It's only on a football field where Danny Woodhead weekly stands out as the most unlikely of highlighters, etched against a panorama of enlarged NFL humanoids. Where he regularly ducks beneath the swat of defensive linemen, a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, to churn out a few more yards. Where blitzers don't even see him until he blocks them to the ground. Where he skirts out of the backfield, outruns a linebacker, jukes a cornerback, and gains another 10 yards.
Where, as he did on Monday night on his 50-yard shovel-pass, backbreaking scamper against the Jets, you just know New York's defenders were thinking, "This troll couldn't possibly move this fast." Or when, against the Colts a few weeks ago, a few minutes after skittering for a 36-yard touchdown, he made the tackle on the ensuing kickoff, playing special teams, flattening Brandon James the way a bowling ball on amphetamines might flatten a chipmunk on Quaaludes.
Admit it: you don't just love Danny Woodhead because he's the underdog, the little guy who grew up in a Midwestern town best known for its railroad freight yard (and the nearby Museum of the Fur Trade); was then snubbed by home state University of Nebraska despite being named the state's high school player of the year; attended a college named Chadron State with a stadium capacity of 3,000; and then went undrafted despite winning Division II's Heisman two years in a row; and was then waived by the Jets three months ago, despite, in training camp the year before, running for 158 yards and two touchdowns in an exhibition game.
No, you love him because he plays football like a grunt from the mercenary NFL of the 1940s. Balls out. Gimme your best shot. Two go in, one comes out. And it's usually Woodhead who comes out.
This year, plowing, cutting, catching and sprinting, he's averaging 5.4 yards a rush and 12 yards a reception, with four touchdowns thrown in. Like so many of Bill Belichick's no-name pickups, Woodhead is providing the no-name mortar to the big name Brady-Welker-Branch bricks in another season of Patriot overachieving supremacy. And his teammates are enjoying the show as much as we are.
"It's cool to watch him go out there, play at full speed, break tackles -- and make all these big people miss," says rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who, like Woodhead, has blossomed under Bill Belichick's find-a-player-to-fit-the-scheme formula. "Everyone likes watching him play. He's so quick, finds the holes. Does what he's told to do, does it right, and does it consistently."
Woodhead does it all consistently enough, with at least one spectacular head-shaking play per game, to have just been awarded a contract through 2012 that (with incentives that no one now doubts he'll meet) is worth more than $3 million -- which isn't small change for a small guy who, three months ago, with a pink slip from the Jets in hand, was driving back home with his wife to Nebraska in his '08 Tahoe. Without a job.
So is he now going to upgrade the ride?
"Nope -- no way," Woodhead says, his eyes low-lidded, his face routinely expressionless. Every now and then, his joy at being in dreamland comes through, and a smile creases his little-kid face, the grin like an explosion. You might have glimpsed it on the sideline against the Jets (four catches, 104 yards) when a teammate came by to slap his shoulder pad. You get the feeling that his high school buddies see this grin a lot, back home in North Platte, where he's just Danny Woodhead.
But trust me: We won't see the unguarded glee too much in the camera-lit near future, as Woodhead goes from anomaly to spotlight. Surrounded by media in this plush locker room (not just a locker room, but the Patriots' locker room, where the first thing rookies are shown on an indoctrination tour is the Patriot emblem, the way a rookie Egyptian pharaoh might be shown King Tut's mummy) Woodhead's face is intentionally impassive, as if to deflect any and all attention.
As if somewhere deep down he doesn't entirely trust all of this attention. As if, having nurtured his college craft playing against teams like the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers and the Washburn-Topeka Ichabods, the sudden spotlight, the sudden impulse of take-myself-too-seriously, might prove to be a Samson haircut.
"Why get a different car?," Woodhead says. "I'm tellin' you man, I'm going to be the same person I've always been."
So the sudden money means nothing?
"Unh-unh. Not at all," he says. "That's not what I'm playing for. You know what I'm sayin'? It's my job. I'm older now. And I'm married, and I need a job. The money is not something I think about. It's not something I ever want to think about. That's not what I'm about. That's not who I am."
So who is he? Home-schooled until high school. One of five children of a phys-ed teacher/football coach and a stay-at-home mom in North Platte, Neb., a freight-train town that calls itself Rail City, USA. A kid whose idea of the good life outside of football is spending time with his wife, and talking to his parents and his four siblings just about every day, and getting home whenever he can for a round of golf or video games with his brothers.
"We're all pretty tight as a family," says Woodhead's mother, Annette. "We don't even look at Danny as a football player. He's our kid. Football is his job, but we look at him the way we always did -- as our son. We've told all our children their whole lives: 'Your sports do not define who you are.' That's a whole other ballgame. In sports, you can be loved today, and not tomorrow. You'd better have something more solid. So when the journey is over ... Danny will be OK.
"He's who he is, and who he was three years ago. He's a little boy playing a game he loves. I think that's why people have fallen in love with him: he's real. I think he has a good head on his shoulders. His dad's his hero. He loved growing up with a dad who's a teacher. He loves that his dad loves what he does, which is loving the classroom, and loving his kids."
