'Walking legend' Woodson returns to Green Bay
Eighteen months have passed, but Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy still remembers the conversation with general manager Ted Thompson.
An era had ended. Charles Woodson, the Packers' most important defensive player this side of Reggie White, was cut with two years left on his contract. His release was both dollars and sense. Woodson missed nine games with a broken right collarbone in 2012. In 2013, at the age of 37, he would count $10 million against the Packers' salary cap.
The cold, calculated business of the NFL bends for no one, not even an eight-time Pro Bowler and former league defensive player of the year. That unwritten rule didn't make the decision easy.
It remains one of the hardest days of McCarthy's tenure.
"When Ted and I sat down that day and the final decision is made, you go back to his first year and everything that was accomplished since then, and just how the whole dynamics of our football team changed," McCarthy said. "I mean, Charles was the NFL defensive player of the year. He had incredible success here.
"So yeah, definitely. That's definitely one of the tougher ones."
Woodson returned to the place his career started, signing with the Oakland Raiders last season. For the first time since his release, Woodson will play at Lambeau Field when Oakland travels to Green Bay for the third preseason game at 7 p.m. Friday. With retirement inching closer, it could be a final chance for fans to say goodbye.
A few "thank yous" would be well-earned.
"It'll be great to be lined up there in front of the Green Bay fans," Woodson told reporters in Oakland.
In 100 games stretched over seven seasons with the Packers, Woodson compiled a Hall of Fame résumé. He was one of the NFL's greatest playmakers, with 38 interceptions, 15 forced fumbles, 11½ sacks and 10 touchdowns (nine off interception returns) in Green Bay. No defensive player in the league found the end zone more often.
McCarthy isn't the only one with fond memories of Woodson. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers called Woodson one of his "all-time favorite teammates" earlier this week.
"Probably the most talented guy, most dominant player that I've played with during his stretch, from his time he got here until he left," Rodgers said. "I mean, he was so dominant in the secondary. ... He's a future Hall of Famer. I'm proud to be able to say I played with him, won a Super Bowl with him. He was a humongous part of that, and I really miss his presence around here."
Rodgers said Woodson played an invaluable role in his development.
When he first entered the league, Rodgers practiced against Woodson every day while quarterbacking the Packers' scout team. Nothing like starting a career competing against a cornerback with 56 career interceptions. After Rodgers was promoted to starter following Brett Favre's departure, he continued taking reps against Woodson.
A friendship struck over time, two great players appreciating the other.
"I learned so much from him," Rodgers said.
For each on-field lesson, nothing enlightened Rodgers more than watching Woodson lead the team. The presence he brought inside the locker room, the way he made everyone on the Packers' defense better, went beyond the numbers.
Perhaps Woodson's greatest contribution to Green Bay came in the Soldier Field locker room following the Packers' win over the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFC championship game. Rodgers retold the tale Tuesday of one of the most famous postgame speeches in franchise history. Woodson vowed the Packers would go see President Barack Obama — the Bears' unofficial First Fan — if he wouldn't go see them in the Super Bowl.
"White House on three," Woodson finished.
"Charles is a better speaker than I am to the team," Rodgers said. "I mean, he had an incredible ability from the first time he really got in there until he was done with us of being able to command the room. Charles had that presence when he walked into a room that — there's something with the energy and the charisma that he has — that he could really get everybody's attention and guys cared about what he said."
His words carried weight because few players performed at a high level longer.
Packers linebacker Brad Jones never told Woodson how much he meant to him. Inside the locker room, such sentiments usually go unshared. But when Jones was growing up in Lansing, Mich., during the 1990s, he wore the No. 2 jersey on his middle school football team. It was the same number Woodson wore while winning the Heisman Trophy at Michigan.
"I remember everything," Jones said. "I followed him for a long time. Again, things I've never told him — I hate that I'm saying this now — but I always looked up to him for a long, long time. I think the way he carried himself and the way he played, how he finished, I think it was easy for everybody to kind of look up to him.
"Somebody who is doing everything right — who'll study the film and then go out there and produce. He didn't make a big deal about it. The guy walked around here like it was nothing."
Jones said he and Woodson kept in touch over the past 18 months, but there's more than 2,200 miles between Green Bay and Oakland. Tonight, the distance will disappear. Jones is looking forward to sharing a stadium with Woodson once again.
"Going from your idol to your friend is a cool thing," Jones said. "He's a walking legend. It'll be really good to see him."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.