After seeing what Rod Woodson could be and what he did in college, it was almost a no-brainer that he’d be special in the pros. One of those players that comes along once in a very long time; If not once in a lifetime.
Prior to the 1987 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers had suffered two losing seasons in a row and once again had a top-10 draft pick. Then Steelers coach Chuck Noll decided that it was time to upgrade his once proud defense that had slipped to No. 18 overall in the league in 1986.
It took awhile for the franchise and Woodson to come to a contract agreement due to the 1987 NFL Players Strike and as a result the cornerback from Purdue University only saw action in eight games in his rookie year. He did however, make an immediate impact leading the team in both kick and punt returns and playing in the nickel formation.
On Nov. 22, 1987 he recorded his first interception—and his first interception returned for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals and quarterback Boomer Esiason. He took the play 45 yards and into the end zone and a legend was born in Pittsburgh.
For years upon years in Three Rivers Stadium there was a banner hung that proclaimed: “Rod Is God.” Which goes to show how big he was with the fans of the Steel City. Indeed he should have been, he breathed new life into a defense, a team, and a city.
In 1994 he was regarded as one of the best return men in the league and also as one of the best corner backs.
He was also named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team; One of only five active players on the list. The other players? No one too great, no household names or anything. Just Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, and Reggie White. That was 10 years prior to his retirement.
In the first game of the 1995 NFL season, against the Detroit Lions, Woodson suffered a torn ACL while attempting to tackle Barry Sanders and his season looked to be over.
But in a testament to how important Woodson was to the Steelers defense and team as a whole, head coach Bill Cowher did not place his All-Pro corner on injured reserve. Rather he felt that he owed it to Woodson to have the chance to play in the Super Bowl. What a bold prediction for just one game into the season, right?
During his time recovering from that injured knee Woodson was still around the Steelers practice, helping Willie Williams progress as a corner back along with Carnell Lake.
Even without their stud corner, the Pittsburgh team did manage to win the AFC Championship game and go on to play in Super Bowl XXX, against the Dallas Cowboys.
This game marked the third meeting between the two teams in the Super Bowl, which is the most by any two NFL teams. The 27-17 Cowboys victory would mark the Steelers first loss in the Super Bowl and Dallas’ fifth win, which tied the San Francisco 49ers as the most in NFL history. That would be broken by the Pittsburgh Steelers after their victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.
Though Lake and Williams got to start at the corner-back spots, Woodson did get to play in his first Super Bowl, where he broke up a Troy Aikman pass intended for Michael Irvin. Directly after he made the play he got up and pointed to his knee.
Not only was Woodson excellent in coverage he was also great in run support and blitzing the quarterback. Just ask Houston Oilers Hall-Of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon —Woodson sacked him and gave him a concussion.
After another Pro Bowl season in 1996, Woodson left via free agency, a move which Hall-Of-Fame Steeler Mel Blount felt was a mistake. He said that it was obvious that Woodson was a special player.
In fact the same thing has happened to a few Steelers players including Franco Harris in 1984 and Alan Faneca in 2008. Contract disputes and salary cap issues show everyone involved that in the end the NFL is a business.
After leaving the Steelers he played for the 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, and Oakland Raiders where he appeared in two more Super Bowls, winning one with the Ravens.
His last career interception came against the Minnesota Vikings' Daunte Culpepper.
When asked what the most important characteristics of an NFL quarterback, Woodson had this to say:
"To play cornerback you have to be the best athlete on the field,” Woodson commented. "You're all by yourself against a wide receiver. You have to run backward, which isn't natural, then turn and sprint as soon as the receiver makes his break, matching him stride for stride at top speed.
"If you want to be the best cornerback, you have to play like a linebacker, too,” he further observed at the time. “You have to take on pulling guards and tackles, and you must hit tight ends and running backs. Most cornerbacks, if they're honest, will say, 'I'm a cover guy. I don't want to get involved in contact.' You can't be passive. If you don't sell out on every play, you'll come up a play or two short."
Woodson is in the NFL history books as one of (if not the) best defensive back to ever play the game. Take a look at his career statistics:
1,483 interception return yards
12 interceptions returned for touchdowns
32 fumble recoveries
1 fumble returned for a touchdown
2,362 kick/punt return yards
2 kicks returned for touchdowns
2 punts returned for touchdowns
17 total touchdowns
And a look at his career accolades:
11 Pro Bowls
6 First Team All Pro selections
2 Second Team All Pro selections
NFL 75th Anniversary Team
1990s All Decade Team
1993 NFL Defensive Player Of The Year
1993 UPI AFL-AFC Player Of The Year
Super Bowl XXXV Champion
2009 Pro Football Hall Of Fame Inductee
The man, the myth, the legend of Rod Woodson is nothing short of a feel good story. He has since repaired relations with the Rooney family and gives back to the community and his old high school by assisting in coaching their defense, which his own son plays on as a defensive back, wide receiver and he also returns kicks.