Not many men in this world command a room with fewer words than Charles Woodson, whose demeanor could be described as stoic, alert yet always humble. Very early on, it was easy to see almost everything about this man was a little bit different.
Although I was lucky enough to call him a teammate, impressed with his character, substance, and dedication to the game, I write this to you from the perspective of a fan who grew up watching Woodson on TV while at Michigan; on his way to becoming the only primary defensive player in history to win a Heisman trophy, beating out Peyton Manning that year.
Revealing the man behind closed doors, Woodson is an unlikely leader, a true legend of the game, and one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever witnessed.
A Quiet Man
Charles seemed diligent in maintaining a business-like mentality and a distance from everyone in the locker room. Rarely would his face be caught articulating even a fractured smile, yet amidst this, somehow he was respected and liked by all he encountered.
I distinctly remember his after-practice ritual, sitting in front of his locker. Leaning forward against his legs, head down, and introspectively analyzing the practice in his head. Meanwhile, all around him were the exuberant sounds of a locker room permeating with a sense of accomplishment, rejoicing in the completion of a hard day’s work.
Typical conversations in the after-practice locker-room environment varied from a wide range of subject matter and tones. One constant in it all was the volume, which would alternate between two settings, loud and louder.
Guys from across the room could be heard bantering back and forth about such things as "which guy will risk his reputation and skip out on a shower for a post-practice meeting."
Egregious acts such as skipping showers could result in an entire locker prattling about how so-and-so took a “shower pill," the common locker room term sarcastically describing a magic product capable of cleansing your entire body without the aid of any water, all you need do is take a single pill.
Other guys could be heard jarring back and forth about NBA playoffs, or whether Southern schools had the best football talent in the country.
Some could be heard rehashing a competitive moment during practice as maybe five or six guys chime in the conversation with comments from the outside, as if to escalate the developing banter into a full out verbal sparring session, which commonly evolves into a playful free-style-slam-session about why so-and-so needs a haircut.
Few things seem off limits when the daily verbal wars take place; their magnitude and importance could reliably be quantified by the percentage of the locker room listening and/or participating.
Given this environmental norm, the contrast between it and Charles Woodson only amplifies. It’s as if every ounce of his waking energy is used exclusively for football functionality, leaving little room for light-hearted socializing.
Charles Woodson was a man of few words. In fact, it was rare that you ever heard him speaking about much of anything. He was never trash talking, never cracking jokes or telling people what to do. He was all business, a guy much more comfortable leading by action. He would let his play do the talking for him. And oh, what playing he did.
The Super Hero in Action
There always seemed to be a beauty to the way he played the game. Upon arrival at the Raiders training camp in 2005, I remember the feeling of watching Woodson from the sideline while the first-team offense and defense were going against each other.
Woodson could be seen regularly snagging balls out of the air and preventing the catch, like poetry in motion. I’ve never seen anything like it.
From the eyes of a guy who always wanted to be a scout, it was truly remarkable to watch him in action, every move seemed effortless. One of the best ways to describe his physiology is: completely unrestricted, loose, and almost wobbly, yet totally under control.
The grace and ease by which he negotiated gravity was reminiscent of Spider-Man swaying from building to building. It made me aspire to incorporate his style into my own game, albeit, to no avail.
Every Monday or sometimes Tuesday if we were given a “victory Monday” day off, the defense and offense would break up into their meetings and watch game tape from that Sunday.
Under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Woodson would routinely alternate his assignments based on the opponent we faced that week. One week, Woodson would be playing in a box safety position assigned to lock down Antonio Gates man to man, which also meant he would essentially be another linebacker in the box.
This is not a job you typically ask a corner to do. A rare player is he who can blanket a speedy wide out one week and play strong safety the next, throwing his body around in the trenches with 300-pound linemen colliding left and right.
It was so impressive to watch a guy, who earlier I described as a, smooth, graceful, ballerina athlete, throw caution to the wind and launch his body at ball carriers and linemen alike.
Woodson was clearly not just a rare athlete, he was an incredible warrior. Wearing barely nothing in terms of padding, he proved himself to be one of the most physical and consistent playmakers on the entire defense.
There was no doubt that his style of play and effort spoke volumes to those who watched play after play, game after game.
It’s hard to point my finger on just what is was, but Woodson always had this distinct and uniquely personal way of wearing his uniform. He wore the smallest shoulder pads he could find, so that he wasn’t slowed down or his movement restricted in any way, his jersey was never tucked in.
Instead, he would spend time before the game turning it inside out and folding the excess of his jersey up through the top, then he would tape it down on the inside, preventing it from falling back down and never having to worry about it coming out of his pants, which was constant maintenance throughout the game.
League rules mandate all teams and all players for each team wear the same socks containing the same colors organized in the same pattern. Well, Woodson bended this rule by eliminating almost all of the white from his sock except a tiny strip barely thick enough to see, and just enough to avoid a fine.
