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 second session, Woodson answered questions from students from two schools in Pennsylvania, a school in Ohio and one school from Oakland, Calif. The following is an excerpt from Woodson's second Heart of a Hall of Famer segment.
Woodson: Thank you for letting me be a part of this program and to speak with you kids. I know summer time is around the corner; you're going to have a lot of free time. I want to encourage you to be smart with your free time. I know at a young age you have a lot of energy. Sometimes focus that energy on the six pillars of character that you discussed and try to make that a part of your life. If it's all six, if it's two or three, try to be a better person. If you can do that, this world will be a better place, and the communities you live in will be better places.
Langley High School, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: How important do you think accountability is on and off the field?
Woodson: I think it's vital not just as a football player, but in life in general. Accountability makes you responsible. Your actions and what you do on and off the field define who you are as a football player, as a basketball player, as a baseball player, a swimmer, if you're a teacher, as a parent, in the workplace, and as a student. I think if you have a homework assignment and it's due at 9:00 on Tuesday, you should be accountable for it being there at 9:00 and it being done. Same thing as a coach and as a player. We're going to have meetings at 6:30 in the morning and we're accountable for being there on time. Sometimes your job is unforgiving, but as a player and as a student, sometimes your teachers and coaches will give you a little more compassion than normal and I think that's a good thing. But us, as athletes, accountability, for being in the place at the right time, doing our job on game day, is vital for helping this football team and program win football games and, ultimately, to win a Super Bowl. If players aren't held accountable to what they should be doing, you cannot have a good football team and those teams will not win Super Bowls.
Langley High School: Was family always more important to you than your career as a football player?
Woodson: Absolutely. Football is a job. Family is life. I think what has to happen is that you have to be able to separate what happens in your workplace from when you get home. If I had a bad day at work or a bad game and one of my five kids ran up to me and I didn't want to be around them because I had a bad day at work, that's unfair to them. It's my responsibility as a parent to give them love and compassion and to give them time. They weren't asked to be brought into this world. We brought them into this world as parents and we're accountable and responsible to give them the love and compassion that they deserve as kids. You have to separate the two and family is way more important than anything you can do in life. To me, they're always going to be there. Sometimes you won't agree with everything that happens in your family. I have two older brothers and we didn't always agree on what was going on in the house, but I love them to death. One lives in Houston, Texas, and one lives in Chicago, Illinois, and I love to speak with them. Family is always family and the job, you can always get another one. You can't let your job define you and overtake your family because if that's the case, your family won't be a happy home.
Hempfield High School, Landisville, Pennsylvania: Who is the best receiver you ever played against in the NFL?
Woodson: I can make it easy and say Jerry Rice, but I only played against Jerry twice. Jerry is the best receiver probably to ever play in the NFL, but for me I'd probably say on a year in and year out basis, Webster Slaughter. He played for the Cleveland Browns back when they had Bernie Kosar and all those guys and they were a really good football team. He was pretty tough for me to face because he was very quick in and out of his breaks, he was a great route runner, and he had a little fight in him. Him and I used to get into some scuffles and sometimes got me off my game early in my career.
Hempfield High School: What did you do with your first NFL paycheck?
Woodson: I don't remember what I did with my last NFL paycheck let alone my first one, which was in 1987! I'm pretty sure I bought something. I probably spent it on something silly. When you come from a background where you don't have a lot of money, the first time you get a decent size paycheck you're going to do something kind of silly. But I know the first thing I did when I saved up some money; I bought my mother and father a home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That was important to me to give them something that they didn't have before – a decent home that they can go back to and basically have a place to rest. I wanted to give back to my mom and dad. My first paycheck though…I cannot remember. I had a couple of concussions in my career and I don't know if I can remember that well.
Summit Academy, Xenia, Ohio: How did you feel when you received all your awards and honors during your football career?
Woodson: I felt proud. As an athlete, you want to do well, you want to succeed, you want to have success on and off the field. You can't let that success define you. There are a lot of great athletes in this world that are not really good people; I'm going to be honest. Sometimes athletes, actors, singers, you want to put them up on your wall and they're not real good people. I'd rather have a person that is a good character person because that's the people I want my kids to imitate. I don't want my kids to imitate the cool guy that's really disrespectful to everybody else. I enjoyed success; I didn't let it get to my head. I tried to stay humble and had some humility in my life and tried to be a good person. As a player, as an athlete, you want to succeed because as you succeed you can further your career in a lot of different areas of your life.
Summit Academy:What was your favorite team to play for and why?
