With two more games left in an 18-year Hall of Fame career, the Raiders defensive back is remembered for his quiet, determined commitment to excellence. Plus the Fine 15, where normalcy has finally settled up top
“Three players I hold in the same esteem: Junior Seau, Tom Brady and Charles Woodson. To me, Charles is the best defensive back of all time.”
—Former Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison on Monday night, after hearing that Woodson, 39, will retire at the end of this, his 18th NFL season.
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I wish I was writing this column with a CANTON dateline.
On a rainy early evening four days before Christmas, Charles Woodson, 39, sat down in the media room at the Raiders practice facility and told about a dozen Bay Area reporters Monday that he was retiring. “Thursday’s my last home game,” he said, with some emotion in his voice. He wanted fans at his last game in Oakland to know this was the last time they’d see him play football at the place where his NFL career began in 1998. As a Raider. In this coliseum.
In many ways, this was perfect Woodson. The public’s never known him very well, despite his incredible football life. (And yes, NFL Films. You can start doing the interviews around the league in the coming weeks for “Charles Woodson: A Football Life.”) He could have announced his retirement in some glitzy way, but he chose to share it with the beat people he saw most days. “No accident,” said longtime Raider beat man Steve Corkran. And this, from Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle: “I think he respects that we’re here every day, working.” The way Woodson was. As Woodson told the writers Monday: “You guys are the eyes and ears of Raider Nation, our Raiders community, to let them all know that 2015 is going to be my last season playing in the NFL.”
What an NFL career he’s had. What a football life he’s had. Woodson was “Mr. Football” in Ohio in 1994, after he rushed for 2,028 yards and scored 230 points, which is absurd, at Fremont High, halfway between Columbus and Ann Arbor. His old brother loved Michigan, so he picked the Wolverines, and played there three years as a defensive back and wide receiver and return man, earning all-America honors in 1996 and 1997. He beat out Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy in 1997. In the 1998 draft, he was selected fourth overall, by Oakland, and he bookended his career with the Raiders: very good, mostly, in 1998 through 2005 and good in 2013 through 2015 in Oakland. Better, in my opinion, with the Packers from 2006 through 2012. Eight Pro Bowl seasons, four first-team all-pro seasons. Fifth on the all-time interceptions list with 65. He picked off Jason Garrett and Warren Moon. He picked off Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.
Heisman winner. Defensive Player of the Year winner. Super Bowl winner. All-Decade Team (2000s) cornerback. Twice the NFL interception king. Tuck Rule Game combatant. And the only player in NFL history with at least 50 interceptions and 20 sacks. And Presidential jouster.
When President Obama, avowed Bears fan, said he’d host the Bears at the White House when they won the Super Bowl in 2010, and then the Packers beat the Bears in the NFC title game and won the Super Bowl, Woodson wore a jersey saying, “See you at the White House.” So Obama, when the Packers actually made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, said: “I have learned something that many quarterbacks have learned. Don’t mess with Charles Woodson.”
That season takes into account my favorite Woodson story. You may recall, months earlier, when Woodson, with two minutes left in the first half of Super Bowl 45, watched as Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw deep up the left sideline to wideout Mike Wallace. Woodson turned and was in stride-for-stride pursuit. Woodson dove trying to make a play on the ball, and he landed on his chest and left shoulder, cracking the collarbone. Woodson could feel he was badly hurt, but he stayed in one more play before the pain got to him. He went in for X-rays, and there was no doubt about it. Busted.
When Woodson found out the extent of his injury, he was inconsolable. The Super Bowl was the one thing in football he hadn’t won. “I haven’t cried that much in I don’t know how long,” he said that day.
But he wanted to address his team at halftime. Coach Mike McCarthy let him.
“You know how bad I want this, guys …” Woodson said, and that was it. Bawling.
At his locker, two hours after the game, and after reliving the moment time and again for all to hear, Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated and I were the last two reporters in the locker room. Woodson looked at us.
“Now I’m going to ask you for a favor,” said Woodson, who’d dressed all by himself until this moment. (I timed it. It took him 97 seconds to put on his black dress shirt.) The collarbone was not just chipped. It was broken all the way through.
Woodson turned his back to us, his left arm already through the sleeve of his black jacket, his eyes closing to help bear the pain.
“Help me with my jacket.”
Layden and I both reached to help him lift the jacket in position so he could push his uninjured arm through the sleeve. Woodson did it, and there he stood, the man in black, happy with himself.
“I’m a champion,” he said. “It’s all I ever wanted. We’re going to go see President Obama. I hope he’s got good doctors, in case I want to get a second opinion.”
He liked that one.
“I feel like I’ve reached my rightful place in history,” he said.
I asked him what he thought Al Davis might be saying tonight.
“‘I should have never let him get out of here,’” said Woodson, channeling his inner Al.
A couple of equipment men helped him pack up, and slowly, Woodson was out the door. As he left, he yelled a joke to one of the Packers’ team medics. “Hey doc!” he said. “If we had a game next week, would you shoot me up?”
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It’s not fashionable or even admirable to joke about shooting up people to play football anymore. But that’s the football ethos of Charles Woodson. He’s been playing with a shoulder that kept popping out—it happened again Sunday, and he went out for a few plays, then went back in the game against Green Bay—but he wouldn’t sit.
“I watched him on tape, and I could see him grabbing his shoulder all the time,” Rodney Harrison said Monday night. “He wasn’t 100 percent healthy this year. His shoulder was killing him. For him to give effort like that … I love him. I friggin’ love him. He gets me pumped up. He did what I could only dream about, to play that long. And at that level. To blitz, cover, tackle, hit, intimidate, teach the way he did. Fantastic. He is fantastic. Who is friggin’ tougher than Charles Woodson!”
