Rod Woodson played the last two years of his 17-year NFL career with the Raiders. AP Photo.
The Heart of a Hall of Famer series, developed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Education Outreach Program, allows students from across the country to learn directly from Hall of Famers what it takes beyond athletic ability to achieve success on and off the field. The June installment of the series featured current Raiders cornerbacks coach Rod Woodson.
Woodson, born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was a two-sport star, excelling in football and track and field. He attended Purdue University, where he immediately started on the football team, while also setting records in track and field. Although he dominated in track, Woodson chose to pursue football when he was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1987 draft. Woodson played 10 years with the Steelers, one year with the San Francisco 49ers, four years with the Baltimore Ravens (winning a Super Bowl with them in 2000), and two years with the Oakland Raiders. During his 17-year NFL career, Woodson was named to 11 Pro Bowls, was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993, named All-Pro six times, and named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team and the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1990’s. Woodson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and still holds the NFL record for interception return yards with 1,483.
Woodson connected with schools across the country, with the help of Cisco Telepresence, in two hour-long sessions from the Raiders facility in Alameda, Calif. “The real idea and concept of this is to really focus on what it took to get in the Hall of Fame beyond just the athletic ability,” explained Jerry Csaki, Education Programs Coordinator at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. “We know our Hall of Famers are great examples of athleticism and skill, but it took more than that to get in the Hall of Fame. At the core are the six pillars that [the students] have been talking about - trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. At the core, that’s what made them great. It could be said that for most of our Hall of Famers, if their God-given ability didn’t lie in pro football, they would have been a Hall of Famer in some other life endeavor, whether it be a plumber, coach, or preacher because at the core are the six core pillars.”
During the first session, Woodson answered questions from students from schools in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, while Oakland’s Frick Middle School also participated. The following is an excerpt from Woodson’s first Heart of a Hall of Famer segment.
Jennings High School, Jennings, Louisiana: Who was your closest friend on the Ravens football team?
Woodson: That’s a tough one. I had two very close friends that I grew very close to. One was Ray Lewis. I think he’s a very good football player. I think he’ll be in the Hall of Fame when he retires. And the other guy who got in the Hall of Fame this year and he’ll be enshrined in Canton – Shannon Sharpe. Those two guys, we connected, and I think we connected because we had a lot in common. We all had a passion to be great at something and a lot of times in life, you build your friendships with something you’re familiar with and have common ground. I think with us, we all had common ground. We wanted to be great in football and we wanted to win Super Bowls, but we had a common ground with the type of human beings we were. I think that’s what built my friendships with Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe. In my life, I don’t have a lot of close friends, but I’d still consider them really close to me and my family – I still talk to them today.
Jennings High School: Why did you decide to start coaching?
Woodson: I believe it’s my passion. I really enjoyed working for the NFL Network. It gave me a lot of free time to be with my kids, to see them grow up. I played football in the National Football League for 17 years. When I first retired, I was offered a job and I declined it because I wasn’t ready to coach and dedicate my time like you have to when you’re a coach in the NFL. Being away from it for seven years let me be refreshed in my body, let me see my kids. My youngest kid now is 11, my oldest is 21. I’ve got a senior boy who’s going to Idaho to play football next year. My wife is a tough Midwest girl, she can handle three kids in the home. My burning passion is to be around young men and try to help them dedicate their lives to more than football. I think great coaches are more than football coaches. Just like teachers are more than teachers. I think they don a lot of hats – they’re teachers, counselors, surrogate mothers and fathers – and you can talk to those individuals. For me to get into coaching, yes, I want to impart some of my wisdom back on the players on the football field, but I want to impart my wisdom in life too to make them better people living in this world.
Pittsburgh Carmalt, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Is it easy for young athletes to think solely about their own performances and often forget about working as a team? How do others help realize that being part of a team requires thinking about and respecting others both off and on the field?
Woodson: Yes, I think it’s so easy for athletes to get so consumed with me, me, me, but the most important part of the team is the team. In order to help those athletes understand why the team is most important it has to happen in the locker room. Coaches can say it in the meeting rooms to the players, they can say it on the practice field, but other players who are older, more veteran players who have been playing a lot longer, until those players step up to a player and say you’re being really selfish, you’re hurting the football team, or whatever team you might be on, it might be a job you’re working at because that’s a team too (you’ll have a leader and people in different positions just like a football team), I think at times your coworkers have to step up to you and say you’re not doing what’s best for us as a team. For some reason, players can be consumed in being the most important, but I think the great ones understand that the team is most important and it’s those teams that normally find success. Those are the teams that win Super Bowls.
