OAKLAND, Calif. — Eleven years ago, in a meaningless and miserable game played in a blizzard, Charles Woodson’s pregame speech to his teammates inspired a 3-7 Oakland Raiders team to victory over the playoff-bound Denver Broncos. Rob Ryan, the Raiders’ defensive coordinator at the time, said that was the most amazing thing he ever saw Woodson do.
Playing for top-ranked Michigan against No. 4 Ohio State in 1997, Woodson had an interception, a 37-yard catch and a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. Tim Brown, the 1987 Heisman Trophy winner, knew then that the Wolverines cornerback, not Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, would get his Heisman vote.
In 2011, President Obama said he would attend the Super Bowl only if his Chicago Bears were playing in the game. After Green Bay beat the Bears in the NFC championship game, Woodson stood on a chair in the locker room and declared the Packers would just have to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and earn a White House visit. “Guess what,” Woodson shouted. “We’ll go see him.” Aaron Rodgers said the speech was the most amazing thing he ever saw Woodson do.
Two weeks before deciding to conclude a historic career, arguably the greatest defensive player in NFL history stood in the Raiders’ locker room, swirling guava lemonade in a plastic cup.
“I’m a player that people consider to be done,” he said.
For 18 NFL seasons, Charles Woodson told himself those kinds of things. When you’ve done everything, motivation requires creativity and self-deception. The guava in his lemonade aside, this is Woodson’s secret: No matter what he accomplished, he still had something to prove.
This season, it became more difficult for Woodson to convince himself his 39-year-old body had more surprises to offer. Two bad shoulders, including one dislocation, nagged him; he battled knee and groin problems, too. He has started all 14 games in Oakland’s secondary anyway and has been named to his ninth Pro Bowl.
After all these years and a résumé like no other, Woodson is finally being honest with himself. He will retire after the Raiders’ final game Jan. 3. “Some of the stuff I was going through this year, at 39, you don’t really want to be going through that stuff, man,” he said on this early December afternoon.
He will step aside with, assuming voting continues at its trend, more Pro Bowl nods than Deion Sanders, more interceptions than Ronnie Lott, having played more positions than Rod Woodson. Nine months from his 40th birthday, Woodson will finish his career having played five more seasons than Lawrence Taylor, who was largely finished by his early 30s; Woodson was just getting started.
“His talent level, mixed with his football IQ are a match that I’ve never seen in another player,” said Rodgers, the Green Bay quarterback who believes Woodson is the greatest player with whom he has shared a field.
He adapted and kept challenging himself, moving from corner to nickel to safety; just to mess with quarterbacks, Ryan used to line Woodson up at linebacker. He became a symbol of a changing NFL passing game and what defenses must do to stop it. Lott, one of the best defensive backs ever, said the competition is over; Woodson is the greatest. “Hands down,” Lott said. “His body of work has shown that time hasn’t affected him.”
Woodson, though, kept challenging himself and, as they say, moving the goal line. If someone said a thing couldn’t be done, he wanted to at least see if they were right. “I’m still proving to myself,” he said, downing the rest of the lemonade, “that I can do what my mind says I can do.”
Woodson, unable to walk until he was 4, quickly identified himself as an exceptional athlete.
During his sophomore season at Ross High School in Fremont, Ohio, Woodson scored touchdowns six different ways, yet one opposing coach inexplicably instructed his punter to continue kicking to him. Woodson returned three consecutive punts for scores. Rex Radeloff, his coach, calls it the most amazing thing he ever saw him do.
Jonathan Patton, Woodson’s younger brother, was chasing outside expectations years ago when Woodson gave him some advice: “Make your passion your paycheck.” Patton, who runs a sports lounge in Green Bay, now relays the wisdom in speeches to young entrepreneurs. He said nothing his brother has done on the football field has been as valuable.
At his first practice at Michigan, Woodson faced senior wide receiver Amani Toomer, knocking the ball away on a deep route. Then-Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr recalls the play less than he remembers how the freshman faced the future NFL player: without fear.
Woodson has no recollection of his earliest years, his mother stuffing his clubbed feet into corrective shoes and aligning them with stiff braces. He couldn’t walk or run or play ball until he was 4 — family members carried him until his bones changed — so the kids and their single mother sat and talked. As Charles grew, they came to discuss faith and values, hopes and goals.
Georgia Woodson’s middle son eventually said he wanted to play football someday. Maybe he would win the Heisman Trophy. Maybe he’d make enough money she could quit driving a forklift at the bottle factory in Fremont, Ohio.
Georgia smiled. Maybe he would.
Long after the leg braces were removed, it became clear that Woodson was different. He was quiet around strangers, confident in his abilities, a bolt of lightning on a football field.
“It was easy to see he was going to be something special,” Radeloff said.
