Humble Woodson a well-deserving first-ballot Hall of Famer

TAMPA, Fla. -- He sat in his hotel room watching the 2009 Hall of Fame class announcement, not in a media center lounge, not surrounded by family and friends, but in relative quiet, where he could accept rejection if it came, and deal with elation if it arrived. Rod Woodson remembered that everything has its season, he said. So, when the list was announced and he was, indeed, in that number, he realized his ultimate football season had come.

This is the way the humble Woodson is now, the modest way he has tried to be since the marriage to his wife, Nickie, 17 years ago and through raising five children, girls Marikah, 18, Tia, 12, Nemiah, 8, and boys Demitrius, 16, and Jairus, 10. Woodson was a "knucklehead,'' he said, early in his career and early in his marriage, but has since devoted himself to his faith, his family and to becoming a Hall of Fame husband and father. That has been the crux of his recent life game plan. The football, the possible enshrinement? Well, that would one day have its season, he hoped.

Hope turned into reality when Woodson joined Bob Hayes, Randall McDaniel, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas and Ralph Wilson Jr. to form the 2009 class that pushed the hallowed hall's number to 253.

At dinner here Thursday night, Woodson shared loving moments with his longtime agent and friend, Eugene Parker. They were joined by one of Parker's new clients, Jairus Byrd, an Oregon cornerback who will enter this year's NFL Draft. Jairus is the son of former San Diego ChargersPro Bowl defensive back Gill Byrd, who is now a Chicago Bears defensive backs coach.

Parker said, "Rod, drop some knowledge on this young man."

Woodson answered, turning and looking into Byrd's eyes with Byrd intensely returning the favor.

"Well, one thing I always want you to remember is if you are out with friends, family, whatever, and you are at a nightclub or affair where they have to pat you down before you go in, turn around and just go. If they have to pat you down to get in, that's a place you don't need to be. Got it?"

Byrd nodded.

"Now, what do you want to be your legacy? What do you want to leave behind that you helped build that lasts?"

Early on during his college career at Purdue and in his first NFL stop in Pittsburgh and then beyond, Woodson intermittently asked himself that question. He turns 44 in March. As time has rolled, so has the question, so has the challenge. This special Saturday morning, this Hall of Fame inclusion, unearthed one more nugget in his answer.

He remembers fondly his time at Purdue. He recalls leaving his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., and how Purdue won out because they promised he would start as a freshman. Big-time schools called, including Michigan and coach Bo Schembechler.

"I went to his campus to visit and I remember that his office was very big and very long," Woodson said. "When I went in, he was behind his desk. You had to walk a long way to get there. Bo scared me to death, just taking that long walk. I finally got there and he said, 'Son, we've had a lot of blue chippers come here.' And I said, 'I know, but I want to know if I am going to play as a freshman?' And he said, 'Well, uh, I don't know if I can promise you that.' And for me, that was that."

Schembechler coached in 307 college football games. Once retired, he told me that Rod Woodson was "the whole ball of wax" as a football player and that he enjoyed watching him play as much as any opponent he had ever coached against.

Woodson played little league football under coach Dave Rody in Fort Wayne, and Rody was his first coach. Woodson would play for Chuck Noll, now his Hall of Fame brother. Tony Dungy was once Woodson's position coach, and Dungy taught him the fundamentals of playing cornerback. Rod Rust was the coach who taught him how to read offenses. Dick LeBeau tutored him on playing the angles in the secondary.

Woodson would win a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens, but he remembers the four other chances where he came close. He lost a Super Bowl while with Pittsburgh to Dallas and another while with the Raiders to Tampa Bay. There was an AFC Championship game loss while with Pittsburgh to San Diego. And an NFC Championship Game loss while with San Francisco to Green Bay.

When he played his best football, he particularly remembers a game early in his career against the Saints, where he made picks, tackles and returned kicks and was a blur. The game was slow motion for him, he said. Sometimes it just clicked that way for Woodson -- everything in front of him, everything in control, him in command -- and that, combined with his unique gifts in speed and quickness and natural athleticism, helped make a special player. A Hall of Fame player.

Once his name was called, Woodson called Nickie and his children to share the moment. Then he thought of his former Baltimore teammate and friend Shannon Sharpe. He said he was as disappointed for Sharpe as he was excited for himself. He was also disappointed for Pittsburgh center Dermontti Dawson. People just don't realize how good Dawson was, Woodson said.

But the Hall of Fame voters got it right with Woodson. He is among that rare group of first-ballot Hall of Fame entrants. As soon as his mandatory five-year wait after retirement was up, it was his time. His ultimate season had come.

"Only 253 members in the Hall of Fame, and that is not a big number considering so many great, great players through the years," Woodson said. "That, to me, is amazing, to be in that number. That's amazing for a kid from Fort Wayne, Indiana. I always tried to be a blue-collar player who did things the right and old-fashioned way. I feel the history. I cannot find the biggest, longest or eloquent words that do this justice."

He will search for them between now and his Aug. 8 induction in Canton as he steps, humbly, respectfully, into his new season.

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