When Pittsburgh steeler cornerback Rod Woodson defines his ethnic background on questionnaires, he checks the boxes next to BLACK, WHITE and OTHER. The youngest of three brothers who had a black father and a white mother, the 27-year-old Woodson never has fit neatly into some of life's tidy little categories—whether they refer to something as sensitive as race or as trivial as football. While growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., he was the target of cruel taunts about his parentage, and as a young football player he was so versatile that his coaches couldn't settle on one position for him.
But today he is a proud husband and father in his own mixed family, and he's the rare cornerback who can stand up to the wave of outstanding receivers in the NFL. In fact, on most Sundays he outplays the receivers who come his way.
"I was taught to never back down," Woodson says. "When you're mixed, you have three options: stay in the middle, pick a side or stand on your own. My parents let me know I didn't have to pick a side, because I always had a friend in my family. I learned to stand up for myself and to never be afraid."
James Woodson, a black laborer from Tennessee, came north looking for work in Fort Wayne in the late 1950s and befriended Linda Jo Doerflein, a white woman with a middle-class upbringing who was working with the handicapped. They married in 1960, moved into a two-bedroom house in a predominantly black neighborhood near the projects and went about raising a family that would grow to include three sons, Joe, Jamie and Rod.
But the Woodsons did not enjoy a normal middle-America existence. There were times when Linda Jo was chased by Black Muslims while walking in her neighborhood, and once she was pushed down and knocked out. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and a local group called the Black Jesses made harassing phone calls to the Woodson house, but James downplayed the threats by encouraging his sons to make fun of the callers before hanging up. One of the racist groups went so far as to mail a package that contained a lock of blonde hair, an earring and a letter threatening Linda Jo with physical harm if she didn't leave her husband.
"The whites would call me mulatto, nigger, zebra and half-breed," Woodson says. "The blacks would call me yellow boy, white boy or mixed breed. I dated both black and white girls, and when I was with the white girls, I'd hear, 'Can you believe she's with that nigger?' I never knew who my true friends were, so I had to stick with my own. The only people I knew who were mixed, like me, were my brothers, and that made us a very close and protective family. No threats could intimidate our family."
Woodson's sense of his own individuality and his lack of fear have helped make him one of the premier defensive players in the NFL, as well as a superb kickoff and punt returner. He has been named to the last two Pro Bowls as a cornerback for the AFC, after having been selected to the 1989 squad as the return specialist for his NFL-best 27.3-yard kickoff-return average.
How tough is Woodson? During a game the only protection he wears, other than a helmet, are shoulder pads—nothing on his knees, thighs, hips, elbows, ribs or neck, not even a jockstrap or a cup. "To play cornerback you have to be the best athlete on the field," Woodson says. "You're all by yourself against a wide receiver. You have to run backward, which isn't natural, then turn and sprint as soon as the receiver makes his break, matching him stride for stride at top speed.
"If you want to be the best cornerback, you have to play like a linebacker, too. You have to take on pulling guards and tackles, and you must hit tight ends and running backs. Most cornerbacks, if they're honest, will say, 'I'm a cover guy. I don't want to get involved in contact.' You can't be passive. If you don't sell out on every play, you'll come up a play or two short."
Woodson, at six feet and 202 pounds, is built more like a running back than a defensive back. He has terrific speed—4.29 in the 40—with great explosiveness and balance, all of which he developed in training as a hurdler and sprinter. While at Purdue from 1983 to '87, Woodson was a four-time Big Ten indoor champion in the 55-meter hurdles and twice won the 60-meter-dash title. In the summer of '87, after only two weeks of training for the European track circuit, Woodson ran the 110 hurdles in 13.29, which tied the fourth-best time in the world that year.
However, he approached hurdling with a football player's mentality, running through the hurdles instead of clearing them cleanly. "In practice, blood was always streaming down his legs," says Purdue track coach Mike Poehlein. "He had scars all over his knees. Most hurdlers would call for medical attention, but Rod wouldn't stop until practice was over. If you could strap a heart monitor on him before an athletic performance, you'd find that his pulse doesn't go up."
But Woodson's heart did race early in his pro career, when he was still learning to perfect his play at cornerback. Accustomed to being the best athlete on his team at every level of football from the Police Athletic League through college, Woodson was never fazed by his coaches' penchant for shifting him from position to position as needed. Consequently he didn't master any one position. Even in his final game with the Boilermakers he played tailback and cornerback, returned kickoffs and punts and was on the special teams coverage units. He rushed for 93 yards, caught three passes for 67 yards, made 10 tackles, forced a fumble and returned two kickoffs for 46 yards and three punts for 30 yards in Purdue's 17-15 victory over Indiana.
But that iron-man feat didn't count for much in the summer of 1987, after Woodson had been drafted in the first round by the Steelers and it came time to line up at right cornerback, the position manned so brilliantly by Steeler Hall of Famer Mel Blount from 1970 to '83. "I was a nervous wreck," Woodson says. "I'd relied too long on my speed and physical talents, and I didn't understand the game."
