He pictures the virtual dominoes falling. The cause and effect. Everything that led to this moment, this opportunity. And a visible chill shivers through Robert Woods.
Long before he was the backbone of the 2018 Los Angeles Rams, before he was exiled to a prehistoric Bills offense, before he played through torn groins and concussions, he was a 15-year-old boy trying to process the worst news of his life. His sister, his only sibling, his best friend, was dead. Sarcoma cancer had finally taken Olivia Woods' life.
On the verge of a postseason in which he intends to make everyone remember his name, he takes a moment to contemplate how that tragedy led him to this point.
"It really shapes you," Woods says. "It's crazy. Like, 'Man, is this what makes you great? You have to go through a tragedy?'"
It's a conversation he's had with teammate (and former USC roommate) Nickell Robey-Coleman many times, because Nickell suffered a similar loss. His mom. Woods thinks about that question for a moment, says, "I hope not," and changes the subject...because he knows the truth. What he's been through—starting with that darkest day—is what led him to where he is now. To this zenith. To being two wins away from a Super Bowl.
The Carson, California, native has been molded into precisely the player these Rams need to win their first Super Bowl in L.A. and make football matter in America's second-largest city.
Red flags are obvious all around him. All-Pro Todd Gurley missed the past two games with a knee injury. Cooper Kupp's been out since mid-November with a torn ACL. Jared Goff, an MVP candidate for three months, was statistically the worst QB in football the first three weeks of December.
There's glitz in this city. Glam. Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the first row. And Sean McVay, the wunderkind head coach, has a perfect tan, perfectly gelled hair, the memory of a bottlenose dolphin and seems to go viral every time he sneezes.
But now, it'll take toughness to win.
That's where Woods comes in.
He can feel it. Sense it. Just this week, Woods told his wife of six months how much he relishes that moment when he sees a ball spiral in his direction with everything at stake. Fourth down. Thirty seconds left. Season on the line. That's what he's been waiting for. That's why he's always at his best in prime time, why he went berserk in celebration after a short gain in last year's wild-card loss, prompting one Falcon (in so many words) to tell him to shut the hell up.
"This is our year. This is our time now," the 26-year-old receiver says. "There's a lot of teams sitting at home watching. So the attention is going to be on us, on me. ... This is when it gets real. It gets competitive. You're going against the best, and you torch 'em."
Woods doesn't want to hear anybody labeling the Rams as soft.
This team is packed with players who scratched and clawed their way to this point.
Woods points to Goff being written off as a bust. He points to the entire team going 4-12 just two years ago. He points to vets on defense abandoned as outcasts. He points to C.J. Anderson, who was cut by the Broncos, Panthers and Raiders all in one year. He points to, of course, himself. Because once that chill subsides—once he replays each moment in his mind—it's clear to Woods what the next signature scene in his life will be.
His plan, this weekend, is to dominate. Burn corners deep. Crack back on ends. Knife across the middle. Play through anything. Throw the offense on his back.
"I embrace it," Woods says. "I feel like it's supposed to be on my shoulders."
Robey-Coleman offers a pointed warning: "This is his time. This. Is. His. Time."
He sees that beneath that grin stretching from ear to ear is a bad man who's too tough to fail. Woods has been inching closer...and closer...to this takeover since that night back when he was 15.
Now, it's his time.
Robert Woods is 15, a high school freshman, and his sister's health is declining. Fast. He comes home from Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California, one day—the school he attended just to be with Olivia, to protect her—and Mom's crying. Immediately, Robert walks upstairs to see his sister, and she asks him a weird question: "I thought you were going to model?" Maybe the meds are making her act funny, he thinks. Then, she gets more specific: "You have to be a model." As in, a role model. It took Robert a minute, but he understood loud and clear. He headed to bed, fell asleep, then woke suddenly at 3 a.m.
He's not sure what wakes him but feels the need to duck out of his bedroom and head to Olivia's room. His parents are at her bedside.
Olivia had just died at 17 years old.
One word comes to mind when he thinks back to his emotions on those precious days after his best friend's death: "Wow." That's it. Pure shock. He was attached to his sister's hip his entire life. Right up to the end. Doing homework and eating dinner in the hospital, Woods was always with his big sis. Then she was gone. For good. He felt a dark, deep emptiness inside of him. Like nothing in life carried any purpose.
School? He didn't care about these math problems Olivia used to help him with. Track practice? He skipped that for two weeks. The person he wanted to impress most wasn't around, so why bother?
Teachers and students left Woods alone.
All he felt was pain.
"I was just hurt," he says. "What am I going to do?"
