Hall of Fame Packers safety Willie Wood dies at 83
Willie Wood was a fiercely athletic safety for the Green Bay Packers whose interception in Super Bowl I remains a cherished highlight for the organization.
Wood died Monday at an assisted living facility in his hometown of Washington, D.C., the Packers announced. He was 83.
Wood had been suffering from advanced dementia for years.
“The Green Bay Packers Family lost a legend today with the passing of Willie Wood,” Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy said. “Willie’s success story, rising from an undrafted rookie free agent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is an inspiration to generations of football fans. While his health challenges kept him from returning to Lambeau Field in recent years, his alumni weekend visits were cherished by both Willie and our fans. We extend our deepest condolences to Willie’s family and friends.”
The dynamic Wood was regarded as one of the best defensive backs in NFL history, a player whose vicious hits and plentiful interceptions dominated an entire decade in the 1960s. He played 12 seasons from 1960-71 — all with the Packers — and ranks second in franchise history with 48 career interceptions (trailing only Bobby Dillon's 52). Wood is the Packers' career leader in punt-return yardage with 1,391.
Wood was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
“The game has lost a true legend with the passing of Willie Wood," Hall of Fame President & CEO David Baker said. "He had an unbelievable football career which helped transform Green Bay, Wisconsin into Titletown U.S.A. Willie was a rare player who always fought to be a great teammate and achieve success. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent and became one of the greatest to ever play the game. The Hall of Fame will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration to future generations.”
Wood's streak of 166 consecutive games played ranks fourth behind quarterback Brett Favre (255), offensive lineman Forrest Gregg (167) and long snapper Rob Davis (167), a testament to the durability and attitude Wood hoped would define his game.
“Determination probably was my trademark,” Wood said. “I was talented but so were a lot of people. I’d like people to tell you I was the toughest guy they ever played against.”
Wood, who began his career as a quarterback, followed a circuitous route to Green Bay. A year of junior college in California gave way to a three-year career at Southern California with modest numbers and little national buzz. Wood went undrafted as an undersized black quarterback and relied instead on Bill Butler, his coach at the Washington, D.C., Boys Club, to write letters to pro teams campaigning on his behalf.
“Mr. Lombardi, if you could see this kid unshackled you would really agree with me,” Butler said in a letter to coach Vince Lombardi in December of 1959. “If you hadn't contemplated giving him a chance, just try him one time and I'll guarantee you'll be glad you did.”
Wood switched to defense and went through training camp with the Packers in 1960. He made the team as a rookie free agent and contributed immediately as a punt returner on special teams.
One year later, however, the legend of Wood was born. He replaced injured starter Jess Whittenton at safety late in the 1961 season and entrenched himself as one of the premier defensive backs in the league.
Wood made the Pro Bowl eight times in the next 11 seasons and led the Packers in interceptions five times. He earned AP All-Pro honors six times and was a unanimous selection in 1965 and 1966.
Wood retired after the 1971 season and took a job as an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers. He went on to become the first black head coach in professional football by taking over the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League in 1975. Five years later he became the first black head coach of the Canadian Football League as well.
“The thing is, my dad never wanted to leave football,” Andre Wood, a son of Willie’s, told The New York Times in an article published in 2016. “He needed a stable way to make a living. But I know he would have stayed in the NFL coaching track had he been asked to. But he wasn’t.”
DOUGHERTY: Willie Wood took safety road to Hall of Fame
Perhaps his finest moment came in Super Bowl I when the Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs. Wood undercut an ugly throw by Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson for an easy interception that, after a 50-yard return, set up a touchdown in what finished as a blowout win for the Packers.
“My dad was so proud of his Super Bowl moment, but I used to tease him about being tackled from behind on the play,” Willie Wood Jr. told the Times.
“And his response would be, ‘Yes, but I was there.’”
Wood, however, had no recollection of that play and hardly remembered his playing career at all. As detailed by the Times, the aging Wood spent the last decade in an assisted living facility in Washington. While he originally entered for chronic pain in his neck, hip and knee, Wood eventually developed dementia that sapped his memory and limited his cognitive functions.
He sometimes went days without speaking, according to the article.
“It’s difficult to not be able to talk to him,” Willie Wood Jr. told the Times. “He was a great father. As good an athlete as he was, he was 10 times that as a father.”
Wood often wore a Packers hat during his time at the assisted living facility, even though he could not describe the exact connection between himself and the organization. But Wood knew he loved football, and when a reporter from the Times asked if he would play the sport again if given the chance, Wood’s answer was simple.
“Without waiting even a beat,” the article said, “Wood firmly nodded.”
“You liked it that much?”
“He nodded again.”
Wood is survived by his two sons and a daughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Willie Wood file: Facts and figures
Born: Dec. 23, 1936, in Washington, D.C.
School: Southern California. Wood spent one year at Coalinga Junior College in the San Joaquin Valley before transferring to USC. He played quarterback all three years for the Trojans with modest success, finishing his collegiate career with 772 passing yards, seven passing touchdowns and eight interceptions. Wood had 330 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns as well. He made the Packers’ roster as an undrafted free agent in 1960.
Hall of Fame: Packers Hall of Fame, Class of 1977; Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1989.
Packers playing career: An undrafted rookie, Wood battled 24 defensive backs for a spot on the roster. He played mostly on special teams as a punt returner during his first season. Filled in for the injured Jess Whittenton in 1961 and made five interceptions in the second half of the year. Also led the league in punt return average (16.2 yards) and returned two punts for touchdowns. Wood took off from there and had a career-high nine interceptions in 1962 to earn the first of eight Pro Bowl selections (1962, 1964-70). He earned AP All-Pro honors six times and was a unanimous selection twice, in 1965 and 1966. Best known for his vicious hitting and iconic interception in Super Bowl I that set up a touchdown in a game the Packers won, 35-10. Played 166 consecutive games over the course of his career. Finished with 48 interceptions, two defensive touchdowns and two punt return touchdowns. Tackling statistics were unavailable during Wood’s era. He wore jersey number 24.
Post playing career: Wood retired after the 1971 season and took an assistant coaching position with the San Diego Chargers. Four years later he became the first black head coach in professional football when he ran the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League. In 1980, Wood became the first black head coach in the Canadian Football League as well. He was in charge of the Toronto Argonauts for two seasons. Wood spent the last decade in an assisted living facility in his hometown of Washington. He suffered from dementia and, according to an article in The New York Times, remembered almost nothing of his football career. He sometimes went days without speaking.
Quote: “Determination probably was my trademark. I was talented but so were a lot of people. I’d like people to tell you I was the toughest guy they ever played against.” — Willie Wood