Pittsburgh Carmalt: A lot of parents, spectators, players, and coaches become upset with officials. What strategy did you have in place to keep yourself in control when you started to get upset with officials?
Woodson: I used to get upset at officials a lot. I always have. It seems like when you put on stripes, for some reason, you can’t be right with somebody on the field or somebody in the stands. What you have to understand is there’s this old saying in sports – you have to outplay the officials. A lot of times you can’t play and worry about the officials making calls. You just have to go out and play. In the National Football League, there have been a lot of rule changes over the last couple of years and you’ve been hearing about these players complaining about the rules. What has to happen is that these players just have to go out and play and understand that there are going to be some good calls and there will be some bad calls. Normally they even themselves out throughout the game. For me as a player, I would probably tell them how I felt and then I’d have to walk away. At the end of the day, that official has the last say and he was like the boss on the field. You couldn’t get carried away and forget about the job you had to do because you were so worried about saying something to the official. The way I controlled myself was to not worry about it honestly because they’re going to make some bad calls out there, things you’d probably think you didn’t do as a player, but you have to move on to the next play because if you’re worried about what happened on the last play, you’re going to get beat somewhere else down the line. That’s when your head coach is going to get mad at you as a player.
Frick Middle School, Oakland, California: I’m a girl who likes to play football, but how come the NFL is keeping girls from playing?
Woodson: You have to write a letter to Roger Goodell and you have to write a letter and copy it and you send it to all 32 owners and you ask them that question. I can’t answer that question. I’d tell you to play. I know my 14-year old daughter when she was growing up, I wanted her to play football because I thought she was the toughest in my family out of my two boys and three girls. I think my 14-year old daughter is the toughest of all of them. I would love to see her play football. I’d love to see the first woman football player to play in the National Football League.. I don’t know if it’s against the rules, but that’s a great question to pose to Roger Goodell, the commissioner, and all 32 owners. I think you should write them.
Frick Middle School: Out of all four teams you played for, which team would you go back and play with and why?
Woodson: I’m coaching for the Raiders, but I’ve played on four great teams. It’s really hard for me to choose those teams over another. The Pittsburgh Steelers I spent the most time with, I spent 10 years there. I came right out of college at Purdue right to Pittsburgh. I spent a year with the 49ers, the last year Eddie DeBartolo was part of that organization as an owner. Then I went to Baltimore for four years and Mr. Modell and Ed Bouchette were great owners and then I came here and Al Davis is a great owner. That’s a hard question for me to answer and I’m going to plead the 5th and I’m not going to answer that question completely. I’ll tell you what – if I could do it over again and play 17 years in the National Football League – I would split it up the same that I had – 10 years with Pittsburgh, a year with the 49ers, four years with Baltimore, and two years with the Raiders – because I think I learned a lot and built a lot of friendships over my 17 years at every place I went to. That’s my answer, I can’t choose one team over the other, but I really enjoyed all the teams.
NYC MS 228, New York City, New York: Which one of your many football accomplishments is the most significant to you and why?
Woodson: I think it’s separated two ways. Individually and then as a team. We won the Super Bowl in Baltimore when I was there in 2000. I’d say that was my biggest team accomplishment to go there to Baltimore, see a young team develop over the first two years and then the third year let it click in and we won the Super Bowl. That’s every player’s dream – to put a Super Bowl ring on their finger, to hoist the Lombardi trophy and say you’re the best team in the National Football League. As a team, I’d say it was the Baltimore Ravens 2000 year. Individually, I would say it would have to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame a couple years ago. This game is very old. It’s been played a long, long time. To have only 200-plus players and contributors in the Hall of Fame and I’m one of those individuals is a huge accomplishment. I’m a small town kid from Fort Wayne, Indiana. I’m from a modest family and a modest background. I never dreamed that I would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame and that I can take my kids and my grandkids from generation to generation back to a building and they can see a bust of their grandfather and their great grandfather and great great grandfather. I think the obvious answer is being enshrined in the Hall of Fame because I think it’s the ultimate goal of every player that plays in the National Football League.
