Danny Woodhead will begin retirement with a road trip from Baltimore to a suburb of Omaha, Neb., with his wife, four kids and two parents in tow. They’ll celebrate Easter together and then meander back to Woodhead’s home state, making stops along the way at kid-friendly places like an indoor water park. “We are not in a hurry,” Woodhead says. “I mean, I don’t have a job I have to get back to.”
Woodhead knows a little something about making the most of his journey. The running back retired last week after a 10-year NFL career with the Jets, Patriots, Chargers and Ravens that most would have deemed improbable because of his size (5' 8", 200 pounds) or his pedigree (a small high school in western Nebraska, and a small Division II college in Nebraska—Chadron State) or not being invited to the NFL Scouting Combine or going undrafted. But those underdog traits were exactly the things that made Woodhead a fan favorite, and he good-naturedly embraced the identity of the overachieving everyman who defied the odds with his #grit and scrappiness. Along the way, quarterbacks Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco fell in love with his versatility, he caught 300 NFL passes and he scored a touchdown in New England’s Super Bowl 46 loss to the Giants.
His career was a rollicking ride, from being cut by the Jets to playing in a Super Bowl with the Patriots; to his years as a popular multiple-purpose back for San Diego, during which Oscar winner Anne Hathaway one time sported a Woodhead Chargers jersey while walking her dog. Before his family caravan officially pulls out of Baltimore, we asked Woodhead to look in his rearview mirror at one of the more interesting, entertaining, endearing NFL careers of the past decade.
THE MMQB:One week into retirement, how do you feel?
WOODHEAD: I feel awesome about it. There is a sense of a huge weight lifted off of me, but then there’s also kind of a sense of anxiousness because I feel like I’m supposed to be doing something. That’s the thing with the NFL, everything is regimented. It’s a whole new kind of freedom, so it’s going to be a little bit of adjustment which, believe me, I’m excited about. But right now, we’re in such a weird space, having to pack up stuff in the house, not really getting to experience what retirement is until probably about two or three weeks from now. But I can definitely tell there’s a weight lifted off my shoulders, and maybe that’s because of the weight of the decision—once I got released—on where I was going to go. That might be more of it than anything else. When you have four kids, that’s not an easy decision. My daughter would have to find a new school, and it would probably only be for six months, because more than likely at my age, people are signing to one-year deals, not long-term deals. All of that makes things uncertain.
I think that was weighing on me until I felt like I just had an overwhelming amount of peace. We prayed about it, and I really feel like God gave me peace and said, you know Danny, it’s time. Not that this matters, because I have never been someone to worry about this, but I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I feel like I had a great run. So I just felt an overwhelming amount of peace, and when I have that peace in any decision I make, I go with it and I trust it. Especially being a few days out now, because sometimes the first day is awesome, and then the next day you’re like, ahh, should I have done that? But I have nothing looking back; I’m not looking back at all.
THE MMQB:Ten years is a remarkable NFL career under any circumstances, but particularly for an undrafted guy from Division II Chadron State who spent his first season in the NFL on IR with the Jets back in 2008.
WOODHEAD: It’s kind of crazy how things have worked out. I didn’t get offered a Division I scholarship. I didn’t get an invite to the combine. I didn’t get drafted. I tore my ACL the second day or third day of training camp in New York. So then I’m undrafted, I’m a small white running back from Chadron State who just tore his ACL. Like, are they really going to allow me to stay around or are they gonna just cut me once I get healthy or give me an injury settlement? I didn’t know how all those things worked at the time.
I just remember driving to get my knee checked and telling my wife—we had been married two weeks at the time—“Hey, I’m done. I’m done playing. They’re not going to give me a chance.” Then probably 30 minutes later, I think I was praying about it, and I really felt God was telling me, no, you’re going to come back and you’re going to play. I thought it was absolutely crazy because that didn’t make sense to me, but I was like, OK. I don’t know how much I believe this right now, but I’m just going to trust it.
THE MMQB:And that’s what happened. You came back and played 10 games for the Jets the following season.