In time, Woods started to replay in his mind the previous three years—the three years since doctors had given Olivia her initial diagnosis and told her she had three months to live.
She didn't struggle with the disease. No. Woods hates that word choice. She lived, he says. She took on chemotherapy headfirst. And when she was forced to have one her legs amputated, she hardly blinked. Rather than be home-schooled, she opted to go back to Serra as if nothing changed. She'd still go to the mall with Woods, too. After Olivia walked around for one, two, three hours on her crutches, Woods would ask, "Do you want to take a break?" and she'd refuse. They kept shopping. She loved to shop. Olivia's Make-A-Wish experience was a $5,000 shopping spree...and of course she took Woods with her for this, too. Bought him a pair of fresh, white Air Force Ones.
She was a phenomenal softball player—the one who taught Woods how to hit.
She was beyond proud of her brother, telling all of her high school friends he was destined for greatness.
She was everybody's friend, touching countless lives. "Uplifting, cheerful, super positive," says Woods, estimating 600 people were at her service.
So, eventually, Woods snapped out of it. He realized Olivia would want him to live, too.
To be that "model."
The NFL wasn't even on his mind then. Not even close. Woods attended Serra to be with his sister and get good enough grades to attend college. That's it. He had played a grand total of two varsity games when she died. But he kept replaying those words in his head—be a model, be a model, be a role model—and the next thing he knew, Woods was a 5-star recruit heading to USC. Never mind his pedestrian size (he's now listed at 6'0", 195 pounds), his average speed. Soon, he was dominating in college, too.
Before every game at USC, Woods had the equipment manager draw an "O" on his wrist tape with a design of a halo or clouds or wings. Anything to bring Olivia to the field with him.
He can't do that in the NFL, where (thank goodness) players aren't allowed to write such tributes. So Woods makes a point to run to the end zone after every national anthem and kneel in prayer to Olivia. Let me be fast like you. I know you're in heaven. I want to be able to fly like you. He makes an "O" with his hands and holds it up to the sky.
He imagines what it would be like to have Olivia in the stands this Saturday.
"I know these moments are what we wanted," he says. "I just know that she would love to see all this."
"She'd be super proud. I know that."
It's 2012. Woods is in college. Blocking for Robey-Coleman on a punt return against Utah, Woods is absolutely drilled and momentarily blacks out. He wobbles and collapses flat on his face. When he gets up, he initially heads toward the wrong sideline before he arrives at the USC sideline and has a clueless teammate smack him in the head. A medic asks Woods three questions: Who's the president? What's the date? What is 100 minus seven minus seven? Woods answers them all, a TV timeout affords him a few extra moments, coach Lane Kiffin asks, "Is he good?" and just like that, one play later, Woods is back in the game.
He later scores a touchdown. USC wins. It's not a good night for concussion awareness.
It's 2015. Woods is in the pros. During Bills training camp, Woods tears one side of his groin and—with so many other players sidelined—feels the need to grit through it all season. His burst is zapped, his speed's diminished, he can only run medium-range routes...and it hurts. By God, does it hurt. Forced to "drag" his leg, he burns out his hip flexor, his groin and all the muscles around it constantly. Mondays, when the game-day meds wear off, are the worst.
His team stinks. He's not getting the ball. He calls himself "a blocking receiver." Yet he manages to play 13.5 games...before shredding the other side of his groin at Washington and staggering off the field for good.
This is why Woods loves hearing all the war stories, of players cracking their dislocated fingers back into place and such to stay in a playoff game. He'd do the same thing in a heartbeat.
To him, that's what it'll take for the Rams to win it all. Guts.
"This is when the legends are made," Woods says. "This is what you dreamed of as a kid: to be in a realistic opportunity like this to win some playoff games, to get to a Super Bowl. You know you're good enough. You know you have all the weapons around you. You have the defense. You have the coach. You have the quarterback. It's super realistic. If it's injuries, you have to gut it out."
He can't think of any injury that'd sideline him right now.
"Physically, not being able to walk would be the only thing."
There's never been any hesitation because Woods has always replayed the sight of his sister in his mind. "What's a groin injury?" he asks aloud. "My sister didn't have a leg. It's football. It's an injury. It's not life-threatening."
The problem was, during his first four pro seasons in Buffalo, Woods wasn't able to be a model. He appreciates every split second of every route in every game now, because his career nearly washed away then, for good, right down Niagara Falls.
In the years since Olivia's death, his toughness had taken on many forms.
He'd gritted through injuries. He'd gone full fisticuffs in practice.
