during my transition from Oakland and accomplish some amazing things there.”
“In that sense, it doesn’t happen without Green Bay,” Woodson said later, “but my career was going to continue someplace, I don’t know where it would’ve been, but I would’ve left my impact somewhere else.”
Woodson played a total of seven years with the Packers. Woodson has been referred to by Aaron Rodgers as the greatest teammate he’s ever had. When Woodson’s induction into the Hall of Fame was announced, Rodgers reacted with a three-word Tweet: “The greatest ever.”
McCarthy, who coached Woodson for the whole of his time with the Packers, referred to him as “a generational player” when he retired.
Woodson made 38 of his 65 career interceptions with the Packers, including a league-high nine picks during his defensive MVP season of 2009, and was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2008 to 2011.
All of this in a location he first found difficult to accept.
“It was tough at first because I didn’t want to be there and couldn’t get my head around the idea that no one wanted me on their team,” Woodson said. “I was very upset about that, and it influenced the way I dealt with a lot of people around there, making me standoffish and getting into verbal fights and stuff like that. When I think about it now, I think it was a method for me to attempt to get out of the situation. However, I’m happy I didn’t get out of it because it turned out the way it did.”
‘A lovely transition’
Charles Woodson was a conquering hero and a mentor to the Raiders’ young players when he returned to Oakland. Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
After his contract with Green Bay ended, Woodson visited the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos in search of a new club. After that, he took a chance on the Raiders.
On May 21, 2013, Woodson paid a visit to the Raiders’ headquarters, where he used to call home. With over 200 fans mobilizing on social media, they, too, came out in force to sway Woodson, some wearing game-day makeup, costumes, and, of course, Woodson jerseys.
At the moment, Woodson remarked, “I tell you, man, it was overpowering.” “I believe that if I had forgotten what love was like in Oakland at any point, I was certainly reminded… I believe [the large turnout of fans] had a significant role in [my comeback].
“I was terrified about leaving the institution without a contract in place. I’m not sure I would have made it out alive. But it was a huge thing, and seeing that type of welcome placed me in a mindset where I thought it would be a smart choice to go ahead and do it.”
Woodson, at 37 years old, returned to the Raiders a changed and wiser man. Old man Woodson, who had gone just as hard off the field as he had on, showed up for training camp with kid car seats and strollers, while beat reporters who had covered C-Wood 1.0 couldn’t believe it.
Green Bay’s slower-paced culture, according to Gruden, helped Woodson calm down and center himself.
“And he found the proper lady, married her, and had kids,” Gruden said.
“It was a wonderful transition, if you will,” Woodson remarked.
He also became a full-time free safety and did not miss a game in his three seasons with the Raiders (he had a dislocated shoulder in the season opener of his 18th and last season and played through the agony), making the Pro Bowl after his final season in 2015. It was his seventh pick of his career.
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Yes, there were gray specks in his beard, exemplifying the reversed role. Now he was portraying Brown, Atkinson, and Branch for the kids, including quarterback Derek Carr, who was in first grade when Woodson won the Heisman.
“When I mention this, he gets angry,” Carr continued, “but when I was 6 years old, I was trying to be him.”
“I can’t simply attribute C-leadership Wood’s to the times I played alongside him. To me, he is still a leader. He continues to text me. He continues to call me. He’ll approach me and say, ‘Hey, try this.’ On his way out, he realized Khalil [Mack] and I were on the verge of becoming the organization’s leaders… I’ll be eternally grateful to him.”
In Woodson’s last three seasons with the Raiders, the team went 4-12 in 2013 (he reportedly stated he believed he’d be returning to Green Bay following that season), 3-13 in 2014, and 7-9 in 2015.
“It doesn’t matter if we began 0-9, which we did one year, it doesn’t matter,” Woodson said. “You have to go out there and work and show your teammates, coaches, and fans that you care.” “When you return the second time, everything is completely different. I now have two children. I’m a married man. It’s like going from a 75-mph zone to a 35-mph zone, if you know what I mean.”
Woodson, who has launched his own wine and bourbon brands, was such an important part of the Raiders’ culture that owner Mark Davis selected him to ignite the Al Davis Torch for the team’s last game in Oakland.
He’ll wrap off the current chapter of his football career with the closing address of the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on Sunday night, becoming just the 10th player in history (and the third Raider) to win a Heisman Trophy and earn a Gold Jacket.
In anticipation of his enshrinement next week, #PFHOF21 Enshrinee @CharlesWoodson received a sneak peek at his @HaggarCo Gold Jacket. pic.twitter.com/jMBoi6vVlX @Raiders | @Packers
July 29, 2021 — Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF)
“This isn’t going to be a one-night stand,” Woodson remarked. “It’s not like I walk in on the 8th and then it’s done; I’m not claiming to be a Hall of Famer anymore.” On that Monday, Tuesday, the next week, and the following year, I’m going to declare myself a Hall of Famer.
“I’m a Hall of Famer, so I get to enjoy it for the rest of my life.”
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