Woodson: I played 17 years in the National Football League. I was drafted out of Purdue by the Pittsburgh Steelers. I played 10 wonderful years there. I moved on and played a year with the 49ers. We lost the NFC Championship game to Green Bay and I didn't make it to the Super Bowl. Then I moved on and went to Baltimore where I played four years and the first couple of years we were a young, talented football team, but we didn't know how to play winning football and how to practice the winning way. Then we finally won a Super Bowl in my third year there. Then I finally came over to Oakland after that and we went to the Super Bowl and we lost to Tampa. It's really tough. I have emotions and ties to all four places with all four teams. I really can't pick one team over another, but I did enjoy my time at all four places and I learned a lot and grew and have a lot of friendships in all those places because of my years there.
Oakland Military Institute, Oakland, California: Who was your biggest inspiration in your life?
Woodson: That's a great question. I believe it was my father, a man who never graduated from high school, he's from the South – from Tennessee, but he worked hard. He was a hard worker, he was a blue collar guy. He worked two jobs when we were growing up. He worked at International Harvester, which was a trucking plant, he worked a second shift. I remember going to pick him up at night all the time with my mom and we would go over to this pizzeria waiting for him and get these slices of pizza. He also had a cleaning business where he cleaned the movie theaters around the city. We, as his sons, we had to go help him clean all the time. He taught me a lot about hard work, never giving up, fighting. He inspired me to be a good human being. He was a good man and he worked hard. The one thing I know in life is that if you want to succeed in something, there's no substitution for hard work and dedication in your field.
Oakland Military Institute: Of the six pillars of character, which do you think is the most important and why?
Woodson:You look at the six pillars and I think for me, the most is respect. They really tie in to each other, but I think the respect factor makes you a better person. Doing the right thing and being a good human being on a daily basis to everybody that you meet is hard to do. You guys know that, it's a big class isn't it? Your guys aren't going to agree with all of your classmates' views, but having respect for who they are I think is huge. I try to be like that my whole life. I try to have respect for the different people that I've met, for my coaches, for my players, for my teammates, for my family, to my neighbors and having that respect gave me everything else. It gave me that responsibility, the accountability, the integrity, the honesty that you needed. To me, I think respect is the key character that I really enjoy to see people have.
Langley High School: What character qualities do you think it takes to be a Hall of Fame player?
Woodson: I think the biggest one is accountability because you have to be accountable to everything you do. And accountability and responsibility are really the same thing. They go hand-in-hand. You have to be accountable for what you do in the classroom, what you do on the practice field, and you have to be accountable to do your job on game day. In preparing yourself in the offseason, you have to be accountable to get out of bed when you don't want to and go work out every day at a high level to separate yourself from all the other players in the NFL. It's the same thing in life. You guys don't want to go school every day, but you have to get up and go to school every day because that's what you have to do now in your life. As you grow up and you get a job, there's going to be certain days in your life where you don't want to get up and go to your work, but you're accountable to get up and go to your job because that's what you have to do. Especially if you have kids and a family, you're accountable to them. You have to provide their necessities to live and to get up and go do your job and go to work. I think that's the key factor for being a Hall of Famer is I think you have to be accountable every single day when you don't feel like it. When you start being accountable and doing things when you really don't want to that makes you a stronger person mentally, physically, and you're going to be successful in life.
Hempfield High School: How have you used your experiences as a player in your current coaching position?
Woodson: The player sees the game differently than the coaches. Coaches see it in an all-22 perspective, like looking from above and you can see all 22 players at one time on both sides of the football. Players see things in first person. I think what's going to help me is all my experiences playing football in certain situations, I can give that back to the players. Every player is different. Every player can do certain things, they have certain abilities, some more than others, but the one thing I can tell them is in this situation this is what I did, see if you can do it or can't, see if you like it or not. That can help the players calm themselves. Secondly, they can trust me when I tell them that they can try to do something and it can be accomplished at that position because I did it. I think that's how you build a rapport with your players because it's a trust factor with coaches and players. I need to say something, they need to try to do it, and if they have success with it they're going to trust me more. Just like it is with a teacher – you're going to tell them a certain thing to remember, it's on a test, they get a good grade, they're going to believe more of what you say. It's really the same thing for players to coaches. I think that's really going to help me become a better coach because I can draw upon all those experiences as a player and give those to my players now and hopefully they can have success with it.
Hempfield High School: Are there any characteristic differences or gaps you see between young players and veteran players that are good or bad for their careers?
