by Jim Riggs
February 24, 2001
No Cameo Appearance This Time
Woodson visited Jamestown Monday to be the guest speaker at the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. He arrived as a member of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, but that was his second Super Bowl appearance. Five years earlier he was in Super Bowl XXX as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who made him their first-round draft choice out of Purdue in 1987. But his appearance in that Super Bowl, which the Steelers lost to Dallas, was rather unusual.
It was only the second game Woodson played in that season.
In the season opener against Detroit, Woodson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was sidelined for the remainder of the regular season and all of the playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl. He was ready to play in the Super Bowl and the Steelers head coach allowed it to happen.
“I definitely tip my hat off to Bill Cowher, who kept a spot open for me throughout the whole season,” Woodson said before Monday night’s induction dinner. “Most coaches would have put me on IR (injured reserve) and said forget him, he needs to stay out the whole year. But Bill had enough respect in me and enough understanding in who I am as a person and a player to say, ‘Hey, this guy has a goal and he wants to reach it. I respect him enough to give him that opportunity.’ Most coaches wouldn’t have done that.”
So Woodson played in his first Super Bowl and became the first player in NFL history to suffer a torn ACL and return to play in the same season.
“I give a lot respect to Bill, he’s a good guy,” was Woodson’s understatement. “I do have the utmost respect for him doing that. Most coaches around the league and would say all of them but one, and that’s Bill Cowher, would have put me on IR and said sit there and get healthy and come back next year.”
Instead, Woodson got his shot at the Super Bowl title, but came up short.
He started all 16 games as cornerback for the Steelers in 1996 and despite being selected for the Pro Bowl for the seventh time, he was released.
“I would say they thought I couldn’t play anymore,” Woodson said. “I’d just come off a knee injury for ’95. In ’96 I played decent coming off that first year of a knee injury and made the Pro Bowl. It was pretty tough playing corner and just coming off that knee injury. It takes a good two years, two-and-a-half years for your knee to completely heal. They made the choice they thought that their team needed to go in another direction and that’s not my choice.”
Was Woodson bitter?
“I was bitter about some things that were said behind closed doors between some front office people and maybe some of the coaches,” he said. “That was unfortunate because they knew me as a player, I played there for 10 years for them and I was a little upset about that. But I’ve been gone four years and you just can’t take things personal in this game.
“This game was played before I was born and, God willing, it’s going to be played when I’m gone. Faces and names on the backs of jerseys change year in and year out, so you can’t take things too personal about this.”
So in quest of Super Bowl title, he signed as a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in 1997.
“I left Pittsburgh for less money to go to San Francisco to try and get that opportunity,” he said. “That didn’t work out; we lost in the NFC Championship Game. It was basically a one-year deal there and after the season was over (defensive coordinator) Marvin Lewis called me up from Baltimore and said he was interested.”
But Woodson wasn’t sure he was interested.
“I didn’t even know where Baltimore was at,” he said with a smile.
But Woodson saw the new opportunity to be a veteran leader on a young team.
“I saw the young talent they had on paper, especially on defense,” he recalled. “On offense they had some good players, but they just lost Vinny Testaverde and I knew that was going to hurt. But seeing the young talent they had on defense and the defensive system they had in place with Marv, I knew it was going to be a good defense. It was just a matter of guys maturing and understanding the system better.”
So Woodson signed as a free agent in 1998.
“Ted Marchibroda was there, who was a great guy, but this team and Ted didn’t mix the right way,” Woodson said about the Raven’s first head coach. “They brought in Brian Billick, luckily for us, and he got rid of all the guys that were distracting to the football team. He did it from day one.”
But Woodson remained not only for his talent, but also his experience.
“My locker sat between Ray Lewis’ and Peter Boulware’s locker, who when I went there were second-year players and two good, young linebackers, but completely raw and didn’t understand the game,” he said. “So I knew my role was to lead by example, by expectations in the meeting room, what I would say in the locker room and the practice field.”
His first season at Baltimore saw the Ravens go 6-10, then 8-8 in 1999 and last season peaked with a Super Bowl title. But did Woodson ever think he would return to the Super Bowl when he signed with Baltimore?
“Did I think I would ever go back?,” he repeated the question. “I never knew, but you always have it in the back of your mind. You chase the ring and luckily for me I ended up in the right city.”
And this Super Bowl was special for Woodson, not only because it resulted in a win, but also because he was part of the entire season leading up to the final victory.
“It was like a cameo appearance,” he said about the 1995 season when he was injured in the opening game and returned only to play in the Super bowl. “It’s like if you got to a sitcom and you spend 10 seconds on the film. Is it your sitcom? No, it’s not your sitcom. You just went in for a hot second and that’s basically what I felt like. We were in the Super Bowl, but it didn’t feel like I was in the Super Bowl just from the fact that I knew I was only going to play 10 or 12 plays just being in our subpackage, but this time around I knew I was going to play. When the defense was on the field, I’m on the field. I never stepped off the football field unless we were off the field.”
And Woodson ended up stepping off the field as a Super Bowl champion. And looking back, it’s because he decided to leave Pittsburgh, where he played for 10 seasons.
“I’m glad I made the choice,” Woodson said. “It would have been great to have stayed there, but I wouldn’t have met all the people I know now. If I would have stayed in Pittsburgh I would have lost out, so my life experiences have definitely grown a great deal.”
What has also grown is the number of rings on his fingers.