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Charles Woodson highlighted in latest installment of ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series


In 1997, Michigan Wolverines cornerback Charles Woodson accomplished something that had not occurred before – or since.

The former Raiders cornerback and Pro Football Hall of Famer became the first, and only, defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.

The iconic Heisman race of that season has been revitalized in the latest installment of ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series, "The Great Heisman Race of 1997." The episode premiered on December 9, after the announcement of the 2023 Heisman winner, and is available to watch on ESPN+.

Director Gentry Kirby's approach to the film takes viewers through an immersive time machine back to the 1997 Heisman race, with only archival game footage and interviews from that year being used throughout the documentary.

At the time, Woodson's win was shocking to many college football spectators. The cornerback was a huge underdog in the race compared to the other finalists – Tennessee's Peyton Manning, Washington State's Ryan Leaf and Marshall's Randy Moss. While the award is given to the best collegiate player of the year, every winner up to 1997 had been a quarterback, running back or receiver.

Woodson's junior campaign was undeniable due to the multiple contributions he made to the Michigan Wolverines – the eventual National Champions. He stood out as a three-way player on offense, defense and special teams – something modern-day college football hadn't seen the likes of since Syracuse's Ernie Davis won the award in 1961.

He compiled seven interceptions, 231 receiving yards, 283 punt return yards and four total touchdowns (receiving, rushing and punt return) en route to an undefeated 12-0 season. Woodson, Michigan's third player to win the Heisman, finished within less than 300 points between Manning, still considered one of the tightest contests in the award's history.

"I used to always tell everybody when I was younger that I would win the Heisman Trophy," Woodson said in his acceptance speech on Dec. 13, 1997. "But when I started my defensive days at the University of Michigan, that dream kind of left. But you guys have brought that dream back and gave me a chance earlier in the season [by] putting me in the race and allowing me to have a chance to be here.

"This is truly the biggest moment in my life so far."

He'd go on to have even bigger moments after being selected with the fourth pick in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. Woodson played 11 seasons in the Silver and Black, capturing 65 career interceptions, 20 career sacks, nine Pro Bowl selections, a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009 and a Super Bowl victory with the Green Bay Packers.

Woodson, Manning and Moss are all now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with the Michigan Wolverine and the Tennessee Volunteer inducted in the same class – 24 years after their Heisman race.

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