Posted on Tue. Aug. 04, 2009 - 10:50 am EDT

Woodson's ‘glory years' defined career

He left an unforgettable legacy during his 10 seasons with Steelers.

of The News-Sentinel

For many who followed his career from the start, Rod Woodson will forever look best wearing yellow and black

Those were the colors of his high school team at Snider. Those were the colors, with gold a close-enough substitute for yellow, of his college team at Purdue. And those are the trademark hues of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

To call Woodson's 10-year tenure with the Steelers “the glory years,” is a bit inaccurate. He played seven more years – with significant moments of glory – after he left Pittsburgh in 1997. But it was with the Steelers, a team synonymous with great defense, that Woodson made his indelible mark on the NFL. His Steelers' tenure all but guaranteed a first-ballot induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this Saturday in Canton, Ohio.

“By his seventh year in the league, we all know he could have finished his career then, and he would have gone in (the Hall of Fame),” said former teammate and fellow cornerback Carnell Lake said. “He was selected to the NFL's 75th-anniversary team. What does that tell you?”

Indeed, Woodson was one of five active players picked for the 48-member 75th-anniversary team in 1994. The names of the others reflect the company of excellence that Woodson kept: Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Reggie White.

But Woodson was the youngest at 29 then, near the peak of his skills.

Lake, who looked to Woodson as a mentor when he entered the league, said people on the outside had no idea how thorough Woodson was in his preparation, or how much went into making him such a great player.

“Before and after practices, he studied his opponent,” Lake said. “He would take note after note after note. He'd have a binder full of information. He would know and anticipate the offense once the game got started. That's one of the real reasons he had so many interceptions in his career.”

Woodson still ranks third all-time on the NFL interception list, first in interception-return touchdowns and first in career interception return yards.

“That's not by accident,” Lake said. “It takes a lot of work to have that much confidence, not only in your athletic ability, but in your homework study of your opponent, to anticipate when to break on the ball.”

Woodson stepped into the Steelers lineup almost immediately out of college. He scored a touchdown on his first interception and hardly looked back. He earned two team MVP awards with the Steelers. He was a seven- time All-Pro and a seven-time Pro Bowler. He led the league with eight interceptions in 1993 and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

As Woodson's success grew, so did his popularity. By 1995, the only professional athlete in Pittsburgh who could claim to be more beloved by local fans was Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Woodson was both a big hitter and a big play-maker, both in the secondary and in returning kicks.

“Rod wasn't afraid to take risks on the field,” Lake said. “I can't name how many times he'd say, ‘If they run this play, I'm going to get it.' Sure enough, he'd see it and just go for it, and a lot of times he'd pick it and take it for a touchdown.”

Lake said he remembers vividly an incident late in a playoff game against the Houston Oilers when the Steelers trailed and needed a turnover to give their offense a chance for a game-winning drive. The Oilers' running back came out in the flats and Woodson leveled him, knocking the ball loose. The Steelers took over, marched and scored to win the game.

“He was constantly making plays that separated him from the average football player,” Lake said. “He definitely influenced me. I had never played defensive back before I got in the ,and I learned from a Hall of Famer how to play.”

Lake, incidentally, became an All-Pro cornerback.

Woodson's quiet leadership couldn't be understated, either. Lake remembers Woodson inviting him to his home during his first season in the league. That type of personal gesture made Woodson a valuable voice in the locker room. He served as a legitimate role model inside and outside the team.

“I was fortunate to be able to play with a cat like that,” said former Steelers teammate Greg Lloyd. “He was just the consummate professional. He showed up for work and did what he had to do, and he made people around him better.”

Woodson's work ethic led to one of his more incredible feats with the Steelers when he became the only player in NFL history to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and return to play in the same season.

He went down trying to make an arm tackle of Barry Sanders in the 1995 season opener, rehabbed for four months and played in the Super Bowl against Dallas. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher thought so much of Woodson – and his Superman attributes – he kept the roster spot open all season just for the possibility of Woodson playing in the Super Bowl.

Two years later, the Steelers' reticence in offering a contract to Woodson resulted in Woodson entering free agency and joining the 49ers before moving on to Baltimore and, finally, Oakland.

It seemed strange to all involved when Woodson left Pittsburgh – and changed out of the yellow and black colors.

“That kind of took the wind out of a lot of us still on the team,” Lake said. “That was a big void. For me, it was never the same.”

For many, Woodson's Steelers years were the glory years. The broader look back shows his determined comeback from the ACL in 1995 was but the first sign that Woodson's career didn't live by the rules of the NFL's mere mortals.

Pittsburgh years

1987: Drafted 10th overall by the Steelers, he scored his first touchdown on his first interception.

1988: Started 16 games, returned first Steelers kickoff for a touchdown in 10 years and was named Co-MVP of the team.

1989: All-Pro, Pro Bowl

1990: All-Pro, Pro Bowl, Steelers MVP

1991: All-Pro, Pro Bowl

1992: All-Pro, Pro Bowl

1993: All-Pro, Pro Bowl, NFL Defensive Player of the Year

1994: All-Pro, Pro Bowl, AFC Defensive Back of the Year, Named to NFL's 75th-anniversary team

1995: Suffered ACL injury and became first player ever to return from injury to play the same season.

1996: All-Pro, Pro Bowl
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