WOODHEAD: I come back, and I end up playing the next year, not a lot of playing time. Then the next year, I make the team for a week and get released. I was like, wow, I don’t really have a lot of running back film; I have a little bit of special teams film that I did all right in, but I wasn’t crazy unbelievable at. I remember driving back to Nebraska with my wife thinking, I might need to find another job soon. And yet again, God’s plans surprised me.
THE MMQB:The Jets cut you and the Patriots signed you one day before they were playing in New York. Everyone at the time was thinking, they picked him up to pump him for information about their rival team. Did you think that at all?
WOODHEAD: Oh, I 100% did. I was like, is this what it is? I didn’t know, because I’m sure teams do that all the time. But the thing that’s crazy is, they had already left for New York once I got there, and that made me feel a little bit better because then I didn’t have to get grilled by the coaches. Another thing that’s crazy is I probably wouldn’t have really played, but Kevin Faulk got hurt that New York Jets game. It sucked because I became buddies with Kevin, but it just one of those things where you’re in the right spot, right opportunity, at the right time.
I played the next week against the Bills. I barely knew the guys on the team, I practiced three days, I’m playing a game—and I score a touchdown. I remember sitting in our little extended stay room like it was yesterday, and my wife and I were just looking at each other, and I go, what just happened? Because life just went so fast those like nine, 10 days. It was a crazy amount of emotions, and you know all that, none of this would have happened if I wouldn’t have gotten cut after Week 1.
And you know what? My career might have looked a lot differently, just because I wasn’t getting much of an opportunity in New York. There were other guys, I guess; I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t the right deal. Obviously God had other plans, and I like to think that he made the move and put me in New England and that’s just what it was supposed to be. And then I really feel like from there on, my career just kind of took off.
THE MMQB:Just two months after you got there, the Patriots signed you to a two-year contract extension. Did you know that was coming?
WOODHEAD: No, that was kind of crazy. It was a crazy time, especially when I’m just trying to survive on a team and then to get something like that was a huge blessing. It was really awesome. My three years there seems like it was longer than three years, because a lot of people remember me [playing] there.
THE MMQB:How do you think the fact that Bill Belichick found this great role for you in the Patriots offense, and saw great value in having you on his team, influenced the rest of your career and players like you who could play similar roles on the field?
WOODHEAD: I’m sure it had some sort of influence. I’m so thankful for the opportunity I had there; I got an opportunity to play. It helped me moving forward because then teams knew what I could do. When I went to San Diego, they knew what I could do. So they just tried to plug me in in the same way. I think I was used probably even a little bit more in San Diego. It definitely helped me; as far as helping others, maybe, it might have. I know there’s always going to be a role for someone that can play third downs, play in the red zone, be able to catch the ball out of the backfield and be able to run. Those types of players, I think we’re seeing that that’s a pretty important role.
THE MMQB:When you weren’t drafted, got hurt, weren’t playing early on—did you have doubts about being able to make it in the NFL?
WOODHEAD: I didn’t know if I was ever going to get a real opportunity. I knew what I was up against. I knew that I was a Division II running back. I knew that I was a smaller running back, and I understood that it was going to take just getting the chance, and I didn’t know if I was going to get the chance. I felt like my ability was good enough, I just didn’t know if anyone was going to take a chance on me or believe in me. My belief in what I was able to do, the gifts that God gave me, that never wavered. I just didn’t think the business of the NFL was going to give me this chance, because the business of the NFL is different. People see it. There’s times when certain people play because it’s a business; they’re taken at a certain time, drafted at a certain time. And I get it. I understand that. If you’ve already invested a lot of money, people want to play those certain players. So I was a little worried that wouldn’t help me, the business of the NFL. But I was given the chance at a place where I don’t think the business gets really too in the way; in New England, it’s about, no matter what, finding a way to win games. And me getting that opportunity there was huge.
