Wood took safety road to Hall of Fame
Second in a series on living Lombardi-era Packers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Here's the thumbnail story of how Willie Wood became a Pro Football Hall of Fame player with the Green Bay Packers:
Wood went undrafted by the NFL in 1960 as a quarterback out of USC, and Vince Lombardi was the only coach to answer his letter to select teams begging for a tryout. Lombardi then moved him to safety, and an exceptional career was born.
There’s truth in the story, but also myth. Namely, Lombardi didn’t move Wood to safety. Wood had played in an era of single-platoon college football, so he’d also been a safety at USC.
There’s no mystery why Wood wasn’t drafted as a quarterback. When he entered the NFL, there were no African-American quarterbacks and wouldn’t be until Denver drafted Marlin Briscoe in 1968. The league’s last African-American quarterback before Briscoe was the Packers’ Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins, who threw seven passes in 1955, his one season with them.
Simply put, as an African-American, Wood had almost no chance of playing quarterback professionally. He also was both short (5-feet-10) and light (170 to 175 pounds coming out of college) for the position, so he probably wouldn’t have gotten a shot anyway.
But for all that’s known about the 1960s Packers, an unanswered question is why no team drafted Wood, either in the NFL or AFL, as a safety. He’d played three seasons at USC, which then as now was a major football school (it had five players drafted that year). And though Wood missed his share of games because of shoulder injuries, he was a prominent player all three of his seasons at USC and as a senior was co-captain along with future Hall of Famer Ron Mix.
I spent much of last week trying to pin down why NFL teams didn’t see Wood as a safety prospect worth selecting among the 240 players in that 20-round draft. I found no newspaper stories on him that mentioned the topic.
Wood, 79, suffers from dementia and is in assisted living in Washington, D.C., so he’s unable to talk about it. One of Wood’s sons, Willie Jr., said this week that he and his father never discussed the issue.
Former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was the assistant coach who recruited Wood to USC and moved on to the AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers as a position coach in ’60. But former Packers general manager Ron Wolf couldn’t recollect talking about the issue with his deceased former longtime boss with the Raiders.
The answer probably is lost to history. But it also might be as simple as the educated guess of one of Wood’s former USC teammates, Bob Schmidt. Wood beat out Schmidt, among others, for the starting quarterback job in 1959, and the two became lifelong friends.
Schmidt remembers Wood at safety as an excellent tackler with a nose for the ball in pass coverage. But he said that looking back, USC never “fully exploited” Wood’s abilities on offense or defense, and that Wood’s incredible success in the NFL was a shock.
“If you’d have said Willie was going to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer, I would have told you you were smoking dope,” Schmidt said. “He didn’t project as a superstar. He projected as a solid football player who could play offense and defense.”
The basics of Wood’s story with the Packers are part of Lombardi dynasty lore. Wood wrote his letter to select NFL teams asking for a tryout, and Lombardi was the only person to respond. The coach sent his super scout, Jack Vainisi, to USC to investigate, and Vainisi saw enough to sign Wood.
Wood worked his way up from the bottom of the safety depth chart in training camp in ’60 and won a roster spot as a backup safety and punt returner. He became a starter in ’61 and was a vital player for all five of Lombardi’s championship teams.
He didn’t miss a game in his career (166 straight), was named first-team All-Pro five times, to the Pro Bowl eight times and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989. He still ranks No. 2 on the Packers’ all-time interceptions list with 48. Along with the interceptions, he was considered an exceptional tackler and hard hitter.
But it still amazes that he entered the league as such an unrecognized talent, because he was hardly a nobody.
Wood had been an outstanding high school football, basketball and baseball player in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s. One of the highlights from those years came in 1954, when his Armstrong Tech basketball team played future Basketball Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor’s Springarn in the city’s tournament for black high schools.
Baylor, according to a story on ESPN.com, averaged 37.5 points a game that season, but one of Wood’s teammates, the one-armed Gary Mays (who is more than worth a Google search himself if you have some time), held him to 18 points. Wood’s and Mays’ Armstrong team won, 50-47.
Though only 5-10, Wood could dunk two-handed and often showed off his leaping ability to Packers teammates by dunking a football over the 10-foot goal post.
“He was the best basketball player at (USC) and wasn’t on the basketball team,” Schmidt said. “Why? Because the coach at that day, Forrest Twogood, wasn’t looking for black players.”
Wood saw his best chance at a pro career in football and went to Coalinga Junior College in California as a freshman before he enrolled in 1957 at USC, where he would become the first black quarterback in what was then known as the Pacific Coast Conference.
I obtained a handful of Los Angeles Times newspaper clips over Wood’s three seasons that lend at least a sense of his career there. It’s clear he shared playing time at quarterback, though there was no indication how much of it was because of injury and how much was part of USC’s quarterback/safety rotation of the single-platoon era.
A story from Sept. 8, 1957, described Wood as “the best passer” on USC’s practice field in the preseason. Wood finished the season with the second most pass attempts (134) on the team, and it’s unclear if he missed any games.
In 1958, he appears to have been their preferred starter but sustained a cracked scapula while making a tackle against Michigan that sidelined him for five games. Then in ’58 he again was the preferred starter but sustained a separated shoulder that sidelined him three games. He made big news on his first game back from that injury when he threw a 77-yard touchdown pass with 1½ minutes left that defeated Washington State, 14-6.
Wood’s college passing stats reveal little because the game was so different then — he completed only 55 of 147 passes (37.4 percent) for 772 yards, threw seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also averaged 2.7 yards on 124 carries.
“Willie was more of a scrambler, roll-out,” Schmidt said. “He really had a capacity to do a lot of things that RGIII would be the model for today.”
Schmidt said that after college, Wood was set on playing in the NFL over the AFL if at all possible, though he thinks he would have signed with the Chargers if the Packers hadn’t called.
After Wood’s Hall of Fame career with the Packers, he went into coaching and had a short but eventful career. He started as a defensive backs coach for San Diego from 1972-74, then became the first African-American coach of pro football’s modern era when the Philadelphia Bell of the fly-by-night World Football League hired him in 1975. The WFL folded in the middle of that season.
In 1979, Wood joined former Packers teammate Forrest Gregg as an assistant with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts. And when Gregg left after the season, Wood became head coach. In two seasons, he went 8-24 before being fired.
He became disillusioned with coaching when no NFL teams would hire him as a defensive coordinator, so he started his own heating and cooling business. He retired about 15 years ago but was unable to live the life of a Hall of Fame ambassador as he’d hoped because of cascading physical problems, many no doubt related to his football career.
Wood has suffered from arthritic gout and diabetes, had surgery on his cervical spine and had knee and hip replacements. Around 2006 he was diagnosed with dementia.
Wood recently has been the subject of major media stories because of his failing health, its potential connection to football and his tie-in with the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl earlier this year. Wood made the game-turning interception in the third quarter of the Packers’ win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I.
The New York Times published a profile on him in February. The Toronto Sun in 2013 ran a 2,000-word story on his condition that also lauded him for putting together an Argonauts roster that won the Grey Cup two years after he was fired.
Wood is unable to talk much anymore, and dementia has robbed him of most of his memory. With what we now know about head injuries, it’s a given that Wood’s punishing tackling has contributed to his cognitive issues, though it’s impossible to know how much.
He’d told Willie Jr. that he had four diagnosed concussions and a dozen or more similar incidents that went undiagnosed in his NFL career.
“He unfortunately isn’t going to recover. It’s not something that gets better,” Willie Jr. said. “But we’re fortunate that everything else with him is OK.”
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