Woods became the one dude nobody wanted to mess with in Buffalo. Robey-Coleman estimates Woods got into at least six fights in Buffalo, marking his territory with one epic slugfest against Stephon Gilmore his rookie year in OTAs. Haymakers were thrown, landed and the two crashed to the turf and needed to be pried apart. Gilmore's one of the most soft-spoken players in the league, too—"so you knew it was real," Robey-Coleman says. Woods claims to be undefeated. Just don't hold him, and he assures he'll leave you alone.
Every Sunday, for three hours, he morphs into a different person. That's why Rams receivers coach Eric Yarber now jokingly shouts to him before every game kicks off, "See ya after the game!"
Says Woods: "I'm the captain. I'm the big boss dog. You have to go through us as a team."
He brawled in Buffalo. He gritted through pain in Buffalo. But more than anything physical, it was Woods' mental toughness that sharpened in Buffalo. After being drafted in the second round in 2013, he had every right to scream in his quarterbacks' ear holes. As bad as he wanted to do as his sister had told him, he didn't have the opportunity because of laughably bad quarterback play. From EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton to Tyrod Taylor with a pinch of Jeff Tuel sprinkled in, Woods never knew when or where the football would arrive. If it arrived at all. The Bills ranked 24th, 13th, 31st and 32nd in pass attempts, pigeonholing Woods as a slot receiver.
Frustration mounted. Losses mounted.
Yet Woods didn't trash those QBs then, nor does he today. He's actually still tight with Manuel and, with a straight face, says Manuel is a "good quarterback." The same Manuel most known in Buffalo for a "hospitality tent" training-camp throw. He even thinks fondly of playing with Tuel—"Tuel Time!" he calls it. All of these QBs, he insists, are part of his success. His "journey." Rather than bemoan his dreadful circumstance—or wisely demand and receive the ball 10 times a game like a former teammate—he viewed Wide Receiver Hell as a chance to grow.
That's what a model would do.
Woods was open. Often. But he convinced himself he needed to get two or three more yards of separation so those QBs could see him more clearly. So Woods hunted for the steepest hills he could find in SoCal to climb every offseason. One 70-meter bear of a hill near Hollywood is his favorite. He hit the track. He tweaked his diet. He did all the little things he never would've considered if those four years were going swimmingly.
Long talks with Robey-Coleman and his 2013 position coach, Ike Hilliard, helped as well.
Hilliard insisted there would be a team...somewhere...that'd see he's open. Somebody's watching, he'd repeat. He was right. The day Woods' 2015 season ended with that shredded groin, a then-29-year-old offensive coordinator was watching closely on the opposing sideline: McVay. And when McVay took over as head coach for the Rams two years later, he made Woods one of the first players he signed, at $34 million over five years.
Woods did his homework, too. He saw that the Redskins passing game ranked No. 2 in the NFL, and that McVay had a Midas touch with guys like Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder. And Hilliard, who's been with the Redskins since he left Buffalo after the 2013 season, assured Woods that McVay was the mastermind behind it all. Woods watched film of Goff, the No. 1 pick being written off as a bust, and loved how he stood tall in the pocket and kept his eyes downfield. This is a quarterback, he told himself.
Within a week of signing his deal, Woods hit the field with Goff and was blown away. Goff's knack for slinging the ball to him in stride, at "maximum separation" to feed yard-after-catch production, stood out instantly. He didn't have to slow down a tick.
It's been a perfect fit.
So this is what Wide Receiver Heaven looks like. McVay shouting to Woods constantly: "I knew you were a dog! No one knew. No one knew. I knew what we were getting!" and, his favorite: "We got you for cheap! We got you for cheap!" In 29 games, Woods has 2,142 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. He has every reason to be happy and forget Buffalo entirely, to shed that chip on his shoulder for good.
And yet as he speaks, you can hear the tinge of surliness NFL corners know so well. He needs to make one thing clear.
"My big thing is, I feel like I am one of the top receivers," Woods says. "I can play with them. I always said in Buffalo, like Odell (Beckham Jr.), 'Yeah, he had 1,000 yards and 100 catches. But if you look at it, I had half the targets. I had half the yards. Half. So quit saying I'm weak or I suck or I'm a bust. If I just had the opportunity to get that amount, I could prove I could make those plays and do that.'
"I've been having this in my game. I've been this caliber of a player."
Woods has been studying up on Hall of Fame receivers lately, too. This is only his first 1,000-yard season. Canton should be nothing more than a pipe dream right now. But here he is, unabashed, saying he plans on playing 10 more seasons and going down as "one of the all-time greats."
First thing's first, of course.
Winning a Super Bowl.