Radeloff wanted the young man to play varsity as a freshman, but Georgia wanted her son to take his time. She relented the following year, her son too driven to remain on the sideline. His older brother, Larry, was a Michigan fan in Buckeyes country, and Woodson wanted to make good on his promise to his mom. Offensive players collected the glory, short-lived as it often was, but star defenders had longer careers.
On Woodson’s recruiting visit to Michigan, Carr, then the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, asked him about his goals. Two things were non-negotiable: He wanted to be a Wolverine, and although other schools had projected him as a running back, he had no intention of playing offense — on a full-time basis, anyway. “That dream,” Woodson would say later, “kind of left.”
Woodson was a rare mix of talent, drive and instincts. He didn’t need conditioning or practice like the other players, and no matter where coaches positioned him — receiver, punt returner, even quarterback — he was a natural.
“He had an unbelievable influence on us offensively,” said Carr, who succeeded Gary Moeller as Michigan’s head coach. “We tried to move him around every game to a different spot.”
By 1997, Woodson’s junior season, opponents had no idea how to plan for Woodson. He had seven interceptions and caught 11 passes; he even threw a 28-yard completion against Wisconsin. Woodson returned 33 punts, including the 78-yard touchdown against Ohio State, his blue No. 2 jersey threading through a crowd of Buckeyes and into the end zone.
Not long after that win against Ohio State, Woodson was invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony. He sat between Manning and Marshall wideout Randy Moss at the Downtown Athletic Club, that 45-pound bronze statue waiting on stage.
When he was announced as the winner, Woodson dropped his chin to his chest before hugging Manning and Moss and taking the stage. Georgia sat and wept.
“I want to say thanks to my mother,” said the young man who once could not run. “The greatest lady alive, I believe.”
Entering the 1998 NFL Draft, his first as an NFL head coach, Jon Gruden knew whom he wanted. He knew Manning and Ryan Leaf would go one-two, but Cincinnati had the pick before Gruden’s Raiders, and the Bengals needed defensive help, too. When the Bengals selected end Andre Wadsworth, Gruden nearly fell out of his chair in the draft room and uttered, “God is with us today.”
Jason Garrett was the Dallas Cowboys quarterback in 1998 when wide receiver Michael Irvin turned the wrong way on a hook route in the end zone. Woodson, a rookie cornerback for the Raiders, instinctively knew where the pass was headed and stepped in front for his first NFL interception. Years later, Garrett called it a play “you carry with you for the rest of your life.”
Eight years after rewarding the Raiders with Pro Bowl appearances in his first four seasons, Woodson was at a crossroad. As he had at Michigan, Woodson disliked practice and didn’t care much for studying. Brown, the Hall of Fame wide receiver who played six seasons with Woodson in Oakland, said he can’t recall one instance of the cornerback lifting weights.
Woodson clashed with coaches, blasting Bill Callahan publicly after the coach benched Woodson for missing curfew and later infuriating Norv Turner by wearing a No. 2 jersey, his number at Michigan, and refusing to wear a helmet during practices.
He was arrested in alcohol-related incidents in 2000 and 2004. He battled injuries and spent evenings toasting the good life. Sometimes he’d show up at practice wearing the same clothes he’d had on the previous night.
“There were days he came in, and everybody would be like: ‘It’s not going to be hard to beat Charles Woodson today,’ ” said Brown, who usually lined up against Woodson in practice. “Really, leadership wasn’t his thing.”
So in 2006, Woodson sat in a Tampa steakhouse across from Gruden, who had left the Raiders after the 2001 season to coach the Buccaneers. Woodson was a 29-year-old free agent whose best days seemed in the past. Oakland was refusing to offer a new contract.
“A jaw-dropper for him,” Gruden said. “Everything came so easy to him. This was probably the first time somebody said: ‘You know what? You don’t fit our program.’ ”
Gruden said the Buccaneers offered a contract, but Woodson opted to sign instead with Green Bay, the NFL’s most remote outpost. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers had sold Woodson, in part, on an idea: He had been a bump-and-run corner in Oakland; quarterbacks could simply avoid Woodson’s side of the field. But NFL offenses were changing, and defenses needed to catch up.
Using Woodson’s versatility, Capers experimented with Woodson as a nickel corner, shifting him around the field, or using him sometimes as a safety or, in the dime package, as a linebacker. Quarterbacks could no longer simply avoid Woodson because they had no idea where he’d be from one play to the next.
Woodson, feeling rejuvenated, loved it. He introduced himself to the Packers’ weight room, challenging himself to lose a pound per year after he turned 30. He married, and Charles and April Woodson started a family. He spent evenings and offseasons not in clubs but on his couch, studying Capers’s scheme, because in Green Bay, what else was there to do?
During Oakland’s training camp this past summer, Woodson was on the sideline, doing extra running and footwork drills, one of the best ever at his position still trying to master the game. Khalil Mack, the Raiders’ 24-year-old defensive end and one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, watched the old man and realized that — regardless of talent — this is what it takes.