Ickey woods is about to do something crazy. Thirteen days before the Super Bowl, 24 hours after leading the Cincinnati Bengals to the AFC championship and less than 2½ days before he has to be back in Cincy for practice, he's light-footing it onto a jet bound for Fresno, Calif.
It makes no sense—after spending a little less than 48 hours in California, he'll have to fly all night to be back at work in Cincinnati by 9 a.m.—but Woods just has to get back and kick it with his home boys, to transport to Fresno the glory he has wrought, to try it out, like buying a new hat and hurrying home to see it in the bedroom mirror.
But halfway there—somewhere over Kansas—Woods starts to fret. What worries him isn't seeing his mother or his six aunts or his mortician uncle. It's seeing the home boys, his old gang cohorts, the Godfathers, a spin-off of the huge L.A. Bloods gang. "There's nothing left for me in Fresno but trouble," he says. "A lot of my friends are on the pipe [smoking crack] now. Some of them, they got all brown teeth, real skinny, look like nothing. Some of them used to play football real well, but they got into selling that dope, making that fast money and....
"Sometimes you hate to go back. Everybody's trying to ride my jock [to exploit my success] now. And when you try to keep movin', they're like, 'Oh, you think you're too good for us now, Home. You think you're too this and you think you're too that.' I don't have time for that now."
Could these be his home boys, his podnahs from the 'hood he had so much fun with in high school? The ones he would walk the mean streets with until somebody hollered, "Yo! Here comes ol' One-Time!" when they would take off running?
One-Time was what the home boys called the police because everybody knew you could beat the cops a million times, but all they have to do is beat you one time.
You like Woods' quick feet now? You should have seen them then. "I never got arrested," he says. "If you could catch me, you were doing something good." Didn't matter if he had done something or not, he would run just the same. Besides, a good percentage of the time, he had done something.
Ickey and the home boys didn't do crack and they never carried guns, though some of them, including Ickey sometimes, wore red Bloods rags sticking out of their back pockets, identifying them as kin to that notorious group. It did get pretty crazy, beating people up, breaking into cars and homes—"rippin' and runnin'," as they called it.
They didn't do much with the proceeds except buy cases of beer. "We just did it for the fun and games," Woods says. "Car stereos. Or going into houses when nobody was home. Most places we broke into, somebody had left the windows cracked. Or some people would just go off and leave the door open. The types of neighborhoods we vandalized, they were the types of neighborhoods where people thought you could leave the door open."
Ickey's mother, Sylvia Taylor, had taken him to places like that when he was a kid. She would pack her whole welfare family—Ickey, his older brother, Rodney, and his younger brothers, Al, Cameron and Leonard, and his younger sister, Starr—into the car, take them to the nicest houses in town, the ones along Van Ness Extension, and say, "Someday, if you work hard, you can have this too."
Or, back in their home in the ghetto along South Fig Street, she would herd them to the front window—"my visual aid," she calls it—and point to a world of crackheads and murderers, thieves and bums, streets where, says Ickey, "every night you'd hear ambulances, police sirens and gunshots." And she would say, "You can do better than this."
But until two years ago, there weren't many who figured Ickey ever could.
"It's the ugliest dance in the history of the NFL," Houston Oiler cornerback Patrick Allen has said of the Shuffle. "Yeah," Bengal wide receiver Cris Collinsworth replies, "but it's so bad it's perfect."
There's something about this particular touchdown two-step that seems truer than the dances done over the years by Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, Butch Johnson, the Smurfs or anybody else. Those seemed to have been choreographed by some Madison Avenue agency. Woods's seems genuine: two steps this way, two steps that way. Repeat. Shift the ball from hand to hand as you change direction. Hop thrice. Spike behind you with your right hand. Raise your right index finger, gyrate the finger and your hips, lean back and shout, "woo-woo-woo."
"Ickey, that strange, simple dance you do, it isn't too hard," said 80-year-old Bengal owner Paul Brown to him in the locker room one day this season. "You probably think an old guy can't do it." Whereupon the old guy did it—and announced that his wife, Mary, liked to do it too.
