Charles Woodson isn't sure if he’ll return for a 19th season, but the 39-year-old isn’t ruling it out.
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Charles Woodson reflects on his football life—from falling in love with the game in the backyard, to winning the Heisman, to playing for Al Davis and the infamous Tuck Rule game, to winning the Lombardi Trophy in Green Bay. Will the elder statesman return for one more season—at least?

By Peter King
December 08, 2015

Charles Woodson is in his 18th NFL season and still playing at a high level, a fairly amazing accomplishment considering that he broke into the league when Reggie White won his second Defensive Player of the Year award and Randall Cunningham was the league’s All-Pro quarterback. The first player Woodson ever tackled in the pros? Andre Rison, who has been retired for 15 years. The MMQB’s Peter King went for a trip down memory lane with the 39-year-old Woodson and asked the question we all want to know: Will he be playing for the Raiders—or anyone—in 2016?

On knowing when he first wanted to be a football player

“Oh man, that is tough. The first time I said I wanted to be a football player … I grew up watching my older brother very closely who was a football player and a star in my hometown of Fremont, Ohio. My love of the game started early because of watching him. My neighborhood played a ton of football, pickup games outside in the backyards of the apartments where I grew up. And that’s where my love for the game truly developed—as a kid on the playground and watching my older brother.”

On choosing Michigan

“Oh, you’ve got to incorporate my brother again. My older brother was a huge Michigan fan. Fremont’s like the midpoint between Ohio State and Michigan. Because my brother liked Michigan, I liked Michigan, and by the nature of that, I didn’t like Ohio State. I took three visits—Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami. I took a visit to South Bend, but I wasn’t really feeling Notre Dame, so they were out of it. I really gave a lot of thought to Miami, but they at the time were actually going through some issues with the coaching. Dennis Erickson ended up going to Seattle, but I talked to him and he said he wasn’t going anywhere, so I gave that some thought. But Michigan was always going to be The One if I had that opportunity.

On winning the Heisman

“My sophomore year, I started to play a little bit of offense. A reverse here or there, a deep ball or whatnot during games that season. And then going into my junior season, there was a little bit of hype around me being a two-way player. I had been in some magazines, so there began to be a little chatter about me and the Heisman. So then we start out against Colorado, we have a huge game against Colorado, the first game of the season and I end up having an interception that game and so then the chatter started to heat up a little bit even after that first game. I continued to dominate on defense and then a couple of games I scored touchdowns on a screen pass against Baylor I remember, and I want to say a reverse against Minnesota, and then the one-handed catch against Michigan State. Once that one happened, I think people were like, ‘Oh wait a minute, this guy here is a serious contender for the Heisman.’ But I remember getting to New York for the ceremony and the driver at the time had a newspaper in the back of the car and I picked up the paper and there was this huge write-up on Peyton Manning, and I was reading it and I thought, ‘Oh wow, I don’t have a shot.’ It said all the great things about Peyton, that he came back for his senior year, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have a good trip with my family up there, and then we’ll go home.’ ”

On Al Davis

“The first thing that really caught my eye is it seemed like Al Davis knew everything about me. I mean everything—about my mom, my father, me growing up in Fremont, Ohio. And I was just thinking to myself, ‘I know people do their homework but it seemed like he knew everything about me.’ It was a little bit intimidating because this guy who I never met up until that point knew everything about me.”

On his Raider years

“I think I was a great player early on but I continued to get greater. When I talk about the early years in Oakland, I don’t want to take anything away from who that player was, because that player was still a heck of a player, that player was just young. I played off the field the same way that I played on the field. There was always that thing hanging over my head, I was the guy who loved to go out, loved to hang out, loved to be doing this or that so that kind of overshadowed the play sometimes. There were some instances off the field where I got into some trouble so that overshadowed it. Then I broke my leg twice, I hurt my shoulder, had turf toe, so there were injuries sprinkled in. So people would talk more about that more than anything I did on the field.”

On the Tuck Rule game

[Editor’s note: With 1:47 left to play in the 2001 AFC divisional playoff game between the Raiders and Patriots in snowy Foxboro, Oakland led 13-10 and Tom Brady dropped back to pass. To Brady’s right, Woodson came on a corner blitz. Brady pumped to throw, pulled the ball back, and Woodson strip-sacked Brady at Oakland’ 48-yard line. The Raiders recovered. The Patriots had no timeouts left. Oakland likely would have been able to run the clock out and win by running three times. But referee Walt Coleman reviewed the play and ruled that Brady was in the act of throwing. Instead of a fumble recovered by Oakland, the play was ruled an incomplete pass. The Patriots won in overtime, 16-13.]

