Posted on Sat. Aug. 08, 2009 - 10:10 am EDT

Woodson stays humble on most special of days

He sees himself as a regular guy, not a Hall of Famer

of The News-Sentinel

CANTON, Ohio – Rod Woodson looks in the mirror every morning, just like a regular guy.

Who stares back? In his mind: that regular guy.

“I don't see a Hall of Famer,” Woodson said. “I see a kid who grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. I don't see the Bart Starrs, the George Blandas, the Jim Ottos of the world.”

When Woodson awakes tomorrow morning, an official Hall of Famer will stare back. Woodson will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton at 7 tonight as part of the Class of 2009. He'll deliver his speech, take a look at the replica bust headed for display and join the most elite of all-star teams.

When Woodson looks in the mirror, it's admirable that the first person he sees is a regular guy. His humility ranks as one of his best traits.

But even if he wouldn't presume to have the arrogance to say it, he's also looking at the greatest defensive back to ever play the game. Subjective? Perhaps. But he played 17 years, he made the Pro Bowl more times than any other defensive back, he holds the record for most interception-return touchdowns and most interception-return yards and ranks third in career interceptions.

He was the first NFL player to earn All-Pro at three positions: kick returner, cornerback and safety. If they'd asked him to play linebacker, he'd have probably been a star there, too.

“I'm a fan of all those guys in there – Mel Blount, Darrell Green, Ronnie (Lott),” said former Steelers cornerback Carnell Lake. “But for me, the very top person, the best of all time has to be Rod Woodson. I played with him, so I saw the little stuff that didn't show up in the stat book. But if you look at his stats, it's still true.”

Woodson would never declare himself the best. It's not in his nature. This is man who's so old school, he talks about heroes named George Blanda and Jim Otto.

This is a man who is so unassuming he picked his old friend from high school, Tracy Foster, to present him at the Hall of Fame. He passed on asking one of the famous players or coaches who crossed his path over the years. He said he wanted to be presented by someone who knew him before he became a pro football player.

The embrace they shared after Foster helped put the Hall of Fame jacket on him at the dinner Friday night was heartfelt and years in the making.

Woodson's impact on the NFL was apparent halfway through his career when he was named to the league's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, his eighth season in the league.

“I thought they made a mistake,” Woodson said. “In retrospect, that was a huge honor. Seventy-five years of the NFL, you play eight years and they put you on the team. Honestly, I don't know if I really deserved to be on that team.”

Again, that's Woodson's humble side talking, the regular guy in the mirror assessing his achievements.

No one argued his inclusion at the time, since he was every bit as dominating as the other then-active players who were on that 75th team – Lott, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Reggie White.

Woodson's longevity and his ability to change with the times set him apart from the other great defensive backs. He played 12 years at cornerback and five at safety, and led the league in interceptions twice in those last five years. He played for four teams (Steelers, 49ers, Ravens and Raiders) and helped three of them reach the Super Bowl.

A student of the game, Woodson mentioned two significant facts about his induction: One, he's the first Steelers player since the 1970s heyday to be inducted, and two, he's the first Ravens player to be inducted.

He's also the first Fort Wayne player, for those scoring at home.

More than once during a media interview session Friday, Woodson mentioned how Fort Wayne shaped his work ethic.

“Small cities keep you rooted,” Woodson said. “You're not so spread out, you're more into reality than futuristic ideas. Growing up in our family, we weren't broke or poor, but we were far from being rich. We had to work in our family. My sophomore year in high school, I worked. That's part of small towns.”

Woodson said he took those work-ethic values, instilled by his father, and used them throughout his career.

He studied the game, day in and day out. He knew opposing teams' plays as well as they did. A receiver might beat him, occasionally. Getting the best of his was far more difficult.

“There would be a critical pass downfield, and you'd think ‘Oh, my God, who's down there?' As often as not, out of nowhere, Rod would appear,” said former Ravens coach Brian Billick. “You'd look at the film and you'd see he might appear to be out of position, and he'd come up with the interception. You'd want to ask, ‘What is it that you saw that allowed you to do that?' It was amazing.”

Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly said he always had to account for Woodson's whereabouts on the field.

Kelly came to appreciate Woodson even more as the years went by.

“He's a super athlete and a super person,” Kelly said. “He's so humble, and that's what I like to see. He doesn't pat himself on the back. And he doesn't need to, because everybody else recognizes what a special, unique individual he was.

“He's the best of the best.”

The best of the best .That's a heavy statement. But on the day Woodson joins the most elite team in football, it's a fitting title.

“I was a blue-collar guy, nothing special,” Woodson said. “I just went to work.”

Blue collar? True.

Hard working? No doubt.

There's no buying the other part of his self-description. The man in the mirror at Woodson's house is something special, indeed – a Hall of Famer for the ages.

Woodson in the NFL record books

♦First, most interceptions returned for a touchdown (12)

♦First, most interception return yardage (1,483)

♦Third, most career interceptions (71)
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