He loves bringing work home with him. Most nights, Woods posts up in his living room—tablet on his lap, wife at his side—and studies film for an hour. Woods has the team load all throws directed at the cornerback he's about to face onto his tablet. Every single one. Every single week. Overthrown, caught, not caught. It doesn't matter. Woods wants to see exactly how that corner played every ball.
Then, he picks one wide receiver who torched that particular cornerback and studies him. How he got open, how he separated, how he dominated.
"Then," Woods says with a smirk, "I do the same thing on Sunday."
Allow Robert Woods to break down Robert Woods. After everything—tragedy, neglect, fights, injuries—this is what you get. A player who views himself as the most complete receiver in the NFL.
Still worried about speed? He kindly points out this 52-yarder on 3rd-and-33:
And this 94-yarder:
And he doesn't stop there.
"I feel like I'm truly the most complete all-around receiver who can do it all," Woods says. "Block a D-end on a toss crack. I can take a bomb on a go ball. I can catch a five-yard option route. I can go across the middle on a dagger. I can read the coverage, read the safeties. I'm all-around. I'm probably the most complete receiver."
Last year's playoff debut, to him, was a "taste." He views this season as the true beginning for him, for McVay, for the entire team to leave a legacy. Yeah, there's beaches and A-list celebrities and art and fashion and even another NFL team to compete with in L.A. It remains to be seen if the locals would even be willing to pencil a Super Bowl parade into their schedules.
The way Robey-Coleman describes it, fighting for attention in L.A. is like owning a hot dog stand when everyone else has a hot dog stand on the same block. There are options galore. 24/7. He emphatically points around the locker room: "He has a hot dog stand! He has a hot dog stand!" What makes yours different? How will you stand out? Woods, he snipes, is different.
Woods, a local, knows what it takes.
"Robert is the epitome of L.A.," Robey-Coleman says. "L.A. might be glitz, might be glamour. But it's still a jungle. L.A.'s a competitive city. It's more competitive than tough. Competitive makes it tough. Everybody's doing the same thing, but who's standing out? Who's actually out here competing?"
Nobody found a way to stand out quite like the one athlete Woods watched every chance he could as a teenager: Kobe Bryant. Absolutely Woods would take Peak Kobe over Peak LeBron. He shoots that question down like it's not even a debate. He watched Kobe night in and night out, when most of America was sleeping. It didn't matter who the Lakers were playing, nor the time of year. Kobe attacked. Relentlessly. And that's the Mamba energy Woods is trying to inject into his game and his team. A rabid "I'll take over. I'll be that guy" desire, he calls it.
Teammates all notice. They're following his lead.
Wideout Brandin Cooks sees the result of that film study up close, saying Woods always finds a way to get open and "any time you can do that at receiver—I don't care who you are—you're going to be considered great." Tight end Gerald Everett sees Woods attacking every snap of every practice with the same intensity because in this offense, he says, it's "one shot, one kill"...and Woods has been supplying so many kill shots. "Guys that play with Robert," Everett says, "know that he's one of the premier receivers. "
Soft? They don't want to hear it. Not with Woods on their side. Cooks scowls at the notion. Everett tells anyone who doubts the Rams' toughness to "bring your popcorn." And Robey-Coleman, the one who calls Woods a blood brother, is downright giddy. Knowing Woods how he knows him, knowing everything he's been through, Robey-Coleman has no clue what to expect Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Eastern against the Cowboys.
He won't recognize him. Nobody will.
"I'm telling you: When you open that dude up, you're going to see some s--t," Robey-Coleman says. "I'm telling you: He's different. This is his time right now. He knows it's his time. He can feel it. It's his time to really show the world who Robert Woods really is.
"It's his time to be that premier wide receiver. That star receiver."
Woods has an idea how he'll feel. Many games, it's as if his sister's on the field with him. He'll contort his body at an impossible angle and extend to snare a ball he has no business catching. He'll find a gear he had no clue existed. Sure, that question makes him feel a bit uncomfortable: Is he even here without that tragedy? But everything Woods has been through is a part of him, and he embraces it.
When he scored two touchdowns in Week 16, complete strangers who had him on their fantasy football teams sent donations to the American Cancer Society in his honor.
Woods knows he's only scratching the surface.
He'll flash that "O" before kickoff. He'll fulfill that promise in a stadium full of bandwagoners, skeptical locals, celebrities and many, many Cowboys fans. The identity of these Rams—and the 2018 season—will be at stake. And that's what he wants. All of this pressure.
He's ready to be the model of toughness this team needs.
He's been preparing for it his whole life.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.