“Yeah. [Sighs] Man, you just remember the continuous falling of the snow that day. It was really a great day for football. We got a kick out of the fact that it was snowing so much, and coming from the West Coast and we got to play in this snow game. It was snowing but it wasn’t really that cold, so everybody was out there and nobody was really worried about the weather that much. We were out there to win a game and we felt like we had a better team. On that play, we’re blitzing. I’m coming and I see him pump the ball and he brings it back in, and I’m like, ‘Wow, we’ve got him!’ I hit him and the ball comes out. In our mind, the game is over, we’re celebrating, jumping around, and then all of a sudden the referee says that the play is being reviewed. None of us could really understand why. What is to be reviewed? It’s a fumble—it was clearly a fumble. It seemed like it took forever. I’m not sure what the timeframe was, but it seemed like forever. I remember a couple of us on the sideline saying, ‘I think we’re about to get screwed here.’ ”

Charles Woodson says he has never spoken with Tom Brady, a fellow Michigan alum, about the Tuck Rule game.
Matt Campbell (top) and Boston Globe/Getty Images

How he felt getting on the plane home after that game

“Punch in the gut. Game ripped away from us. Still feel it today. At the time we’re like, tuck rule? What is that? Nobody had a clue about a tuck rule. And so then it’s like you are at the height of your positive emotion to all of a sudden that being ripped out from under you. Nobody on the team ever recovered quick enough to go out there and do what we needed to do for the rest of the game, because we felt like we got punched in the gut. So, they end up going down and tying the game up and the rest is history with Vinatieri kicking the field goal and the whole nine. Whenever you play the game, you just want the game to be on the up and up. You don’t want to ever lose a game because you felt like it was stolen from you. And we felt that way about it—and I know a lot of people still feel that way about it now. The only way to get over it a little bit is to say, ‘That was just that game and we would have still had to go on and win another two games. No guarantee we were going to win the Super Bowl.’ Give credit to them, they went on and won the whole thing.”

The feeling that never leaves you when you’re a Raider

“When you play for the Raiders and you play for Al Davis, it was always the talk that it was Al Davis against the rest of the league. Some of the calls that we would get, we would always say, ‘Oh we got that call because of Al’s relationship with the NFL.’ If there was any point in my life playing for the Raiders that I ever thought we got a call against us because of playing for Al Davis, that was the one, that one in Foxboro that night.”

On fellow Wolverine Tom Brady

“Brady is a good friend of mine. But I’ve never had that conversation with him—about that play. Maybe at some point, man, I’ll sit down with him and ask him, ‘Hey man, you thought that was a fumble huh?’ Usually when we talk it’s about other things, a text here and there about each other’s career and whatnot.”

On winning the Super Bowl with the Packers—and having broken his collarbone just before halftime

“I remember the play because one of our corners, Sam Shields, got hurt. I was playing at the nickel position, but with him out, I moved to the outside. On this play, I am on Mike Wallace and we all know he is a speedster. We take off the line and he is hauling so I am trying to do my best to keep up with this guy who is flying and I’m right with him and I turn around as the ball is coming. I thought I could get to it by diving. When I think about it now, I probably should have taken another step. But I thought I needed to dive to get to the ball and my arms were extended all the way out. I came down and when I hit the ground it was almost like I was landing on concrete. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know what was wrong and I actually tried to play the next play. They ended up taking me in and looking at the X-ray. I remember sitting in the room and the doctors went out to look at the pictures but they left me in there for what felt like too long. So, I get up and I peek around the corner to look at the X-ray and I can see it, plain as day. I saw the collarbone and I saw how one piece of the bone was separated from the other piece of the bone. I was like, ‘Oh my God, man, I can’t play!’ I’ve sustained a lot of injuries all over my body throughout the years where I could go out and still play, but I knew I was done at that point. Pittsburgh had caught a little momentum going into halftime so I’m like, Man, I’m not going to be able to be out there and help my team secure this victory. I was just devastated that I wasn’t going to be able to go out there to contribute on the field for the rest of that game. I just wanted the game to be over right then so I could know we had the Super Bowl won, but we still had another half to play. I tried to say something to my guys at halftime, like, ‘You know how much the game means to me, just go out there and get it done.’ I was way too emotional to say anything more than that. And then we got it done.”

On Rodney Harrison saying Woodson is the greatest defensive back of all time

“I did see that. Man, I read it and I guess I was just kind of stuck for a minute, because that’s kind of strong for someone to say that, especially an All-Pro safety, a guy who played this game for a long time, a champion. He’s a defensive back himself. He’s seen a lot of football, seen a lot of players, so there is a lot of validity to what he is saying because it’s not just some guy. I am very humbled by that statement, but at the same time, when you work hard at something and every week you go out …”

[Pause. Woodson seemed emotional.]

“He has that opinion and I’m sure there will be somebody else who will rebut him and talk about another player and that’s their right. But this is why you do what you do. This is why you get up early in the morning to work out or stay up late to watch film, why you make all the tackles that you can in a game, why you try your best to get the ball back for the offense, that’s why you do it, so other people have respect for what you do. That really means a lot. I want to prove him right.”

On playing this well—he’s tied for third in the NFL with five interceptions—at 39 years old

“I’m not surprised at all. I was born to do this.”

On if he’ll play another season, at 40

“It’s hard to say one way or the other. For one, I don’t want to feel like I am committed to one way or the other. If you say you’re coming back, people start talking and if you say you are retiring, they hold you to that. So I would rather just leave it open and then after the season relax a little bit, unwind and see where your mind takes you. I just want my mind to take me one way or the either at the end of the season. I’ll know it, whenever that time comes to make that decision and figure it out, in my heart I’ll know it.”