Woodson: You hear a lot of older players talking about the younger players. I think there are some negative characteristics and I think a main thing is the respect factor, not just to the older players, but to the game itself. I think in general the younger players that are coming in don't respect the game like it used to be respected when they came in. Maybe because they're having much more success at a younger age, maybe because they're getting more money, I'm not sure what that answer is. I know there's a difference between the two. They're saying this is a younger man's sport, and it is, but I think having veterans in the locker room and on the football team is valuable so they can understand and kind of police the locker room and tell the younger players what is expected of them as a player and have that respect factor. I think a couple years ago a lot of teams were taking the rookies to the Hall of Fame and they were taking them there just to see the sport, what has come before them so they can respect the sport more. It's hard to grow as a person if you don't know your history as a human being. If we don't know our history in America, how can we get better in America? If we can't draw upon our mistakes as human beings, how can we grow as human beings? I think it's the same thing as a football player. We have to understand the history of the game, we have to understand the mistakes that were made before us as players and as organizations and with that you can grow and be a better organization and better football players.
Summit Academy: How did you become interested in playing football?
Woodson: That's a simple answer – my brothers. I was the youngest of three boys and they were playing little league football and as the youngest brother I wanted to be with them. So I started playing football and my mom allowed me. I never thought it would get to this point where I was inducted into the Hall of Fame a couple of years ago, but the initial start up was because my two older brothers played football.
Summit Academy: Did you set any goals for yourself during your football career and how did you go about achieving them?
Woodson: I did have individual goals every single year and the way I went about trying to make those come true was working hard in the offseason. First of all, you have to set a foundation, a base, during the offseason. Once the season started, it was about the film study, the practice habits, practicing hard and fast, and applying all those things that I learned, and believing that all those things I learned and applying them on game day. You want to have success. Just as a student, you guys study night in and night out and then you have better opportunities to have success on a test. And once you have success like that and you have a goal, you can find success. I think you have to have a goal and try to attain your goal by working hard. I set certain goals every year and I worked hard in the offseason and during the season to try to attain those goals. I attained some of them and it got me to a place in Canton where now I'm enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Oakland Military Institute:When the word "fairness" popped into your head when you were on the field, what things did you do?
Woodson:On the field, everything is an even playing field. Fairness to me on the field is playing within the rules because there's going to be rules and regulations everywhere you go in life even if you don't like them. They're going to be there if you like them or not. To me, that's being fair. Also fairness in football is a little different than in life. It goes out the window at times on the football field because you're trying to win a football game. In life, it really doesn't go away because fairness is you're trying to treat each person as a human being. What's fair to the next person, what's reasonable to the next person, what's reasonable to you, what's reasonable to your classmates and teachers? Sometimes you have to get away from yourself. Sometimes we think if we believe something, it's true and it's fair, and sometimes that's not true. I would think playing football and being fair on the football field is playing within the rules, playing hard, trying to win, but I'm not going to be doing something dirty to get my victory, to win that down. I don't want to be unfair to a player and do something dirty to him to hurt him just to win the game. I'm not going to do something unfair in the workplace to try to win or get more money or to get another position in life. I'm not going to do something unfair to my coworker so I can make myself look better. Fairness is just to do what's right. Do what's right on any given day and doing that on the football field, workplace, or classroom then you're being fair.
Oakland Military Institute: Was it difficult to respect players on the field during the game?
Woodson: At times it was, especially when they're hitting you. There were some big guys. I was 6'1", 210 pounds, some of those guys were 6'5", 330 pounds. Sometimes when they're hitting you and tackling you, and they're trying to win football games, and it's hot and they're grabbing you and stuff of that nature, sometimes it's hard to respect that. At the end of the day, you know what good football looks like and you know what hard football and playing within the rules looks like and you respect that. I think great athletes respect great athletes. We respect how they can play the game, how hard they play the game and how fair they play the game. I think the same thing happens in life. Respect to me is a critical key to being a good person in life. I have to respect my players for them to respect me. I can't disrespect my players and think they're going to respect me. I can't disrespect the coaches on the coaching staff and think they're going to respect me. Respect is something that's earned and not given. You have to earn respect. If you want a certain person to treat you a certain way, then you need to treat them that way. It's the same thing about being fair and it's the same with respect. If you can respect a human being, that human being is going to respect you. To take it back to your question about football, if a guy played hard and played fast and played within the rules, I could absolutely respect him for trying to do that.
Langley High School: How do you feel you are continuing to shape your character?
Woodson: The biggest thing about character is that you can always learn what's right. You can also always learn what's wrong. People can do things and you can learn from their mistakes. You don't have to go through those mistakes to learn. I think your brain is made up so that you can always be taught something. Over the course of my life, I've become more compassionate and it's maybe because I'm older and maybe because my kids are getting older. Having my kids brought that characteristic out in me. I have been more compassionate and I had a little more mercy on my kids. They used to call me grumpy pants. I've learned to be happier around my kids and I think over the course of your life, you'll learn characteristics and you make that into who you are. Your life choices define who you are at the end of the day. As you go through your young life right now, you bring these different characteristics to you. You try to add them up even though you might not have all of them, but if you can have some of these characteristics throughout your life you can be a better person.
