Posted on Mon. Aug. 03, 2009 - 10:20 am EDT

Tracing Woodson's path to greatness

From Snider to Purdue, he did things no one else could do

of The News-Sentinel

Rod Woodson joins the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, entering one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

Only the best of the best are ushered in, bronzed and stamped as a legend for all eternity. Yes, it's that heavy of a sports honor.

Woodson's day will be special for Fort Wayne because this is his birthplace - March 10, 1965, to be exact - and it's also the site of the foundation of his incredible career. As The News-Sentinel looks back daily at Woodson's career leading up to his induction, it begins logically in Fort Wayne, and grows in West Lafayette, where the stage for his pro greatness was set.

Woodson made his way up to the high school scene in more or less the usual way, playing for a Police Athletic League team (the Raiders) as a youngster, trying a number of sports early and working toward that initial goal of playing for his high school team. In high school, his blossoming as an athlete was stunning.

Russ Isaacs was an assistant football coach at Snider High School when Woodson first made his name, and some of the details from those days more than 25 years ago remain as clear as a Blu-ray video.

“I remember a game in high school where Rod touched the ball six times and scored five touchdowns,” Isaacs said. “You can't overstate the level of ability and his performance. You can't overstate it. With a guy like that, superlatives don't do the job in describing his ability to play the game.”

Woodson always played defensive back and returned kicks, talents that would be exploited throughout his pro career. But he also played slot back - specializing in running reverses when he wasn't catching passes - and later tailback as a junior when the senior in front of him, John Ramsey, suffered a knee injury. Freed to run the ball, Woodson averaged 9.8 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns as a senior.

Isaacs said Woodson's ability to change a ballgame with one play was his greatest asset. He remembers vividly Woodson running a reverse in the playoffs against Lafayette Jefferson and hurdling a would-be defender before scoring a touchdown.

“If there was one guy we could predict would play at the highest level, it would be Rod,” Isaacs said. “All he did, he did with such ease. It looked effortless. Poetry in motion.”

Speaking of hurdling, Woodson's on-track exploits also caught others' eyes. His friend, Tracy Foster, who will present Woodson at the Hall on Saturday night, remembers the first time he looked closely at Woodson's skills.

Foster's revelation came during Woodson's sophomore year, when most people had their eyes on another hurdler.

“It was the same year when Ron Birchfield at the South Side Regional set a national record in the 300-meter low hurdles,” Foster said. “I ran the 100 at that meet and watched the hurdles. All my teammates were talking about Birchfield breaking the national record, and it was a great feat. But a sophomore named Woodson was second and he blew away the rest of the field.

“That's when I knew this Woodson kid would be something.”

Woodson eventually won four individual state titles in track, taking the high and low hurdles races as a junior and senior.

Woodson's football skills led him to the enviable position of choosing a full-ride scholarship. He finally chose Purdue over Michigan for an unusual reason, at least for a football player: He wanted to study electrical engineering. He eventually switched and earned a degree in criminal justice.

Woodson thrived almost immediately at Purdue, becoming a two-time NCAA All-American, three-time All-Big Ten performer and setting 13 Purdue records.

He's remembered most for his final Old Oaken Bucket game against Indiana, when he played defense, offense and special teams, rushing for 93 yards, adding 67 yards receiving and making 10 tackles.

“Watching him every day, the way he could catch the ball and run the ball, he could have played any position,” said Leon Burtnett, Woodson's coach at Purdue. “He could have played running back in the NFL. He was the complete package. That's the best thing you could say.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers were interested, particularly their defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy. But they were so sure Woodson would be drafted in the top five, coach Chuck Noll told Dungy not to bother going to Purdue for Woodson's postseason workout. The Steelers had the 10th pick in the draft.

They took Woodson. But he flirted with an Olympic track career - this was back when you couldn't be a pro in one sport and an amateur in another - and Dungy went to a track meet in North Carolina to give his sales pitch.

According to a 2003 story in the San Jose Mercury News, Dungy recalled telling Woodson, “You can run track and probably be world class, or you can play corner and be one of the best that ever played.”

Woodson's negotiations came to an agreeable end.

His sprint to pro football greatness had just begun.

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