"We have relationships with one another," says Mark Woodhead, the father who coached him in middle school and would regularly drive 14 hours to see Danny play, whether it be against Mesa State College or Abilene Christian. "You know, the way you develop a relationship is spending time with your kids. You didn't care if your kids are athletes. You want them to enjoy what they were doing, whether it was playing the piano or football."
As a senior at North Platte High, where Woodhead would set every record the state could come up with, Iowa, Wisconsin and Colorado invited him to their camps. But the Big Boys lay too far away, and scholarship money was a pipe dream. Nebraska? Sorry, kid: You can walk on ... as a kick returner. Truth is, despite your speed, despite your size, despite these insane numbers, you're too small.
Woodhead's brother was a junior wide receiver at Chadron State, a school named for a French fur-trapper, in the Nebraska Panhandle. Student size: 3,000. Stadium capacity? About the same, except in Danny's years, when the overflow added 1,000 more or so. Freshman year, in his first game he gained more than 300 yards. Second year, word began to travel: Who is this kid? After the third year, when he'd averaged more than 200 yards per game, he won the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II Heisman. By the end of his fourth year, when he won the trophy again, he'd set the alltime yardage record for the NCAA in any division.
He and his brothers twisted the football off the top of one of his Harlon Hill trophies and used the base as a stool for three-way video game tournaments. Which more or less sums up Danny Woodhead's regard for glitz.
On NFL draft weekend, Danny was happy to get a call from the Jets after the final round: Come on in, as an undrafted free agent. But he tore an ACL in his knee before the first exhibition game and sat out the year. He came back in 2009, found a place on the practice squad and got activated for a few regular-season games. He came back in 2010 -- and was waived.
"I've coached football for 28 years," says his father today, remembering the Jets' decision. "The NFL is a mystery. It's a business."
The Jets had one slot left, and two running backs on the bubble. The journeyman Woodhead, who despite weighing a solid 200 pounds, with a sprinter's speed, had played college ball against Fort Lewis, Nebraska-Kearney and Adams State. The other candidate was a running back the Jets had traded up to snag in the fourth round, a guy named Joe McKnight, who had rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a senior for USC. He was 6-feet tall. Case closed. The Jets kept McKnight, who, as Jets fans now know all too well, has turned into a forgettable bust. He failed a rookie conditioning test. At last reckoning, he'd rushed seven times for 31 yards this year.
The Woodhead kid? The Pats signed him a few weeks later. Cynics have said that Belichick picked him up to gain informational WikiLeaks insight for the Patriots' game in Week 2 against the Jets. The truth is, he flew into Boston a day before the Jets game, without having talked to anyone on the team. It was just a typical Belichick move. After trading Laurence Maroney, Belichick needed a backup third back behind Kevin Faulk and the undrafted BenJarvus Green-Ellis. When Faulk went down with a season-ending injury, the kid from Rail City stepped up -- and began to step out
"Well, I always thought that if I could get a chance, I really thought I could play at this level," Woodhead admits now, reluctant to praise himself. "I was just hoping for an opportunity. My size? Does it work against you? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not worried about whether it worked against me or for me. It maybe could have ... not going to a bigger school. But I wouldn't trade my four years in college for anything. I loved it. I met people that I'll be friends with the rest of my life. That's more important than football. They treat me like Danny, and always will. They know I'm not any different because I play in the NFL. They know it's not going to change me."
So how has he gone from a too small also-ran to a versatile almost-star? Playing against defenders twice his size? He lowers the eyelids a little more.
"Honestly, you can't do it alone," he says. "You can't do it without those other 10 guys. That's my strength. I have bigger guys on my side, too. You gotta think about that. The other people on the field. I might make a play one time, but there're 10 other guys who are helping me. It's not about one person. It's about a team, and what they can do. It so happens that maybe I had a touchdown or something like that, so I was the one who people saw, but there're 10 other people out there."
And if you continue on this path? Become an actual superstar?
"It's not going to change me," he says. "That's the truth. This is a team game. And that's what awesome about it, having everyone work together, toward a goal."
The quotes sound cliched, don't they? Scripted, robotic. Not a single word of resentment? Not an iota of ego?
"He says all the right things," says Mark Woodhead, the father, the man who flew in to see his kid seize the Colts game, the man who knows that the kid is all right. "But it has nothing to do with what he's been told. He just knows.
"I'm very proud. But you know what? I'm proud because he's a good kid. He's a citizen. What he's doing for the Patriots? Icing on the cake. I guarantee you that in North Platte, we have not erected a shrine for what he's done. He wouldn't want us to.
"Danny is one of my kids. His best friends are his two brothers. He's just another guy. We have five kids. They look for role models, like any kid. And if you have one who just loves sports, then all the more power to him."
Danny doesn't have kids yet. So when I ask him, "How do you want your kids to think of you?" he takes a second to answer. But when he does, the words have weight.
"I don't think I'm going to want them to look at me as a football player," he says. "I'll want them to look at me as their dad. This is my job. Not who I am. I don't look at my dad as a teacher or coach. I look at him as my dad. And the kind of man he is.
"I'm hoping that's something I'll be able to do. Think of me as the type of man I'm going to be. Or will be. Or was."