Summit Academy: Why did you choose to go to Purdue?
Woodson: I think first Purdue gave me a great opportunity as a freshman when I first came in to play and to start as a player. Second, when I went to Purdue I wanted to get into electrical engineering, and although I didn't end up doing that, that was one of the other reasons I went there. And third, it was kind of close to home. It was only about two hours away from Fort Wayne, Indiana – I was born and raised in Indiana. It was far enough away from my mom and dad that I had independence, but it wasn't too far away that I got homesick and missed them so much that I would leave school. I think it was a good blend and a good school for me.
Oakland Military Institute: How did your parents in Indiana contribute to developing your character?
Woodson: They were vital in shaping me into the person I am today. We were in a small town, we didn't have a big home, we didn't have a lot of money, but we were happy and content. One thing about my mom and dad is that we had to have respect and it's the old way of doing it. We showed respect to all of our elders. We didn't talk out of turn. If I said a certain thing, I got in trouble. I got punished for it if we did something that was wrong. Growing up in that environment was good for me because it showed me that I don't always have to say what's on my mind. I don't always have to be first in line to do something. They taught me how to be a person that was humble, a person that has some humility and taught me how to treat people and be good to people and try to do the right thing every day. It's hard to do the right thing every day in every aspect of your life, but they tried to make me be that way and impart those characteristics in me as a young man. I think they did a halfway decent job of raising a fiery, young man when I was younger (I did some silly things when I was growing up). But they taught me valuable lessons to never quit, never give up, always fight through some of things that I had failed at, always be a competitor at what you try to do, and always commit yourself to what you try to do. At the end of the day, if you commit yourself to what you love to do, you'll have success in your life.
Woodson on the six pillars: Look at these six pillars of character and try to apply them in your lives. If you can't get all of them, you can't get all of them. But if you can just get a few, that makes you a better person. At the end of the day it'll make your household a better home, and it's going to make your community a better community to be in and your school a better place to go to school.
Woodson on facing obstacles: Everybody has obstacles they're going to face in life. It's a part of reality. As a student you might have a bad night sleep before a test. You might be fighting a cold before you take a test, you're not feeling well, and things are going on in your family before you go to school the next day. As you get older, certain things that happen in the workplace, maybe with a coworker or your boss, but you can't let those things define who you are. You can't let if you don't succeed at something define who you are. I said it in the first telecast to the students; failure is an event, not an individual. You can keep coming back from those types of things. The same thing applies when you come across obstacles that get in your way. You can't let those make you quit. When I played against Slaughter, he was an older player than I was, he had his success against me, and I had to learn from my mistakes I had made against him previously to become a better player. I could have easily said, "I can't cover this guy, I don't want to cover him anymore." But I kept learning from my mistakes and eventually I started to get the better part of him. I didn't become a quitter. I think that's one thing in life you can't become. You can't let something that's hard make you quit. You can't let that become part of your character. We talk about these six pillars of character and quitting cannot be one of them. If you become a quitter, it becomes a habit. That's a hard habit to break. That's one thing I try to emphasize to my five kids in my house that if you start something, I need you to finish and I need you to work your way through the hard times and once you do that, you'll understand that life is not easy, but when you find a way to fight through it, you become tougher and a better person mentally and physically.
Woodson on life lessons in football: I think sports in general, not just football, are a good life lesson. It's a good teaching tool if you let it. If you look at football, football is a team, just like every household in America is part of a team. When you go to work, it's going to be part of a team. When you go to the classroom, you go to school, it's kind of part of a team because you have your leaders and teachers and roles as students. You're always going to have a leader and you're going to have people that have certain roles within that team. I think it taught me that in every place that you go you're not always going to agree with every person. I didn't always agree with my brothers with some of the things they said and did. Nevertheless, I love my brothers. You're not going to agree with every classmate. Teachers are not going to agree with each other in some of the philosophies of the way they teach. As a coach now, I probably won't agree with every coaching philosophy I run across. Nevertheless, I still have to understand my role in my team and I think that has been a good life lesson for me to understand the discipline of being on time because when you're on a team, you're going to have to be somewhere at a certain time. You have to be there even if you don't want to be there. It taught me that. It taught me sometimes when to say things and when not to say things. It taught me to understand the most important part of the team is the team as a whole, not as me trying to be the star player or me trying to take all the attention all the time. I think the biggest and best part of teams that have success is the teams that put the team as a whole in front of the individuals. Those are the teams that normally win Super Bowls and those are the corporations that have success. They're looking as a whole and not as individuals.