I asked Harrison if he was sad Woodson was retiring.
“Sad?” he said. “No! I am very joyful. I didn’t want to see a guy who had such a great career hurt himself. I didn’t want to see him hurt for life. But what I will miss is his class. Never did he draw attention to himself. He just played. Now, a guy makes a tackle after a four-yard gain and he jumps up and says, ‘Look, world! Look at me! That’s not Charles Woodson. And that makes him even more special.
“I don’t even know him very well, but of course I will miss him. He’s an extension of me, Troy Polamalu, Rod Woodson, Darren Woodson, Ed Reed, Ronnie Lott, Steve Atwater. His desire is just like that. Playing with pain, just like that. But you take everything about him, at corner and safety, and I believe none of them can do what he did, all the things he could do, year after year.”
That’s Woodson’s legacy. Wouldn’t every player want that sort of legacy?
Now for the rankings...
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The Fine Fifteen
1. Carolina (14-0). Last week: 1. Regarding the public and media mayhem Monday over the bat brought to the sidelines of MetLife Stadium, and the unspecified threats made to Odell Beckham Jr. and the rumored slurs directed at Beckham: I don’t care that a bat was brought on the field, as long as there was never any indication that the bat was actually going to be, you know, used, on another human being during or after or before the game. The bat Reggie Bush brought on the field became a point of lore during the 2009 playoffs, and it was embraced by the public and the media during the Saints’ playoff run. Zero problem with it, unless it’s used in a threatening way. Now, regarding any threats or slurs used by Panthers: If it happened, let’s air the proof and bring it forward and see if it really happened. If there’s evidence it did, some Panther needs to be punished for it. If there’s a he-said, he-said story, then the league will have to adjudicate the outcome. And that’s it. One other thing, and it’s along the lines of something my father taught me: You are always responsible for your action. Always. I could never blame something I did wrong on something someone said or did that provoked me. Nine hundred times in my life, he said to me, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If someone said something to Beckham before the game that provoked him into turning into a total nut job for the next three hours, that’s on Beckham for being immature, not on a Panther for intimidating him before the game.
2. New England (12-2). LW: 2. I want the PSI measurements before, at halftime and after the Patriots-Titans game, and I want them now. In case you hadn’t heard, it was reported that the league was using Sunday’s game as one of the randomly chosen games at which the league would measure the PSI levels in all the footballs used. And with the conditions similar to those at the AFC title game last game, it’s only fair that the league, which preaches transparency, would disclose these measurements.
3. Arizona (12-2). LW: 3. The loss of Tyrann Mathieu to ACL surgery will mean Deone Bucannon will have to emerge as even more of a playmaker, all over the field at inside linebacker, starting Sunday against the Packers.
4. Seattle (9-5). LW: 4. Is it just me (and Mike Florio), or has Russell Wilson been a lot better since Marshawn Lynch went on hiatus and, later, Jimmy Graham was lost for the year? Asking for a friend.
5. Pittsburgh (9-5). LW: 5. Steelers passing game reminds me of the old Raiders, with two exceptions: Roethlisberger > Lamonica. Antonio Brown > Biletnikoff.
6. Green Bay (10-4). LW: 7. You can’t fool anyone, Aaron Rodgers. You’re really unhappy with the direction of the Green Bay offense. Don’t blame you, by the way.
7. Kansas City (9-5). LW: 8. Interesting to note that the Chiefs likely will be two or three wins better than the team they will play on the road in the first round of the playoffs (likely Houston). I will continue to say that’s wrong—a division winner being guaranteed playing a home playoff game—until they take the cold clammy fingers of mine off this keyboard.
8. Denver (10-4). LW: 6. Three straight second halves without scoring a point. That’s no way to stay in contention, Broncos.
9. Cincinnati (11-3). LW: 9. Cincinnati at Denver. Likely McCarron at Osweiler. Flip a coin.
10. New York Jets (9-5). LW: 10. For about the 16th time in 16 Bill Belichick seasons in New England, the Jets’ playoff fate rides on having to beat the Patriots to get in. Sunday at the Meadowlands, Pats-Jets. Be there.
11. Minnesota (9-5). LW: 11. Welcome to playoff contention, Teddy Bridgewater. You showed Sunday you’re going to do just fine.
12. Washington (7-7). LW: 13. Never thought I’d say this, but Washington might give someone a decent game in the playoffs.
13. Philadelphia (6-8). LW: 12. Moral of the story from Sunday: Don’t invite Chip Kelly and Snoop Dogg to the same Super Bowl party.
14. New York Giants (6-8). LW: 16. All of a sudden, some of the shine comes off the Sunday night game at Minnesota, unless Beckham wins his appeal. Which I doubt he’ll do.
15. St. Louis (6-8). LW: not rated. Pretty interesting: 3-1 in the division, with games at San Francisco and Seattle remaining.
Also receiving votes:
16. Atlanta (7-7). LW: not rated. Patience, Arthur Blank. Patience.
17. Houston (77). LW: not rated. Hard to muster up much excitement for the prospective AFC South winner.
18. Tampa Bay (6-8). LW: 14. Wait till next year, with an asterisk named Jameis Winston.
19. Oakland (6-8). LW: 18. Grasping at teams here.
20. Jacksonville (5-9). LW: 17. Emphasis for Blake Bortles in off-season throwing: Target your own guys in the red zone.
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