I’m glad that I stuck to this, that I always felt like an undrafted free agent. Even last year, even when I was in Year 6 or 7, after my biggest years, I still felt like an undrafted free agent. I don’t know if that was just me, because of how it’s always been and kind of always being looked over, but I always felt like someone was out to get me or out to replace me. And that played to my advantage. It’s not always a fun feeling, because you’re always paranoid that you’re getting cut. But I really believe that helped me throughout my career, and pushed me, and I didn’t ever want to say I didn’t give everything. If I worked as hard as I could, I felt like I’d at least have a chance. You never know in this business, but from Day One, I wanted to do everything in the world to make people look stupid if they cut me. I didn’t want to give them the chance to cut me, and if they did cut me, there is a chance they might not look right.
THE MMQB:You had a fantastic college career, setting in 2007 the NCAA all-divisions career rushing record with more than 7,000 yards. Were there a lot of NFL scouts who came through Chadron State?
WOODHEAD: There were some that would come watch me, but I didn’t even do my pro day at Chadron State. I did my pro day at the University of Nebraska. I didn’t get into the combine and thankfully Tom Osborne, who was the athletic director at Nebraska at the time, allowed me to do a pro day there. I don’t want to say it was a no-no there, but they didn’t allow people in, ever really, and I’m so thankful that he did. That’s another thing in my story that not a lot of people know. If it weren’t for Tom Osborne, I don’t know how likely it would’ve been either. My mom worked for his mentoring program, called TeamMates, some years before, so she knew Tom. Well, he always said if we ever needed any advice going through this whole process, so we went to him and said, what should we do? And he’s like, well, you can come down here. We ended up coming down there, even though it wasn’t something that they really did regularly. So, goodness gracious, I feel beyond blessed that Tom Osborne said yes to allowing me there and it ended up I think helping me a lot.
THE MMQB:And how about draft day? Where were you?
WOODHEAD: I was just at home in North Platte, Neb. Just kind of waiting. I can’t remember exactly, but I think there were 20-some running backs taken in the draft and so that was tough to see (Editor’s Note: There were 23). But you know, I’m OK with that. I would rather have been an undrafted free agent and sitting here in 2018 retiring, then getting drafted and being done in 2012 or whatever. I’m not holding any grudges, but it was tough to watch. But let’s be honest, that would kind of ruin my story, right? If I would have been drafted, it would have kind of ruined it. Almost against all odds, I feel like, all the time—that’s how my life has been. It hasn’t been the easiest when it comes to that, but that’s OK. That’s where God wanted me.
Obviously you can tell my faith is a big part of my life, so at the end of the day, even if I would have been undrafted, tore my ACL, and been cut, I still would have been OK because I was going to to be taken care of. Yes, it’s unbelievable that I’ve been around for 10 years and God’s allowed that. But if I would have never gotten a shot at the NFL, if I would have had a crappy college career, I still was going to have an awesome life, because I know God is in control. I know my life’s going to be OK; it may not be rosy all the time, because obviously as you’ve seen my football career work out, it’s not always rosy, but I’m always going to be all right.
THE MMQB:Some of the bumps in your career were because of injuries. Can you catalog all of them?
WOODHEAD: I tore my ACL, and then I tore my other ACL, so I tore both ACLs; broke an ankle, well, it was kind of like an ankle/leg; and I tore my hamstring this year. Then obviously, you play through a bunch of stuff ,too.
THE MMQB:Were injuries a factor in your retirement?
WOODHEAD: Ah, I don’t know. I mean, you think about that stuff, but even though I’ve had a lot of injuries, I do feel healthy; I do feel like I’m walking away from the game pretty healthy. I’ve had some major injuries, but there’s also guys that you see in the media who are continually getting scopes and all kinds of different things. In some ways, I kind of feel fortunate that mine were just those big ones, because it’s a bad thing but you get it fixed, and then you’re all right. My wife always says to me, when you do something, you do it big. I’m not going to sprain my knee, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll tear the crap out of that ACL. For a 10-year career, I did end up having four major injuries, but I’m blessed that I’m really OK.
THE MMQB:Most, if not all, stories about you include the phrase “diminutive 5' 8" frame.” How do you feel about being identified in that way?
