Pittsburgh Steelers athletic trainer John Norwig still marvels at the memory of Rod Woodson's single-season return from a severe knee injury.
It was unprecedented.
It was amazing to behold.
And it's a story that says everything about Woodson's athletic physique, work ethic and mental determination.
“Rod Woodson - you can't compare him to the general public,” Norwig said. “He's far more efficient neuromuscularly than 99.9 percent of the rest of the world. He's unique.”
Woodson, a Fort Wayne native, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio. His name appears in the NFL record books in more than one category, but the story that illustrates his unique blend of athleticism, determination and perseverance was his 1995 comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
He suffered the injury when his foot caught on the turf trying to change directions and arm tackle Detroit Lions great Barry Sanders in the season-opening game. The prognosis was a minimum of six to 12 months after surgery for recovery.
Woodson balked at the diagnosis. If the Steelers, a very good team that season, could make the Super Bowl a little over four months later, Woodson vowed to play in it.
They did. He did. And another level of Woodson's legacy was formed.
“I was rather young, my second year in the league,” said the Steelers' team physician, Dr. James Bradley. “We knew a time frame for what it should be for normal people. And then there was Rod. He always screwed up my time frame. It was always shorter than I told the coach. There was only one way to describe it - Woodson-esque.”
Bradley said the medical staff knew Woodson could recover from injury faster than the average player, but they still thought the time frame would be too short for him. Most players needed up to a year to recover at that time, and often two years to reach their previous athletic form.
Woodson had no intention of waiting that long. One of the team's assistant athletic trainers, Rick Burkholder, spent the entire rehab at Woodson's side, Norwig said.
Woodson would stretch and swim, ride a stationary bicycle, use the stair-climbing machine, eventually run a treadmill, and push every possible rehabilitation exercise to its extreme.
“Everybody tells me I'm crazy,” Woodson said in an Associated Press story in November 1995, two months into the rehab. “The doctors tell me I'm crazy. The players tell me I'm crazy. Everybody tells me I'm crazy, so I'm crazy. But I know I'd be going crazy if I didn't have this.”
Woodson had persuaded Steelers coach Bill Cowher to keep a roster spot open for him, in the unlikely event that he returned to play in the Super Bowl. Cowher had a hunch.
“The chance of him coming back is slim,” Cowher told reporters two months into the rehab. “But the only reason there is a chance is it's Rod Woodson.”
Bradley was amazed, but not totally surprised when Woodson made it back.
“He was at the top of the neuromuscular pyramid,” Bradley said. “He could get better faster than anybody I ever saw. …When we do a hamstring-to-quad ratio on a player, it's usually two times quadriceps to one-time hamstring. In other words, if they can lift 400 pounds with their quads, they can lift 200 with their hamstring. The best ratio I've ever seen is Rod, and he was almost 1-to-1. It was unbelievable.”
Woodson came off the bench to play in the Super Bowl, although the Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys.
“What he did was remarkable,” Norwig said. “To come back and play in a world championship game and make a contribution was a credit to his perseverance and his desire to return to the field.”
The comeback proved that when Woodson set his mind to something, he usually accomplished it. His knee injury came during his ninth season in the league. Few would have guessed he was little over halfway through his career, with more logic-defying moves to come.