Growing up in North Platte, Neb., Danny Woodhead was so taken with football that just watching the game on television and playing it in the yard with friends wasn't enough. When he was five, he scrawled numbers on the backs of his cowboys and Indians and then spent hours moving the plastic figures around the floor of his bedroom in make-believe games. Once when his mother suggested that he find a more creative outlet for his energies, he drew a football field on the living-room carpet with a green marker.
Woodhead began playing organized football as soon as he was old enough, in the fourth grade. A few years later he joined his older brother, Ben, as a ball boy at North Platte High, where their father, Mark, was an assistant coach and where Danny would become a record-setting running back. "Football was the only thing I ever wanted to do," Danny says.
Lots of kids love football, of course, but few play it as well as Woodhead, a senior tailback at tiny Chadron (Neb.) State College, a Division II outpost about 300 miles north of Denver, on the western reaches of the Great Plains. On Oct. 6, in the fourth-ranked Eagles' 21-0 victory over Western New Mexico, the 5' 7", 200-pound Woodhead became the most prolific rusher in college football history, breaking the NCAA career record of 7,353 yards set in 2000 by R.J. Bowers of Division III Grove City (Pa.) College. Woodhead has rushed for 7,550 yards, and with four games remaining in the regular season -- and more if Chadron State (7-0) returns to the Division II playoffs -- he is poised to put the record beyond reach for the foreseeable future. No active collegiate rusher is within 1,855 yards of him.
Woodhead is the sort of talent rarely found in Division II. Quick and explosive -- last spring he was timed at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and his vertical jump is more than 33 inches -- he's a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Sixteen of his 96 rushing touchdowns have come on runs of more than 60 yards.
Nearly as impressive as Woodhead's speed is his physical style of play. "He's not an easy kid to bring down," says Eagles coach Bill O'Boyle. "Everybody knocks him because he's so short, but he has bigger legs than our linemen. There's no doubt in my mind that he's a Division I talent."
He may be more than that. "Can he play in the NFL? Without question," says Don Beebe, a former NFL wideout who starred at Chadron State and after whom the stadium is named. "If you're that good, they'll find you."
Woodhead is as surprised as anyone else by his sudden rise from small-college obscurity to NFL-prospect status -- he says he never thought of playing on Sundays until last year -- but he admits that it's intensely gratifying. Chadron State was the only school that wanted him. "My mom always told me there might be a reason I came to Chadron State," he says. "The way things are panning out, I think this is it."
Annette Woodhead believes in the power of prayer. Four years ago, when Danny was trying to decide where to go to college, she bowed her head and made a request: "Open the doors, God, to where you want him to go. Close all the others." Her prayer was answered. Danny had been named the 2003 Nebraska player of the year after leading Class A with 2,037 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns. But because of his size (he weighed 180 pounds then), Division I programs showed little interest in him -- Nebraska, where he'd always dreamed of playing, told him he was welcome to walk on as a kick returner -- and by early December his only scholarship offer had come from Chadron State.
The Woodheads had a history with the school, which has only 2,800 students and is located in a one-stoplight town of 5,600. Annette had graduated from the college, as had Mark, who was a wide receiver for the Eagles in the late 1970s. And their son Ben, who is 22 months older than Danny, was entering his junior season at Chadron State as a wideout. That meant that Danny would be able to line up with his brother (and best friend) during his first two years with the Eagles. The boys had grown especially close while being homeschooled until the ninth grade -- along with two of their other three siblings. "We were going to homeschool them for only a year," says Annette, "but the relationships that came out of it were so priceless that we kept going."
Danny's full scholarship was the first Chadron State had offered in its 96-year history. "It was just our way of showing Danny how important he was to our program," says athletic director Brad Smith, who was the Eagles' head coach at the time.
Woodhead had an immediate impact. In his first game, against Minnesota-Duluth, he rushed for only 28 yards, but one of his nine carries went for a 16-yard touchdown. "You could see right then that he was playing at a different speed," says O'Boyle. By the end of his freshman season Woodhead had run for a Division II-best 1,840 yards and 25 touchdowns. Last fall he became the first collegian to run for more than 2,700 yards in a season and won the Harlon Hill Trophy as the top player in Division II.
Woodhead is ideally suited to the Eagles' zone-read offense. He is small enough to get lost behind his linemen and quick enough to burst through a hole. "The poor linebackers can't see him until he's right on top of them, and by then it's too late," says Smith. "It's almost not fair."
It would have been easy for Woodhead to stir up jealousy or resentment on the team -- after all, he'd jumped past two seniors to the top of the depth chart by the second game of his freshman year -- but he defused the situation by keeping his head down and his mouth shut. Those are rules he adheres to today. "He's just not a cocky kid," says senior wideout Landon Ehlers, who shares an off-campus house with Woodhead. "Danny would be the first to say that he'd sacrifice that record for a national championship."
Woodhead still burns at the memory of the Eagles' 28-21 loss to second-ranked Northwest Missouri State in last year's Division II quarterfinals, a game in which he rushed for a career-low 16 yards. And he takes no consolation in the fact that he led the team with 10 catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns. It is because of that loss -- and not, Woodhead insists, because he hopes to play in the NFL -- that he dedicated himself to off-season workouts designed to increase his speed and upper-body strength. "I wanted to leave no doubt this year," he says.
NFL scouts are bound to take notice anyway. There is nothing slight about Woodhead's frame. Indeed, he looks as if he was constructed out of concrete blocks. The next level is within reach. "Honestly, I think he's faster now than ever," says O'Boyle. "If he gets invited to the [NFL scouting] combine, I think he's going to open some eyes." Not that he hasn't already.