Tutored by two Steeler coaches—Tony Dungy, now the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, and Rod Rust, now Dungy's counterpart on the New York Giants—Woodson learned how to dissect a receiver's game: How wide docs he line up? How does he come off the line of scrimmage? What are his downfield moves? Then he memorized the responsibilities at each of the other positions in the Pittsburgh defense and eventually picked up the nuances of opposing offenses.
"You've got to resign yourself to the fact that you can't stop the perfect pass," Woodson says. "Let the receiver catch the ball but then tell him, 'I'll be here all day. I'm not going anywhere. Next time you're going to have to pay.' You've got to respect wide receivers but never fear them. If you fear them, you'll lose."
Here's Woodson's take on some of the NFL's best receivers:
•Jerry Rice, San Francisco 49ers: "It has been said Rice can't be covered man-to-man, but I say, Why not try? Why be afraid of a receiver? The best way to play Rice is to be physical, to run with him and make him work. Push him down the field. Jam him in the face. Let him know you're there. And tire him out."
•Art Monk, Washington Redskins: "It's hard to play Monk physical because he loves to push you. He understands the little things you can do that are illegal, and he gets away with them. He loves to throw an elbow to the chest, which throws off your leverage, and he has an excellent swim move, grabbing your jersey and throwing you back to get around you."
•James Lofton, Buffalo Bills: "You've got to respect his speed. I've watched film and said, 'He can't be that fast.' Then last year he burned me for a touchdown on a takeoff. First and foremost, play the deep ball with Lofton, then try to jar it loose. He's getting up in age, maybe his body can't take the pounding."
•Michael Irvin, Dallas Cowboys: "Michael's the hardest receiver to tackle because he's so big [6'2", 199 pounds]. Most smaller receivers, like Ernest Givins of Houston, aren't strong; you can manhandle them. But Michael can manhandle DBs. He has slapped me back two or three times."
•Webster Slaughter, Cleveland Browns: "He doesn't respect defensive backs. He rolls the ball back in your face after a catch. He'll spike the ball after a 10-yard out. He loves to talk trash. Get him frustrated before he gets you frustrated."
Woodson comes by his elevated, but healthy, self-esteem from his parents, who gave him plenty of love, attention and positive reinforcement. A factory worker at International Harvester by day, James took his sons along when he moonlighted as the cleanup man at four theaters in Fort Wayne. Linda Jo hop-scotched from one low-paying job to another, adjusting her work schedule to meet the children's needs. At various times she was a teacher's aide at her sons' elementary school and a volunteer homeroom mother. Linda Jo even served as a Boy Scout troop leader. "People always told me, 'You must have 16 children, of all different races," Linda Jo says, "and I'd say, 'No, I only have three.' "
The Woodson family suffered a traumatic loss in May, when James, 64, apparently recovering from brain surgery necessitated by an aneurysm, died several days after the procedure. He had developed a bacterial infection in his urinary tract, and it spread to his brain. James went into a coma and was declared brain dead.
While the Woodsons were waiting for a second and third opinion before deciding to have James disconnected from life-support equipment, Rod's middle brother, Jamie, 28, an aspiring actor who lives in Chicago, buckled under the emotional strain and got into a heated exchange with Rod at the hospital. Later Jamie marched into his parents' home, right past two police officers who had been called to help control the situation, and took two swings at his younger brother. Rod says he didn't retaliate, but as the police tried to calm Jamie, there was pushing and shoving, and Jamie and Rod were arrested for allegedly assaulting one of the officers. A trial is set for Nov. 18.
Afterward Jamie admitted to Rod that the helplessness and frustration over the sudden deterioration of his father's condition had overwhelmed him. From Jamie's point of view, when Rod, the NFL star, was present at the hospital, the doctors seemed more forthright and attentive to their father. "If Rod had been there the whole time," Jamie still says, "maybe my father wouldn't have died."
"It was the first time Jamie ever told me how he felt about others treating me different from him," says Rod, who, when his father's prognosis had looked good after the initial surgery, had returned to his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wexford. "All my life I've known what it's like to be accepted not for what I am inside, but for what I look like or, later in life, for being a successful athlete. I told Jamie that I'm still the same person I was in diapers, and that I'd be his brother when football's over. Nothing can ever come between us."
Because of the love his parents shared in their 32 years of marriage and the strong family bonds that developed in the Woodson household, Rod was undeterred in 1989 when he fell in love with Nickie Theede, who is white. Now married, Rod and Nickie are the parents of two-year-old Marikah, with another child due in December.
"Any mixed relationship goes through more strain and, ultimately, more growth," Woodson says. "One day, Marikah got away from me at a playground in Pittsburgh, and I chased after her. Somebody yelled, 'Whose child is that?' She's so fair-skinned that when I said that she belonged to me, I got some funny looks, as if they didn't believe me. Society considers me to be black. That leaves out half my heritage, and that's not fair.
"I'll let Marikah know that there are choices you make in life, with friends and in dating, and I'll tell her that when people find out she's one-quarter black, they'll probably still consider her to be black. She too will find out who her true friends are, but that's a valuable lesson to learn. My parents never allowed me to get to that stage every kid of any color goes through: Who am I? Where do I fit in? Marikah will always know she's special and that she's an important person."