Woodson's connection to Green Bay endures

Legacy of former Packers cornerback lives through family ties, influence on former teammates.

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A hole in the wall next to Cherry and Washington streets is Green Bay’s last connection to Charles Woodson. His name and business is written on the glass front of Cover 2 Sports Bar and Lounge. His game-worn jerseys – college and pro – hang on the walls.

Two trophy cases behind the bar are a collage of Woodson’s football career. Among the mementos, a poster captures his path. It shows Woodson winning the Heisman Trophy, playing for Michigan, hoisting a football with the Green Bay Packers, smiling with the Oakland Raiders.

There’s a Packers helmet in the top-left corner. A Raiders football in the top right. Each item includes a personalized autograph. Ask the owner what’s his favorite piece, and the answer is easy. Sweep down to the other side of the bar, to the second trophy case.

That’s where the real prize hides in this joint.

“Defensive player of the year,” the owner says as he removes a signed plaque given to Woodson when the former Packers defensive back won the award in 2009. “This is it. Everyone wants one.”

Out the front window, you can see Heritage Trail. There’s a small team flag hanging next to one trophy case. “Go Pack,” the owner says. You’ll find Jordy Nelson and Sam Shields’ autographs in here. Eddie Lacy’s college jersey from Alabama is tucked safely away.

Everything about this place feels like a Packers bar. So it’s striking to see the owner wear a black T-shirt with “Raiders” written across the chest, even though it shouldn’t be. This is Green Bay resident Jonathan Patton.

He’s Charles Woodson’s younger brother.

Always connected

Here is the last family member left in Green Bay. The last bridge between Woodson and the town he called home for seven years. On Sunday, Patton will fly cross country to watch the Raiders host the Packers inside Oakland Colliseum. He’ll meet with family after the game.

Then he’ll return here. Back to his business. Back to his life.

Woodson says he doesn’t need his brother living in Green Bay to feel connected to the city. This is where his hall of fame career blossomed. He won the Super Bowl. Became the best defensive player in the world. He was married here. His youngest son was born here.

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Wes and Ryan discuss the Packers' upcoming reunion with former teammate and current Raiders safety Charles Woodson. (Dec. 16, 2015) Weston Hodkiewicz and Ryan Wood | Press-Gazette Media

Green Bay, in some way, always will feel a little bit like home.

“I’m always going to be connected,” Woodson says, “regardless of if my brother is there or not. There’s always going to be love between me and Green Bay.”

The sentiment didn’t exist one decade ago. “Apprehension,” Woodson says, was the feeling when he arrived before the 2006 season. Green Bay was nothing more than a frozen, icy hell in Woodson’s world. Small town. Small team. Small market.

He wanted no part of it.

Patton watched his brother become fond of the city. He would visit when he could, when his own basketball career wasn’t keeping him on the road. After five years in the NBA Developmental League – “I’ve got the hops in the family,” he says – Patton came searching for opportunity in 2009.

It was a November trip six years ago Patton credits with changing his life’s course. Woodson had three tackles and a defended pass against the San Francisco 49ers, among his quietest games in a season for the ages.

Patton left with a business lead.

He shared a suite with Greg Santaga, owner and president of Green Bay Packaging. They swapped life stories over four quarters. Patton made an impression. Santaga, Patton says, offered a chance to learn the business side of manufacturing. It was the opportunity he hoped to find.

He didn't move to town to be close to his brother, Patton says, but proximity didn't hurt. Life in Green Bay is good when you're related to Charles Woodson. His brother signed an extension after Green Bay won the Super Bowl in 2010. Woodson was perhaps the most universally respected player in the Packers locker room.

Patton will never forget Feb. 15, 2013. There was a warning his brother might be cut, he says.

“I knew what he wanted,” Patton says. “He wanted to be here. He had dedicated himself to being here in Green Bay. To me, it was just very shocking because of the relationship that the Packers and Charles had. I didn’t see him being released after the extension they gave him.”

The Packers didn’t give Woodson a chance to renegotiate his contract. Patton still remembers Woodson telling him he’d be in Green Bay all by himself.

Impossible to replace

Woodson still gets angry sometimes. Someone will mention his release. Another scab is opened.

He found a familiar setting in Oakland, the team that drafted him No. 4 overall in 1998. The Raiders were a natural place for Woodson to prolong his career. Doesn’t make up for how it all ended in Green Bay, where Woodson thought he’d retire.

“I guess I ain’t ever getting over it,” Woodson says.

He isn’t alone.

Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. says Woodson is one of his best friends. It wasn’t always that way. Whitt is two years Woodson’s junior, and it isn’t easy for a younger coach to handle a legend. Over time, Whitt proved himself. His opinion of Woodson never changed. He knew Woodson would be the greatest player he’ll ever coach. After the fact, Whitt says, he believes Woodson is the most complete cornerback in NFL history.

