Charles Woodson said he’ll be back for the 2012 season, but he hasn’t put an expiration date on his career. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
The 1997 Heisman Trophy.
A national championship at the University of Michigan.
Eight Pro Bowls.
The 2009 NFL defensive player of the year.
Super Bowl champion.
With that kind of résumé, what others think should be the least of Charles Woodson’s concerns — but it is. Constantly.
The Green Bay Packers start their run for a second consecutive Super Bowl title on Sunday against the New York Giants. Their all-world cornerback desperately wants another ring. But it’s also a chance to affirm a rarified legacy.
“That’s why I play like I play,” Woodson said. “Because when people watch me play, I want them to say, ‘Now that’s how you play football.’ Every time I step on the field, every time I strap ’em up, I’m going out there to make an impression on people about how I play football and my passion for it. And how much I love the game and how much I’m willing to sacrifice out there for my teammates and our coaches and this team.
“I think about it all the time.”
The NFL has crowned back-to-back Super Bowl champions just eight times since the 1966 regular season. The Packers have the opportunity to become the first since the Patriots in 2003-04 and only the second franchise, along with the Steelers, to accomplish the feat twice. Woodson is very aware of the historical significance for the team and himself.
“If you win two, now you’re on another level,” Woodson said. “Now you’ve done something that only few have done.
“Every year, somebody’s going to win one. To go back and win again just puts you in a whole other stratosphere.”
The journey has made Woodson especially appreciative. There are scores of veterans in the league with a bag full of individual awards that toil away on subpar teams. Woodson could have been one of them. He was drafted No. 4 overall in 1998 by the Raiders, was named NFL defensive rookie of the year and was a first-team All-Pro three times. The team went 40-28 in the first four seasons — then 26-41 over the next four. A slew of injuries, including a broken shoulder, broken legs, turf toe and rib issues, dulled the white-hot start. His skills were questioned.
Woodson became a free agent in 2006 and teams weren’t exactly scrapping for his services. He wasn’t initially thrilled to land in Green Bay. He called those last years in Oakland the most frustrating of his career.
“When you’re on a good team and part of a good organization and you are continuously in positions to play for what you play the game for — and that’s the Super Bowl — I mean, it’s kind of like a rejuvenation,” Woodson said. “When you’re winning, it’s just fun. All the bad things don’t matter. You play through everything because you know you have an opportunity to win.
“We know every time we step on the field we have a really good chance to win.”
The obsession with winning is nearly compulsive. Everything comes back to that. But all those individual trophies aren’t sitting on the curb. Woodson ranks No. 2 in NFL history with 11 interceptions returned for a touchdown and openly wants to surpass Rod Woodson’s record of 12.
“They mean more now because I won the Super Bowl,” Woodson said. “To win those individual awards and things are good. But to me they’re nothing without the hardware, the Lombardi, the ring.
“Now that I’ve won that ring, all those things are great. I love ’em. I can go back and say that I did this, did this, did that because I was on a great team that went on and won a Super Bowl.”
The Lombardi Trophy has allowed Woodson to go from a great player with Hall of Fame credentials to a virtual shoo-in. He’s the unquestioned defensive leader of the Super Bowl champs with all the intricacies that takes a man’s legacy and turns him into a legend.
Woodson has his “Remember the Titans” moment — an adrenaline-pumping postgame speech after winning the NFC championship, telling teammates in the locker room, “If the president doesn’t want to come watch us in the Super Bowl, guess what? Guess what? We’ll go see him!” Months later he stood next to the leader of the free world as President Barack Obama admitted, “I’ve learned something that every NFL quarterback knows: Don’t mess with Charles Woodson.”
He has the humanitarian efforts. Woodson has been heavily involved in the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital, including a $2 million donation in 2009.
He’s one of those athletes that stops a room with his presence.
“As a leader, he’s the epitome of leading by example,” Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “He’s not really going to say too much.
“I want to be like him when I grow up. I always make that joke.”
Woodson hasn’t said too much about his defense that ranks last in the NFL in yardage allowed. The Packers, to a man, are quick to point out points allowed and wins are the only thing that matters — and they are 15-1. But believe that’s not how Woodson chooses to go about business.
“As a guy who has been part of this defense when we played great then not to have that … that hurts,” Woodson said. “Because I feel like we’re better than the times we’ve gone out and given up the yards we’ve given up. Nobody’s happy about it.
“We’re all trying to play better because we know if we hold up our end, then our guys on the offense are going to do their thing.”
And because he needs that ring.
The saying goes, Father Time is undefeated and chases down every athlete at some point. Packers receiver Donald Driver has 13 seasons on that body and has said he wants to play until he’s 40. He and Father Time are fighting every day.
Woodson said he’ll be back for the 2012 season, but hasn’t put an expiration date on his career. He doesn’t even want to talk about a move to safety, which can add years to a cornerback’s career.
“I think I play enough (safety) now,” Woodson said with a laugh. “I do a lot of different things on the football field. When I look around the NFL, I don’t see there being so many different corners better than I am. So that means I’m still playing this game at the highest level that you can play it.
“So, there’s definitely no immediate thought of moving to safety. Continue to play where I’m needed and we’ll go from there.”
As of now, it’s all about rings and legacy.
Rings and legacy.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @kareemcopeland.