WOODHEAD: I don’t care, because I’m not going to get any taller. I’ve never been tall, and I’m not getting taller. I don’t know if it’s just people wanting to identify with me. Maybe that’s what it is. I still feel well oversized when I’m around other people, though, because my thickness is … I mean, I’ve played at 200 or over 200 pounds for most of my career. So I feel awkward sometimes when we’ll be taking pictures with people and I’m like, gosh I look like … not like everyone else. I don’t love that. Now I can lose a little bit of weight. The 5' 8", 200-whatever, it’s not going to be a living weight, because I don’t need to be as strong as I have been, and if I keep the weight, that means it’s bad weight. So I’ll be able to get to a little bit more normal-sized.
THE MMQB:Through your career, do you feel like you were often judged based off of your height alone?
WOODHHEAD: Oh for sure. I mean to an extent, yes; I think there were probably some other factors. But that definitely was one of them. And that’s OK. Does it make sense to me? No, but I’m OK with it, because I mean, there’s not a lot of times that you’re like, I got an idea, let’s put our running back out wide and throw him a jump ball! No, that never happens.
So the people that said I needed to be taller just didn’t make sense to me. It’s kind of funny, because I think it’s a disadvantage to linebackers if there is a smaller back. If you ask any linebacker if they’d want to play a 6' 1", 6' 2" guy or a 5' 8" guy, I think we’d know the answer. You just can’t see us. The guys in front of you are 6' 4", 6' 5"; they’re blocking, so they’re not standing straight up, but they’re taller than me when I’m running. I think that’s why—that’s that’s not a talent I have, that’s just what God gave me. But I mean you look and there’s a lot of guys that aren’t that tall now playing running back. And I think it’s kind of a positive.
THE MMQB:Whether it was from Hard Knocks or your time with the Patriots, your story really seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Why do you think that is?
WOODHEAD: I’ve heard people say they relate to me because I’m not tall, I just look like your regular working man. I like that, because every single one of us, that’s what we are—we just play football. I want people to be able to relate to us, because we’re just football players. We’re the same as a construction worker, a hairdresser, a teacher or a doctor. We’re the same as everyone, except our jobs are being filmed nationally and millions of people are watching it and playing fantasy football.
We’re the most normal people. We have families, we have struggles, we have pain, we have happiness, we have joy. Even myself, when I was younger, I put these athletes on a pedestal, like they’re different when really they’re not. It’s the same struggles of life. Our kids get sick, which makes us get sick, which we pass on to other people. I mean it’s the same life, and I think hopefully that’s what people were able to see with me. I’m glad that people could in some way relate to me, that I was a guy people were cheering for, because it made it fun. You know there’s a lot of different jokes about it...
THE MMQB:“Grit,” “hustle,” “scrappiness,” to name a few...
WOODHEAD: Oh my gosh. So many jokes and so many different sayings. I always liked to play it up, because it kind of cracked me up. My 10 years, goodness. I’ll tell you what—I couldn’t have wished for a better career. Do I wish I would have won a Super Bowl? Heck yeah, I do. But I hope my teammates, fans, coaches remember me for the type of person I am. I hope people are like, man, he was a really good player. But I think the thing trumps that is I hope people appreciated the way I played the game, appreciated the way I treated people. Because 25 years from now, none of my teammates are going to care if I was good at football. None of my coaches are going to really care. I hope I made an impact much more off the field than I ever did on the field.
THE MMQB:There were some reports after you were released by the Ravens that the Patriots were interested. Did you consider going back?
WOODHEAD: My agent deals with all that stuff. The thing that’s crazy is, I looked at the big picture, and I just decided no matter where it was, I didn’t want to wait any longer; no matter what the offer was, I just I felt like it was time to go. I’m at peace with it, and I’m excited about it. I can’t tell you the excitement I have for the next chapter. It’s like it’s a newfound excitement.
THE MMQB:You have four kids aged six and under, so the younger ones especially won’t remember much of your career. What will you tell them about it?
WOODHEAD: My oldest will remember some. She gets it; she understands the whole deal. When I told her that we were retiring, she was about the happiest person in the world and so excited to go back to Nebraska. But, the thing is, I don’t want them to see dad as the football player. And I hope and pray that my oldest, who is understanding it, doesn’t see dad as the football player. I hope they see dad as the dad, and as someone who loves them unconditionally, and who will be there for them no matter what happens in their lives.