Posted on Fri. Aug. 07, 2009 - 10:10 am EDT

Rod Woodson didn't forget Fort Wayne roots

His annual youth camp kept him connected to city.

of The News-Sentinel

Rod Woodson could have left his hometown in the rearview mirror like many professional athletes do when they hit the big time.

Instead, he came back year after year to run a football camp for children that saw some 10,000 kids come through and learn about football and life. Over that time, Woodson's NFL connections brought big-time pro names to Fort Wayne, including Ronnie Lott, Ray Lewis and Deion Sanders.

Of course, no star was bigger than Woodson himself, although you'd never know it watching Woodson's humble demeanor as he interacted with young children through high-school age players.

“It wasn't about the parents or me or the guys who came to help out; it was about giving to the kids,” Woodson said. “Hopefully, they could see Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Junior Seau and the guys who came through camp were just human beings. If we could make it to the National Football League, you never know, you could have that opportunity, too.

“I hope we made the professional football players human in their eyes and let them understand any dream was possible for them.”

Woodson, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio, ran the camp for 14 years, beginning in 1994. During that time he saw youngsters grow up and become young adults and a few, including Anthony Spencer, now with the Dallas Cowboys, even make the NFL dream come true.

In staging the camp, Woodson also stayed connected to Fort Wayne and let the city know he hadn't forgotten his roots. He returned every summer while thriving with the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders.

“When I was growing up in Indiana, there was no professional team there,” Woodson said. “We didn't have the opportunity to go to professional camps or anything of that nature. This was a chance to give the kids and community of Fort Wayne something they wouldn't normally have the opportunity to be a part of. I think that was a benefit for the children. I was really happy to put a smile on their faces over the years that we did it.”

The highlight for many was the up-close-and-personal interactions with some of the NFL's biggest stars.

Sanders encouraged young people to be themselves and not try to imitate the pros. Lewis told the campers to cherish the fun they have playing football. Lott talked about the importance of striving to be the best in everything.

“Ronnie Lott was a guy that sticks in my mind,” said Snider athletic director Russ Isaacs, who helped with the camp at Snider every year. “He was so sincere and heartfelt in all that he said. He and Rod are very similar guys - soft-spoken, determined, talented and always concerned about helping other any time it was possible.”

After the first couple of years, Woodson made the camp free until the spots were filled up. He had a number of local sponsors who stepped forward and many local volunteers over the course of the years, including coaches and other successful members of the community.

Woodson established the Academic All-Stars as an encouragement to the children to succeed with their school work and later added a cheerleading clinic - at the urging of his mother - with the Indiana Pacemates in order to give young girls a part in the camp. The event expanded to Rod Woodson Youth Week, with a concert, basketball game and other activities. Another NFL player from Fort Wayne, Jason Fabini, teamed with Woodson for a couple of years of the camp.

Rod Woodson Charities remains an active entity in Fort Wayne, although the camp ended in 2007.

“The interesting thing about Rod's camp was that a lot of those years it was free,” said Carnell Lake, a friend and former teammate of Woodson's with the Steelers. “A big chunk of the camp came out of Rod's own pocket, whether for the jerseys and uniforms or paying for the celebrities and players to put them up and feed them three meals a day. A lot of that came out of Rod's own pocket. And that shows Rod's heart was in the right place.”

Woodson said the young players in the camp always made him feel like good things were being accomplished.

“I saw the kids grow up year after year, getting bigger and bigger,” Woodson said. “Some would graduate and go to college and come back and be camp helpers. I think the camp was part of Fort Wayne for a lot of kids growing up, and that's a memory I'll always cherish.”

As Woodson enters the Hall of Fame on Saturday, past campers and volunteers should feel a connection. After all, he made them part of the journey.

Brush with greatness

Some of the biggest NFL names who appeared at Rod Woodson's football camp over the years included Cornelius Bennett, Tim Brown, Ray Buchanan, Terrell Davis, Marshall Faulk, D.J. Johnson, Carnell Lake, Ray Lewis, Ronnie Lott, Deion Sanders and Junior Seau.

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