After seasons in shadows, Broncos' Woodyard emerging as playmaker
Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard has two rituals he follows before every game.
He prays three times: once before going out for warm-ups, again with his teammates and, finally, right before he takes the field for the game. He also texts five family members: his mom, Edna Rutledge; his dad, Wesley Woodyard Sr.; his older brother, Jazmon Griggs; his cousin, Derrick Kelley; and his fiancée, Veronica Whitehead.
The texts often vary, but his message to his mom usually is the same. He lets her know that he's going to make her proud.
After what Woodyard did in last Sunday night's 34-14 victory over Drew Brees and the Saints -- he had 13 tackles (9 solos), a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, two passes defended and a tackle for loss -- his family, friends, former coaches and every linebacker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame should have swelled with pride.
It was an extraordinary performance for any defensive player, much less for one who came into the NFL a little over four years ago as an undrafted rookie. This is how Woodyard explained it.
"It was one of those things where, throughout the week, you watch film and coaches put in plays and some of the things they've drawn up end up playing out the way you've been working on the whole week, and it just happens," he said. "Once you get going, you don't want to look back. You want to fly around and find that football and make something happen for your teammates."
A fifth-year player originally signed as a free agent after the 2008 draft, Woodyard has evolved from a reliably consistent special teams performer to a playmaking starting linebacker. He leads the Broncos in tackles (61) and has three sacks.
He got a taste of what it's like to start as a rookie, when he started six games because of injuries to other linebackers, but it took a couple of seasons before he started to get comfortable in the Broncos defense. Playing for three different head coaches (Mike Shanahan, Josh McDaniels and now John Fox) likely made his progress more challenging.
"But I always believed in myself that I could go out there and make plays," Woodyard said. "At the end of the day, I love the game of football. Whenever I'm out there on the field, I just play hard and I go 100 percent all the time."
Although Woodyard, 26, was considered primarily a special teams player when Fox took over as coach last year, he has changed the perceptions of both Fox and first-year defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Woodyard appreciates that Del Rio, the former head coach of the Jaguars, played linebacker in the NFL for 11 seasons. That adds an extra dose of credibility to his coaching philosophy. Woodyard said Del Rio is "not going to coach us up to where we're robots on the field. He wants everybody to fly around and make plays."
Del Rio has a mutual admiration for Woodyard. "He's done a good job. He's played well; he's practicing with intensity, which we like," Del Rio told Denver reporters. "He's done a good job playing for us in a role that's kind of gotten bigger than maybe he thought it would be entering the year and we thought it might be entering the year, but he's done a nice job of rising up and playing well for us."
While it took Woodyard a few years to prove he could be a starter, his leadership showed up almost from the day he arrived in Denver. This is the fourth consecutive year he has been one of the Broncos' captains. Previously, he was a four-year captain for the University of Kentucky and a captain as a senior at La Grange (Ga.) High.
His mother instilled the seeds for leadership in Woodyard, who says he is more of a leader by example than a guy who tries to stir up the emotions in his teammates with fiery speeches or animated dancing before a game.
"My thing is I'd rather show guys instead of talking about it and not doing anything," he said. "I think when you play hard and you know what you're doing, it makes it easier for your teammates to look up to you and respect you."
Former safety Brian Dawkins, who came to Denver from Philadelphia as a free agent in 2009, mentored Woodyard and helped him develop confidence in himself.
"He most definitely did," Woodyard said. "Just to hear him give me that confidence boost and telling me I can be a good player one day, and just work hard and never forget where I came from and what got me to where I'm at now."
Growing up in LaGrange, located on the western border of Georgia, about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta, Woodyard often was surrounded by family. Both his mother and father had six siblings, so you can imagine the passel of aunts, uncles and cousins whenever the clan got together for cook-outs.
Woodyard started playing football when he was six, following in the footsteps of his brother, Jazmon. "He was a much better athlete than me," Woodyard said. "I was the little brother who looked up to the big brother."
Ashante Woodyard, a cousin, also helped shape Wesley as a football player. Ashante played linebacker in junior college and cornerback at Purdue before getting a chance to go to the Steelers' training camp. "He was one of the guys who always found the football," Wesley said, "and that's one thing he told me about playing linebacker. Make sure you find the football."
At Kentucky, Woodyard earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors in each of his last two seasons. He played 47 games for the Wildcats, including 42 starts, and led the team in tackles in each of his last three years.
Although a couple of NFL teams called and told Woodyard they might select him, the 2008 draft came and went without him seeing his name scroll across his TV. Just when it looked discouraging, Woodyard received a call from the Broncos -- first Champ Kelly, one of its personnel men, and then head coach Mike Shanahan.
"It was just unbelievable that I got a chance to talk to coach Shanahan," Woodyard said.
"He said he had watched my film and believed I could be a guy who could come out there and make the team and contribute early. To get that vibe and that feeling from a well-respected head coach meant a lot to me."
Mixed feelings filled Woodyard on the day he made an early-morning drive from La Grange to Atlanta for his flight to Denver. He was excited but also anxious. It was dark and rainy as he drove up I-85, but finally the sun came out and Woodyard felt he was taking the right path.
"It was just a blessing that I was given a chance to play football," he recalled.
When Woodyard's contract expired last March, he had a chance to test the free-agent market. Instead, he signed a new, two-year deal with the Broncos -- "Denver came back to the table with an offer that was suitable and I agreed to it," he said -- and stay where his heart was. Woodyard said he loves everyone in Denver -- from the equipment manager to the general manager, and, of course, his teammates, many of whom called and urged him to come back to the Broncos.
"There were so many things that fell in line and made me come back," Woodyard said. "Champ [Bailey] called. He was like, 'Man, what's the holdup on your side of the deal? Come on back and play.' "
Although Woodyard had started only 16 games in his previous four seasons, he knew he would get a chance to win a spot in the lineup because weakside linebacker D.J. Williams was suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy (another three games were eventually added for another violation). To prepare for that opportunity, Woodyard took up a new genre of training.
At the suggestion of former teammate Andra Davis, Woodyard started taking boxing classes, working out at a gym owned by DaVarryl "Touch of Sleep" Williamson, a former amateur boxing champion who has 22 KOs as a pro. Woodyard worked out there three times a week for about two and a half months in the spring.
"It just taught me so much, really, to build on not giving up," Woodyard said. "In boxing, it's just one-on-one in that ring, and it tests your willpower. I never had a workout that kicked my butt every day, but that did."
Perhaps Woodyard entertains thoughts of boxing one day?
"Not at all, man," he said, laughing. "That's a sport I love to train in, but I definitely don't want to get in that ring. I have a new-found respect for all boxers."
And players, coaches and fans have developed an admiration for Woodyard. The Broncos list him at 6-feet, 229 pounds -- Woodyard says he's closer to 6-1, 230 -- and some observers used to think he was undersized for linebacker.
"It's a shame that with all this technology we don't have anything that measures the size of someone's heart," Woodyard said. "The way that I'm built, I feel like I can beat anybody. And that's not being overconfident. It's just believing in myself and never wanting to quit and never knowing what giving up feels like. Believing in yourself -- that's the biggest thing."
That's one message Woodyard doesn't have to text.