Hall-of-Fame coach Jimmy Johnson liked to get his assistants involved in the scouting process.
It was running-backs coach Joe Brodsky who campaigned for Emmitt Smith in the first round in 1990 and offensive-line coach Tony Wise who pushed for offensive tackle Erik Williams in the third round in 1991. Smith became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and Williams the best right tackle in the game.
Brodsky and Wise were among the assistants Johnson brought with him from the University of Miami in 1989 when he became head coach of the Cowboys. Dave Campo was another. He tagged along as a defensive assistant before his promotion to defensive backfield coach in 1991. As a young coach new to the NFL, Campo kept his mouth shut and listened.
In 1992 as the Cowboys were preparing for the draft, Johnson sent Campo to Arizona State with a list of players to watch at the campus workout. Cornerback Phillippi Sparks, who projected as a first-round pick, was at the very top and further down the list was an undersized linebacker who walked on at Arizona State and never made All-Pac- 10 in any of his four seasons. But regional scout Jeff Smith was keen on his potential and Johnson wanted a second set of eyes on Darren Woodson.
But Woodson was no one’s priority. That became apparent to Campo sitting in the film room that morning listening to scouts from a host of NFL teams talk about what they were seeing on tape.
“One of the scouts says, `I don’t know about this Woodson because he never hits anybody,’ ” Campo recalled. “I’m looking at the same player and thinking, 'This guy is 6-1 ½, 218 pounds and runs pretty good. They’re all running away from him and he’s still getting in on a lot of tackles. He’s not touching any linemen … but he’s just running around like crazy. He’s not the primary tackler but he’s all over the place.' ”
His workout later that day changed Campo’s focus. Woodson ran a 4.38 40-yard dash – unusual speed for a defensive player that size. Campo also remembered what Johnson told him at the start of the draft process.
“The NFC East is a power league – a run-first, bloody-your-nose league,” Johnson told his defensive backfield coach. “We don’t have a big strong safety. So in order to succeed in the East we need to find that guy.”
So after Woodson finished all of the linebacker drills at his pro day, Campo asked if he and Detroit assistant Len Fontes could work him out as a defensive back. Campo liked what he saw and reported back to Johnson that Woodson would be a great special-teams player for the Cowboys with the potential to play as the nickel back because of his speed.
On the day of the draft, at the start of the second round, Johnson summoned Campo to the draft room.
“Tell me about Woodson again,” Johnson said.
Campo gave Jimmy his special teams/nickel back spiel once again and then added, “’If we’re looking for a big strong safety, we might just hit a home run with this guy.’ So, to my surprise, Jimmy takes him at the top of the second round.”
That was surprise No. 1. Woodson led the team with 19 special-teams tackle as a rookie and did play as the slot corner, occasionally drawing Jerry Rice in coverage in the showdown games against the 49ers, as the Cowboys won their first Lombardi Trophy of the decade.
Surprise No. 2 came that offseason.
“Jimmy came to me and said, `Woodson is starting at strong safety for us,’” Campo recalled. “Now I wasn’t real excited about playing young guys at the back end and said, “I don’t know…’
“Jimmy looked at me and said, `Dave, Woodson is starting at strong safety.’ I looked at him and said, `Jimmy, that’s exactly what I was thinking.’ ”
A home run indeed. Woodson became one of the greatest defenders in franchise history and potentially one of the best in NFL history. Woodson is one of the 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.
Woodson played 12 seasons and became the franchise’s all-time leading tackler with 1,350, topping the 1,236 of legendary middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. Woodson became a three-time first-team all-pro, a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time Super Bowl champion. This is his fifth turn as a semifinalist still looking for that first trip to the finals.
In his first three seasons as a starter, Woodson lined up at safety on the first two downs and then moved to a cornerback position to cover the slot receiver on third downs. He intercepted 23 passes and broke up 95 others in his career. He also picked off three passes in the playoffs, including one from Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre. Woodson returned two of his interceptions for touchdowns, including a 1994 theft of Randall Cunningham that covered 94 yards.
Woodson forced 17 career fumbles, recovered 11 and sacked 11 quarterbacks. But his forte was tackling. He posted eight 100-tackle seasons, 99 tackles another year and 97 in yet another. He collected a career-best 19 tackles in the 1993 season finale at the New York Giants that clinched the NFC East title for the Cowboys. He finished that season with 155 tackles, another career best.
Woodson played for five head coaches in his career, including Hall-of-Famers Johnson and Bill Parcells, and started alongside six different free safeties (Thomas Everett, James Washington, Brock Marion, Omar Stoutmire, George Teague and Roy Williams). He was the one constant at the back end of a defense that helped the Cowboys reach the playoffs eight times and win six division titles.
“Woodson is the kind of guy that makes this profession something you like to engage in,” said Parcells at Woodson’s retirement press conference in 2004. “He’s the epitome of a professional in every sense in how he played and approached the game.”
Woodson left Arizona State with a degree in criminal justice and brought brains to the back end of the defense in addition to his brawn.
“Woodson is a special cat,” Campo said. “He could do everything you can ask a defensive back to do – and he was a smart guy who lined everyone up for us. It went downhill for us when he was out of there. He was a great leader.”
A great leader indeed. Woodson won the Bart Starr Award in 2002 for “outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field, and in the community." He was inducted into the Arizona State Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. The Cowboys enshrined him in their Ring of Honor in 2015.
There is only one honor left for Woodson to claim -- and his career was worthy of that gold jacket and bust.