Football 101: No. 34, Rod Woodson
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Rod Woodson really liked scoring touchdowns. I’ve often thought that you could divide football players into three general categories.
Those who like scoring touchdowns.
Those who like hitting people.
Woodson, it seems to me, had to be bewildered because he certainly liked hitting people. But he also liked scoring touchdowns. A lot. He scored a touchdown in his first NFL game as a defensive back. It was Game 10 of his rookie season with Pittsburgh; the Steelers were playing the Bengals.
“He was like a third-string defensive back,” said Boomer Esiason, the Bengals quarterback that day. “Who knew who Rod Woodson was?”
Then came the play, Esiason dropped back, was forced to roll out, threw a poor pass that was deflected in the air, Woodson picked it off and, yes, ran the ball back 45 yards for a touchdown. First pick. First touchdown.
“Who knew, at that moment, that that kid was going to turn out to be one of the all-time great players?” Esiason said.
Well, it wasn’t THAT hard to see. Woodson was an absurdity right from the start of his NFL career. He may have been a defensive back — a cornerback most of his career, a free safety in his last seasons with Baltimore and Oakland — but he had Ronnie Lotts hunger for the hit and Emmitt Smith’s hunger for the end zone.
And in the end: No player in NFL history returned as many interceptions for touchdowns as Rod Woodson. He got 12 of them overall, amazing stuff — in four different seasons he returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
But that’s not all the touchdowns. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown, two punts for touchdowns and two kickoffs for touchdowns.
He’s simply one of the most versatile players — and athletes — in NFL history.
If Woodson had liked scoring touchdowns just a little bit more .— and hitting people just a little bit less — he undoubtedly would have been an otherworldly running back or receiver. Woodson did play a little offense in his senior season at Purdue. His final college game against Indiana is still legendary — he played in 80 plays during that game, ran the ball 15 times for 93 yards (the most rushing yards for any Purdue player all season), caught three passes for 67 yards, returned three punts, two kickoffs, made 10 tackles and forced a fumble.
“I know Vinny Testaverde is pretty good,” his coach, Leon Burtnett, said of the quarterback who everyone knew would be the No. 1 pick in the draft. “But I wouldn’t trade ANYONE for Rod Woodson.”
Testaverde was the first pick in that 1987 draft; somehow Woodson lasted until the 10th pick. In retrospect, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. He was an Olympic caliber hurdler with blazing speed, incredible instincts and a pure hunger for the game.
“He’s the best pure athlete in the draft,” NFL draft expert Joel Buschbaum conceded. “But he’s not the best pure football player.”
What the heck did that mean? Well, it didn’t mean anything … Woodson was the best athlete AND the best football player. He’s the only Hall of Famer taken in the ’87 draft.*
*Defensive tackle Jerome Brown, who was taken one pick before Woodson, might have been a Hall of Famer had he not tragically died in a car accident at age 27.
Versatility marked Woodson’s career — he could play inside or outside, he was terrific against the run and against the pass, he obviously made the big plays, but he also was fantastic within a system.
“If you want to be the best cornerback, you have to play like a linebacker, too,” he said. And a wide receiver. And a running back. He was everything.
After the Steelers incredible 74 draft, they selected no Hall of Famers in subsequent drafts until Mr Woodson.
Even at the time, Rod Woodson lasting until the 10th pick made no sense. Size, speed and production at a Big Ten school, and he went after a linebacker from Duke and a QB from Colorado State. I guess there’s a reason some teams usually find themselves drafting in the top ten.
In 1995 he tore his ACL in the first game, had reconstructive knee surgery and made it back to play a dozen snaps in the Super Bowl. In some ways he seemed like there wasn’t anything athletically he couldn’t do.