He would do this by manipulating the sock in some interesting way I never figured out. But it involved two versions of the sock that would extend the black, or green of it all the way up to his thighs. Little things like this of various degrees created an overall look to his uniform which could never be replicated.
I remember several times thinking, man why couldn’t I look as cool as that in my uniform. In comparison, I looked more like a big, sloppy middle school kid with my pants pulled up way too high and my jersey tucked in like an ROTC cadet.
And I would wear the standard issue team socks with tons of white running up the calf; completely ‘uncool’ and without an ounce of style. Insignificant as it may seem, you come to learn that in the NFL, style is paramount.
Within this sub-culture, saturated with creative expressions of style on football’s world stage, Woodson stood alone, and he did so while simultaneously creating the perception that all of his hard work was effortless.
But all those who watch closely could see the effort, as he quietly manifested his entire career in the peaceful corner of his locker room as the waves of noise and distractions crashed around him.
The Quiet Leader
For those who remember, 2005 was not a particularly good year for the Raiders. The team had brought in big time free agents Warren Sapp and Randy Moss in attempts to return to previous glories.
This team was loaded with talent, yet there was a big hole, so gaping, it had a gravitational pull capable of pulling victories right from the palm of our hands. We were a team without a leader, a soldier without a head.
Quarterback Kerry Collins was in a world of his own, emotionally removed from the team and the daily pulse of the players, he offered no guidance or inspiration despite his position and years of experience, which included an appearance in the Super Bowl.
Warren Sapp and Randy Moss were new additions to the team and had no interest in taking command of the ship, given the team was only three years removed from playing in the world championship. It didn’t seem right for a new free agent to jump in and take over an organization perceived to be already established.
Norv Turner is a great football mind and offensive genius, but he was no leader. He inspired no one and was like an absentee parent estranged from his children because he was preoccupied with the offense and the execution of it from a coordinator standpoint.
Perhaps Norv has improved this aspect of his coaching acumen, but while in Oakland, he failed to act like a general to his troops. We essentially were a team without a true head coach; fragmented.
No player was quite able to establish themselves as a leader, though many tried, including running back LaMont Jordan, who was passionate and fiery in the locker room during an opening-game losing effort against the Patriots.
But even he failed to produce both on the field and consequently, as a leader. Before we knew it, we had lost our first three games and were sputtering out of control quickly.
And so, by the third loss after only three games, the team captains organized a player’s only meeting. This was the first real attempt to establish some leadership and salvage our sinking ship.
Kerry Collins stood nervously on the stage facing the team, said a few words, made a few points in a passive tone, speaking more like a coach than a player, and sat back down. A couple more guys here and there would stand up from their seats and say their peace.
In a room filled with millionaires and egos, rookies idealistically high about their first-round draft status and the signing bonus in their bank accounts, sure to be the greatest player to play the game, and established veterans, some of which glorious careers had already been had, little up to this point seemed to be effectively inspiring.
The game of football appeared to be lost by the business of the sport. A momentum was growing in the organization poisoning it with complacency, greed, and lack of focus, strangling the talent right out of the facility. As time would later reveal, this was just the beginning of woes to come for the Raider organization.
As the meeting seemed to fizzle, Charles Woodson calmly walked to the front of the team and sat down on the stairs, cool as always. I remember how exciting this was because up 'til this point in my experience with the Raiders organization, I can’t say that I’ve heard Woodson say much of anything.
Yet here he was, ready to speak to the entire team. The room immediately fell to a hush as everyone’s attention redirected to the front of the room.
When he spoke everyone listened, and what they heard was words from the heart, full of passion, yet spoken so matter-of-factly. He went into detail about what football means to him, how he plays the game, and what he plays for.
He told the team to watch the way he plays and follow him, to familiarize yourself with giving your entire heart to the game, and to winning. He didn’t call anyone out or point the finger. He simply made a plea to the entire team; to lay it all out on the field, leave nothing in the tank when that clock runs out.
He was optimistic and spoke about the talent in the room and the potential we have to succeed. When it was all said and done, Woodson had basically willed the entire football team to play the game with the fire and passion, if even for only one game.
That next week against Dallas, we played our most inspired game of football the entire season and won.
This is the man I remember, and who quickly came to mind when I heard about Woodson’s legendary halftime speech in the Super Bowl for Green Bay after he had broken his collar bone as was out for the second half.
Many guys since have talked about that emotional speech he gave with tears in his eyes, and how it inspired them to go out there, battered, beaten and bruised, and finish what they started by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers to become world champions. All of this despite having one of the most injury plagued teams in the league.
Only when you spend a season in the lockers with Charles Woodson will you fully grasp the way his words, so carefully chosen, so powerful, yet so out of character, can move an entire team to achieve great things.
For those interested, here is the link to Part I