When Woodson left, Whitt says, the gulf in the Packers’ secondary was impossible to fill. They had 11 interceptions in 2013, tied for 26th fewest in the NFL. Their pass defense ranked 27th. For the first time in franchise history, safeties had no interceptions through an entire season.

The Packers kept searching for another Charles Woodson. Eventually, Whitt says, they realized nobody could replace him.

“It was sort of unfair to the guys who followed him,” Whitt says, “because we wanted Charles Woodson-type play, and there’s only one of him in the world.”

Woodson says he “paid close attention” to the problems in the Packers’ secondary. When they cut him, he says, the message was clear. In his mind, general manager Ted Thompson was telling him there was a better alternative on the roster. When it turned out there wasn’t, Woodson noticed.

He let the slight stoke his fire. Around the league, he remembers, teams weren’t exactly knocking down his door with a contract to sign. He was 36 years old. Ancient for an NFL defensive back.

The old vet wouldn’t hear it. He deflected the doubts with his play on the field. Even in one of the most decorated careers a defensive back has ever had, his second stint with the Raiders is remarkable.

Woodson, a Swiss-army knife for the Packers defense, switched to playing safety full time. He has started each of his 45 games in Oakland over the past three seasons. He has added 10 interceptions to his career total, five this season.

“I think 'surprising' would be tad bit disrespectful to Charles,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers says. “The surprising part is that most people don’t think that defensive players, kind of after the middle 30s, can still play. But obviously he’s played at a high level. There’s been a couple of guys over the history of the league who have been able to play at this kind of a level this late in their careers. That’s really impressive to see.”

Unexpected renaissance

There is at least one person who’s surprised. That’s not the word Raiders coach Jack Del Rio uses Wednesday morning. The first-year coach has as much respect for Woodson as anybody. Up close, he has seen the magic this year.

But, Del Rio admits, Woodson’s renaissance season wasn’t what he expected when the Raiders hired him 11 months ago. Woodson had four interceptions last season, but at 38 was an age where even the greatest defensive backs wear down.

Maybe Woodson would make it through another season, Del Rio thought. No way he’d pick off enough passes to be tied for third league-wide.

“I don’t think you can expect it,” Del Rio says.

Each week, Woodson shows his new coach more. Del Rio remembers when the Raiders played the Browns in September. Woodson dislocated his shoulder two weeks earlier, and it hurt. He was supposed to have a “ceremonial start” against the Browns, Del Rio says. They’d yank him soon after kickoff.

Woodson played 70 snaps against the Browns. Down a touchdown and driving inside the final minute, Browns quarterback Josh McCown had a receiver alone on the right sideline. Woodson sprinted in front of the pass for a game-winning interception.

His first pick of the season snapped the Raiders’ 11-game road losing streak.

“I think from the time I left,” Woodson says, “I felt that I showed not only Green Bay, but people in the NFL period. There wasn’t people knocking my door down to play for them. They weren’t the only ones who felt like I was pretty much done in the NFL. Each time, each year I’ve come back, I feel like I’ve proven not only to other people but to myself that this is what I was supposed to be doing.”

Woodson had four interceptions over a three-week span. Through the shoulder pain, he kept playing. Across the country, he’s still mentoring.

When Packers cornerback Sam Shields was knocked out of a game in Denver last month and missed the following week at Carolina, Woodson called Whitt. They talk every week, Whitt says. This was different. Woodson wanted his former position coach to pass along a message to Shields.

“Hell, Sam, I’m hurt too,” Woodson wanted Whitt to relay. “If I can play, you better play.”

Shields returned the next week against Detroit. Through his shoulder pain, he held Lions receiver Calvin Johnson to two catches for 32 yards.

Whitt says there’s “no question” Woodson’s influence lingers through the Packers’ locker room. In the offseason, he shows younger cornerbacks film from Woodson’s prime. This is how you press a receiver, he’ll say. This is how you anticipate a route. This is how you tackle. Whitt says Woodson’s film from 2009 is as good as he’s ever seen.

“Probably the thing that I respect about his game more than most,” Whitt says, “is he truly loves the game. That’s why he plays so hard, and he plays so passionate. He’s not doing it for the money. He could really care less about it. He does it because he’s a very prideful man, and he loves to play.

“It bothers him when people don’t think he’s the best. It really bothers him. He goes out there and tries to prove he’s the absolute best at what he does.”

Some see football as a business. A man who views the game so personally? A man who still hasn’t gotten over his release three years later? Woodson, his brother knows, wants nothing more than to beat the Packers.

Maybe Jonathan Patton can bring back a piece of that game to Green Bay. He already has an open spot along the far wall of his bar, next to his brother’s Packers jersey. There, he says, he wants to hang a Raiders jersey that reads “Woodson” across the back.

He hopes to get it signed Sunday.

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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