NYC MS 228: Did you play football to get your education at Purdue or did you use your education to play Big 10 football? Why did you change your major?
Woodson: I played football not knowing that I would get a scholarship. I came from a moderate family, we didn’t make a lot of money, a blue-collared city of Fort Wayne. If I would not have gotten the scholarship, more than likely I wouldn’t have gone to college to be honest. So I did use football to get my education. I didn’t know I was going to be good in football. It just kind of happened. I started playing when I was nine years old because my two older brothers played. Once I got to Purdue, I switched my major because I switched my minor to my major and my major to my minor. My major became criminology and my minor became supervision. I switched my second semester of my junior year which was kind of late to do that but I was just bored. Bored with the subject, I didn’t have the passion for it. Criminology really excited me. In life, you’re going to do things that excite you and you’re better at doing things when you enjoy doing it. I, personally, have not come to work a day in my life. To me, playing football and coaching football is living in a fantasy life. I talked about football for the last seven years, so my whole life in a work environment has been about football. I’ve never really worked a day in my life. My mom and dad are blue-collared people. My dad worked in industry, he worked for a company called International Harvester which was a trucking company. He went to work every day. Hard labor. I know he worked for a living. For me, I didn’t work for a living. I did use football to get my education and I switched my major because honestly at the end of the day, I had more enjoyment in criminology.
RT Cream Family School, Camden, New Jersey: When you were on the field, did you ever get hit harder than you expected?
Woodson: Oh yea. That I did. The hardest hit I received that I remember was during my third year we were playing the New York Jets and we were on the goal line. Normally they bring in these really big guys, a lot of them, and they don’t have the little receivers on the field anymore, they bring in the big guys. They kept me on the field and they ran a running play to my side. I was looking at the ball carrier the whole time and all of a sudden this huge offensive tackle was right in front of me. He picked me up, carried me about three yards into the end zone and he power drove me into the ground. I lost all my breath. That’s probably the hardest hit I wanted to receive in the league.
RT Cream Family School: How would you help shape a person into an important and skilled learner?
Woodson: I think every human being learns differently. You have to understand how a person learns. Is that person an audio learner, a visual learner, a person that needs to go through a process to learn? I think once you understand this person can be taught, that’s how you get through to the person. First, you have to understand the individual you’re trying to teach. Everybody learns differently. For me, I needed to write things down. If I don’t write things down, I’ll forget it. I have lists all over the place. I have post-its everywhere. I write stuff down all the time. I did that in my football career and that’s something I try to tell my kids to do, but all my kids do it differently. Some of my kids are audio learners and some of my kids are visual learners. I think you have to understand who they are in order to teach them. That’s the first criteria. Secondly, I think to get them to be skilled and an important learner is that you have to do it repetitively. In life, the long term memory doesn’t kick in unless you do it over and over again. I would say just be repetitive at what you do whether it’s in a certain field, in the classroom, on the football field. I know on the football field, when we talk about the fundamentals of football, we need to do it over and over again where it becomes second nature to the player. It’s the same thing in life. When you repeat things over and over again, it’s like tying your shoe. When you’re a little kid you learn to tie your shoe. Once you’ve got it, you don’t even have to look down anymore to tie your shoe – you just tie your shoe. It’s the same thing in life. Once you learn a skill it’ll always be there for you.
Jennings High School: What was the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced?
Woodson: I would probably think the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced was growing up in a biracial environment in the ’60s and ‘70s in Indiana. My mother is German and my father is African American, and I think the toughest thing I faced as a young kid was people started to like you or dislike you because of your skin tone. What that made me do is understand that people judge you for who you’re not. They judge you off the base of what you look like and that let me learn at a young age. It happened in my family. Some of the people on my mother’s side of the family didn’t like us because we’re a little darker. Some of the people on my father’s side didn’t like us because we’re a little lighter. But what that taught me is that the people that really care about me, care about me because of who I am inside. So I think my biggest challenge in my life was understanding who really cared about me because who I was inside and not who I was on the outside.
Pittsburgh Carmalt: In what ways should integrity be part of you?