It was Bengal coach Sam Wyche who hinted in August that, in a conservative Midwestern town, Woods might be better off without his five-inch Jeri-curled ponytail. It was Brown who insisted he keep it. Didn't Thomas Jefferson have a ponytail? Besides, the 22-year-old, 231-pound rookie running back says it makes him feel like Samson. "I cut it off once in college, but I wasn't producing the way I knew I could," he says. Now, 1,066 regular-season yards and 15 touchdowns later, the 'tail is so big in Cincinnati, Woods thinks, "Sam might grow one himself."
Woods, whose real moniker is Elbert, got the nickname Ickey when he was an infant because Rodney couldn't pronounce Elbert. It came out "ee-ee," which eventually became Ickey. Whatever he's called, he's the blast of fresh air the NFL has been yearning for.
Take, for instance, the Bengals' divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. Woods's pants sustained a large rip right on one cheek, yet he played three more quarters without changing them because "they were comfortable." A headline writer for the Dayton Daily News called the performance A BUM'S RUSH.
Or take what Woods wears around town. Dark glasses? Disguises? Get serious. Try a Bengals' warm-up jacket with his number and a huge ICKEY WOODS on the back. Why try to act cooler than you are?
Or take his wife, Chandra. When she and Ickey went to Cincinnati this season with two kids—five-year-old Jermaine (Chandra's) and two-year-old Amber (theirs)—plus a girl, already named Jasmine, due in March, they were unmarried, though they had plans for a big wedding this summer in Fresno. Unfortunately, no girlfriends or fiancèes are allowed to attend Bengal team functions. Well, Ickey and Chandra wanted to attend, so they went anyway. They told everybody they were married. Even last week Woods was telling reporters that he was married "five months ago." Actually, he and Chandra were married secretly on Nov. 15, 10 games into the season, in their living room, in front of one witness.
Of course, at first the Bengals didn't figure that their second-round pick would be around long enough to make the team, much less functions. Sure, he had led the nation in rushing his senior year at Nevada-Las Vegas, and with grit, at that; he needed 184 yards against Northern Illinois in the last game of the season and got 186. But there was a rap about his attitude, and he came to his first Cincinnati minicamp looking slow and wearing huge gold chains, long hair and an eight-pound tire around his middle. He went out and pulled a hamstring on the first day and couldn't practice the rest of the camp. Hello, Pete Johnson.
But that's where Woods confounded the Bengal staff. Instead of moping, he stayed up nights studying the Cincinnati offense. When he returned for summer camp, he was in shape, knew the offense and eluded defenders as though they were One-Time. "If you run the ball like that," Bengal guard Max Montoya told Woods during an exhibition game against the Kansas City Chiefs, "you're going to make a lot of money in this league." Recalling that moment, Montoya says that "Ickey's eyes got real big." Soon, Woods was leading Cincy in putting Astroturf behind him.
Then came a fateful night, just before the Sept. 25 game against Cleveland. Woods and his mom, who was in Cincinnati to visit Ickey and Chandra, were playing some music—Bobby Brown's My Prerogative—and were "just acting crazy," Ickey fondly recalls. Soon he started scratching out those historic steps. "When I score tomorrow, I'm going to do this dance in the end zone," he said.
"Boy, you better not," said Sylvia, putting her hand to her face.
He did it. People stared, then laughed. "They said it was unblack, had no rhythm," says Woods. He didn't care. He kept doing it until they started saying, "Let me try that." Now there are a dozen different Ickey Shuffle T-shirts (Woods gets a percentage of the sales on each) and four Ickey Shuffle songs. One goes, in part, like this:
He shakes it to the left
He sweeps it to the right
He dances in the end zone
Like his underwear's too tight.
