FS Charles Woodson tied an NFL record with his 13th defensive touchdown with this fumble return for a score in the Raiders win over San Diego. Photo by Tony Gonzales.
When Raiders safety Charles Woodson came back home to Oakland after seven years in Green Bay with the Packers, fans craved the number 24 who was a Pro Bowl player in Silver and Black, a former Rookie of the Year and a force who helped lead the team to a Super Bowl in his first tour of duty with the Silver and Black. When Woodson scored his NFL record-tying 13th defensive touchdown with a scoop and score fumble recovery and secured his 56th career interception in a win against the Chargers two weeks ago, it looked like it was the same guy. It read "Woodson" on the back of the jersey, it was number 24 in home black, but it was far from the same guy.
Woodson was drafted fourth overall by Al Davis in 1998 after becoming the first player in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy primarily as a defensive player.
The cocky Heisman Trophy winner who arrived as the fourth overall pick in 1998 from Michigan relied on pure athletic ability and skills. He was allergic to the film room, telling Sports Illustrated very early in his career: "I'm not real big on watching film. You see the same stuff over and over, it gets boring. I fall asleep in meetings so often I think people have come to expect it. As soon as the lights go off, I'm out."
Despite his sleep patterns early on in his career and perceived lack of dedication off the field to the intricacies of his craft, Woodson was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1998. He had five interceptions, returning one for a score.
Woodson told me on my radio show, early on in his career he knew he was just better physically then his opponents.
"I was athletic and it didn't matter what anyone did, I could go out there and perform," Woodson said.
Former Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden was a rookie in 1998 as well. In his mind it was his job to get the most out of his initial first round pick and he didn't always see Woodson performing at his best.
"He played really well in games, but practice was a different story," Gruden said. "I had to call Charles in and tell him if you practice better I'll play you on offense. I had to bribe him to get him to practice better." Woodson also developed a reputation early in his career for enjoying night life off the field of which Gruden was wary. "He would get into a car with veterans Charlie Garner and Andre Rison and I said, oh no, there he goes," Gruden recalled.
Looking back on it while he was with the Packers, Woodson reflected on his early days with the Raiders and admitted that he didn't always make the best choices off the field when he was a young player.
"It was true, absolutely," Woodson said. "I don't deny any of that. I partied. I was 21, 22, 23, 24, I had plenty of money in my pocket. I wouldn't ever deny that or lie to anyone about it," Woodson said. "But when it came to someone you were going to count on come Sunday, I've always been that guy."
It was hard to tell Woodson to slow down off the field or become a film rat because his ability alone was more than enough to shut down not only the best receivers in the game on Sundays, but when he wanted to, corral a couple of the best receivers of all-time during the week.
"I remember coach (Jon) Gruden telling Charles to take it easy on these guys," (Jerry Rice and Tim Brown), former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said to me. "He would dominate. He could run circles around them."
After eight seasons in Oakland, 17 interceptions, multiple Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl berth, Woodson was a free agent after the 2005 season. Injuries from performing as one of the most physical corners in the league and his off the field reputation left few teams interested even though he was still in his prime at age 29.
After two months on the market, Woodson would reluctantly sign with the Green Bay Packers for seven years and a reported $52 million. Woodson didn't seem like a fit for the smallest market in the NFL, but it turned out to be the perfect place at the perfect time.
"I slowed down and focused on the game," Woodson said.
His former quarterback with the Raiders saw the difference in Woodson off the field as much as on it.
"He matured as a man and became a different guy," Gannon said. "He got married, had his boys, he grew up quite a bit."
While learning the art of film study, leadership and maturing off the field with his team and his family, Woodson would thrive on the field in football-focused title town. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, helped lead the Packers to a Super Bowl championship in 2010 and led the NFL in interceptions twice during his time in Green Bay.
After a 2012 season in which injuries limited him to seven games at the age of 36, Woodson was again a free agent and once more was surprised by a lack of suitors.
"I thought there would be more interest," Woodson told the NFL Network this summer. "This was my second time in free agency and both times I was shunned."
After visiting with a couple of teams, Woodson knew a homecoming was his best road at this point in his career and fans sealed the deal by showing up at Raiders headquarters in Alameda to show him they desperately wanted him back.
"That was really unexpected," Woodson said. "It gave me a good vibe on being here and I appreciated the support."
Gruden talked on my radio show about how he got sentimental when he saw his former star player return to Oakland for the first time - September 15th versus the Jacksonville Jaguars. "He's really matured as a man and become one of the all-time greats," Gruden said. "To see him come back to the Black Hole and finish, I got tears in my eyes when they announced him, it was emotional."
Woodson knows while he still wants to prove his critics wrong by playing at a high level at the freshly minted age of 37, he can bring more to the table off the field this time around. 2013 first round pick DJ Hayden is 23 and while Tyvon Branch, Mike Jenkins, Usama Young and Tracy Porter are veterans, no one in the secondary is older than 28. The average age of the defensive backs on the roster is 25.9 or more than 10 years younger than Woodson.
"I watch what he does, how he carries himself, he's a class act," safety Usama Young told me. "He's a guy you want to model your career after."
Hayden knows Woodson can relate to being a highly touted rookie corner. He said it's been a "blessing" to play with the respected veteran and he knows how to do and say things coaches can't.
"He'll be in the Hall of Fame," Hayden said. "He's been a great help to me with tendencies, formations, he's like a coach on the field. He also knows when just to put an arm around you, tell you things are going to be fine."
Woodson isn't ready to ride off just yet though. He's still got some records in his sights. With one more defensive touchdown, he can break a tie at 13 all-time with former Raiders Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson and former NFL safety Darren Sharper. With one more interception returned for a touchdown, he'll tie Rod Woodson for top honors all-time with twelve.
Beyond the numbers though, Rod Woodson told me the most important element Charles delivers to this much improved Raiders defense.
"He's really brought back that swagger," Woodson said. "They believe they can make plays on defense and the genesis of that is the return of Charles Woodson."
When we had Charles Woodson as a guest on our show when he arrived back in the Bay Area in May and asked him if he had lost any of that "swag" he laughed.
"I got swag coming out of my pores," he said.
Same swag, different Charles.