Woodson: I think integrity is huge. When you think about living as a human being, I tell my five kids and when I was coaching high school, to do the right thing in life is hard to do. When you do it, you have a certain security about who you are as a human being. You wake up every day and you have a choice to make - you have a choice to either be grumpy, you want to be mean to people, you want to be deceitful and lie to people, or do you want to wake up and be happy? First of all, waking up every day is a gift because the alternative is not very good. I think every day waking up every morning is a gift. Secondly, doing the right thing every day is a tough thing to do. Not being mean to a classmate you really don’t like. It’s tough to be nice to an employee that maybe I don’t like because I don’t agree with their view points. But respecting that person as a human being and showing some compassionate I think is huge. Integrity combines all six pillars together because integrity is about being responsible, trustworthy, caring, compassionate, honest, all those things together, being a good citizen. To me it combines all those together. If you can find somebody with great integrity, those are the type of people you want to be around because those are the type of people that will make you a better human being in the long run.
Frick Middle School: How did you separate schoolwork, family, and sports as a young adult?
Woodson: First of all, if you go to school and you play sports, you’re called what? A student-athlete, right? You’re a student first, you’re an athlete second. Remember one thing that your mind is always growing, it can always learn. Athletics, inevitably, you’re going to have to retire. Even if you play in the pros, eventually you’ll have to retire. You can’t play forever. Plus, to go to college, you have to have good grades. You have to have at least a 2.5 to get a scholarship in Division I and they just changed a rule in the NCAA, if you go to school, you have to pass nine accredited hours every semester or you won’t be eligible to play the first four games of the next year. So I think what the society, schools, and the NCAA are saying is school is really important. What you have to do is understand that if you choose to play a sport, that’s your choice. You’re going to have to self-sacrifice. Get off the video games, get off Skype, and x-box and all that stuff and spend more time in your schoolwork because it’s more important than playing sports. If you play the sports, remember you chose to play it, you don’t have to play it. You have to self-sacrifice and understand that schoolwork is most important if you want to play sports than the sport is.
NYC MS 228: Did anyone offer you extras in college?
Woodson: That’s a tricky subject because if you get anything from a t-shirt to a piece of gum, you’re violating the rule from the NCAA. Purdue did not offer me anything extra, but when I used to visit other colleges, they would offer you other things. They would want to give you t-shirts or hats, which is illegal. I chose Purdue over all the other schools because it gave me the best opportunity to play as a freshman and secondly, I chose Purdue because the coach who recruited me, Ray Sherman, cared about me as a person, not as a football player. I know they have trouble at Ohio State for a lot of different things, but sometimes in life, the coach can’t always protect the players – just like you mothers, fathers, guardians and teachers can’t always protect you. Sooner or later it becomes your responsibility to be accountable for what you do. It’s the same thing in sports, college football, and in life – you can’t always be protected by your coach or mother or father or guardian. You have to be responsible and know the difference between right and wrong and choose right, which is hard to do sometimes.
RT Cream Family School: Do you like any other sports besides football?
Woodson: I love track. When I grew up, I was better at track and field than I was at football. When I first came out, I was running high school track and I won state my sophomore year in the high hurdles and 300 intermediates. Then I won state my junior year and senior year. Then I went to Purdue and ran indoor. I ran indoor Big 10 championships and won all four years when I was there. I won second in the country indoors my senior year. Track and field was a huge love of mine. In 1987 I went over to Europe and they have a thing called the European Track Circuit and you can go run in all these different meets in all these different countries and I did that for about a month and a half, which I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, when I first came into the pros and I signed a contract in the National Football League, I couldn’t get my amateur status back in track for a couple years because it gave me a competitive advantage over the other track runners so I had to give up my career in track. I love track and field, I love watching it, I love watching the young kids run in it and I think it’s a great sport and that’s one of my passions that I like to watch on a consistent basis.
Pittsburgh Carmalt: Do you feel a coach should focus more on effort than outcome?
Woodson: Yes, at a young age, absolutely. We want our outcome to be positive because in the National Football League, if you don’t win, you don’t have your job too long. But for young athletes, I think they have to learn to work hard. I think if you want to play a sport, if you want to go to school, if you want to be a pianist, if you want to do the violin, no matter what you want to do, you have to work hard at it if you want to be good. If you don’t want to be good, then you don’t work hard and those are people that just want to do it recreationally. But if you want to be good at what you do, you have to work hard at your craft. If you want to be a great painter, you have to keep doing it and go over and over different things. If you want to be a singer, you have to sing often to hone your voice. I just think that if you want to be good at any craft, you have to work hard. At the end of the day, you have to let that take care of itself.