And, of course, there's the Ickey Shake served at La Normandie, a Cincy restaurant. You take ice cream, Midori liqueur and Tuaca liqueur, eat the ice cream, drink the liqueurs separately, and then shake. This puts a grin on the faces of a lot of Bengal fans as well as that of Woods, who figures if he weren't in Cincinnati, "I'd probably be dead." You know what he's thinking now, up in that plane? He's thinking that Andre should have gotten out, too. Andre Horn was his teammate at UNLV, an outside linebacker, Woods's best podnah. At college, before Horn "got in a little bit of trouble back home" in Fresno, he and Woods would sit up late at night as Horn tried to get Ickey not to quit the team because he wasn't starting. "He'd say, 'Man, you know you can make it. I know you can make it. Just hang in there, man. It'll happen.' " That would get Woods's spirits up again, and he and Horn would start thinking big, talking big, about the NFL.
"Man, if you don't make it, then I got to make it," Horn would say. "And if I don't make it, then you got to." These were two Hall of Fame-caliber optimists. Woods was a junior and not even starting. Horn, who had been starting at outside linebacker, actually had a better chance to make the NFL. Dorm-room dreams. "We had a deal," says Woods. "Whoever made the Super Bowl first, he had to fly the other one down."
But at five o'clock one summer morning before Woods's senior year, the phone rang. Horn was supposed to have stopped by Woods's house the night before, but he had never made it, and Woods had gone to bed. Now a woman friend of Horn's was on the phone, telling Woods that Horn had been shot. Woods started trying all the hospitals, asking if an Andre Horn had been admitted. Finally, the switchboard operator at one said, "Try the morgue."
The police report said the shooting was drug related, but Woods didn't need to read that to know it. All he had to do was go to his uncle's mortuary and see Horn lying there, throat slashed, his body riddled with 19 bullet holes.
Three weeks later, Woods's 16-year-old half-brother Leonard was fatally run over in Compton, Calif. The driver was so drunk that after the collision he accidentally backed over Leonard again.
Friends on crack, a friend's dying, a brother's dying. "That was the turning point in my life," Woods says. "I sat down and took a deep look at myself: 'Is this the way you want to go? Or do you want to make something of your life?' "
That was easy. He had to make something of it: Made a promise to Andre.
The question was how. At UNLV he had yet to become a starter. "I had one year to make my dreams come true," Woods says. But when the Rebels' backfield coach. John Montgomery, challenged him to follow each of his instructions to the letter, wonders happened. Montgomery taught Woods discipline. When the Bengals played the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 8, Montgomery was in the stands at Riverfront Stadium, his plane fare and his game ticket and his smile all courtesy of Woods.
Woods has settled accounts with everybody else who stuck with him too. He married Chandra and made a home for the kids, even though his own father bolted when Woods was a child. "Kids need to hear a man's voice around the house," he says. "I think it's important to take care of them. It's not their fault they're here."
He bought his mother a Mercedes Benz and a huge condo in Fresno filled with furniture. They're talking about his moving her to Cincinnati and buying her a house there, too. Oldsmobile is about to give her a car for appearing in a TV commercial in which she and Ickey do the Shuffle. There were days in the past, she remembers, when she wouldn't eat for "two and three days," just so her children would get enough to eat. "Now it's time for her to get paid off," says Ickey.
The only paying off Woods can't do is his half of his deal with Horn. "Andre would be coming to the Super Bowl right now," he says. "We'd have had a nice time together in Miami. He'd love to see me doing well."
To make up for it, Woods says he's going to bring back something commemorating the Super Bowl and leave it at Horn's gravesite. Still, that won't make the chill go away. He longs for those midnight talks in the dorm. "I sometimes get the feeling he's watching me, that he's checking out everything that's going on," Woods says. "Like he's up there saying, 'Yo, man, you're doin' all right.' " So sometimes, when he's all alone. Woods sits down in a chair and talks right back to Horn. The last time, this is what he said:
Yo, home boy. I just wanted to sit here and kick it with you for a while. I wanted to tell you that it's been a wild year. I'm sort of a folk hero right now with the crazy dance that I came up with. People doin' it everywhere. Goin' to the Bowl, my home boy!
So anyway, I wanted you to know that it worked out just like we said. One of us made it, man.