Frick Middle School: How hard is it to maintain your values in a sport where it seems a lot of people are always getting in trouble?
Woodson: I think what you have to do is you can’t let your sport define who you are as a human being. You have to have integrity and honesty, responsibility and accountability, and be reliable. I think sometimes we get so consumed with who we are and we want people to cater to all our needs, especially athletes, athletes can get spoiled to be honest. But you don’t have to be that way, they choose to be that way. Your character as you grow up is built on your life choices. Over the course of my life, I’ve chosen to do certain things. Your destiny defines who you are by the choices you make throughout your life. Right, wrong, or indifferent, we’re all imperfect. Nobody is perfect. We’re all going to make mistakes. What you have to do is learn from those mistakes and if you keep repeating those mistakes than you’re not learning. Some of those guys that make mistakes, they can be forgiven, but when they become repetitive and it becomes a pattern, that’s when the consequences and responsibility has to come into effect for those guys. For me, I want to separate myself from football. I love football, but at the end of the day, it’s called a football game. It’s a game. It’s not going to change the world. It’s not going to change the crisis in the economy. We get paid for playing a game. I just didn’t want to be defined as a football player – that football player. I wanted to remove myself from the football side of it and be a better human being. There are quite a few of those individuals in National Football League. The problem is that normally the negative things are in the media more than the positive things. I just wanted to be a good human being and be removed from the negative stuff.
Csaki: What does citizenship mean to you?
Woodson: Citizenship is really just giving back to your community. For me, I was really blessed to be in a small town community and it helped me develop morals and a foundation that I lived on my whole life. For 15 years I had a non-profit organization, a foundation, I still have the foundation, but I don’t run the football camp anymore. I did that for 15 straight years in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We have a scholarship fund. As a matter of fact, the scholarship program is still going on because some of the kids that received the scholarship are so young. I’ve given out a scholarship this year to a kid that’s going to Naval Academy. To give back to the community, to be honorable to your community, not just giving back, but keeping it clean. A lot of times you see these people throwing cups on the ground and stuff of that nature. For me, if I see cups on the ground in my neighborhood, I pick it up. I pick it up and I clean it. I don’t want to live in a dirty place. I’m kind of a neat freak anyway, but that’s a part of me. I think giving back to the community is not complaining about people that are appointed into offices if you don’t vote. That’s another part of citizenship. If you have the right to vote, vote. Let your voice be heard in that capacity also. It’s a wide variety of things, but for the most part, it’s about being good back in your community and giving back to those that are less fortunate.
Woodson’s advice on facing challenges: You don’t let challenges stop you. I believe that challenges occur week in and week out. For me, as a coach now, challenges occur. I think challenges are great teaching tools for you as an individual. You can learn a lot from challenges. I believe if you have a passion for something, you can’t let that obstacle get in your way of what you want to accomplish in life. If you do that, I believe later in your life you’ll live life in regret – I should have done this or gone for that (singer, actor, or doctor, etc) – that sooner or later if you let something get in your way and you let that deter you the first time, it’s going to deter you your whole life. If you don’t learn to stand up and fight and go for what you truly love to do, you’re going to quit your whole life. You don’t want to be a quitter. I tell my kids all the time, “don’t let something stop you from doing what you love to do. Don’t let an individual, a teammate, something that happened to you in the stands in the school, don’t let that deter you from what you really love to do. If you want to do it, do it. But don’t be a quitter. Once you start quitting, it becomes a part of you.” We’re talking about these six pillars of character. If you become a quitter it becomes a part of you and you don’t want to be that because quitters cannot succeed in this life. Life is tough sometimes, but it’s the people who fight for what they really want who have a better opportunity to succeed in life than those who give up and throw their hands up and say it’s too hard. All the great people I know that succeeded in life fought. Succeeding doesn’t have to be living in a huge house and having a great car or jewelry. That’s not success. Success is contentment. I grew up in a really small house in Fort Wayne. We had two bedrooms. The house is probably as big as my living room where I live today, but we were content, we were happy. We enjoyed life to the fullest because we just lived. I think for you guys, you can’t let the little things get in the way of the things you truly love to do and I think if an obstacle comes in front of you, keep fighting to go through it, not around it, but learn from it and fight to go through it.