USA TODAY has been recognizing the nation's top high school athletes for more than 30 years. As we prepare to announce the 2014 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Preseason Football Team in a few months, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we’re catching up with Pro Football Hall-of-Fame defensive back Rod Woodson, who was a defensive back on the first ALL-USA team in 1982 for Snider (Fort Wayne, Ind.).
Before Rod Woodson was in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, before he was an All-Pro defensive back or an All-American football player and track star at Purdue, he wasn’t sure he wanted to play JV football at Snider.
“My sophomore year, I quit football because I didn’t like the way the coach talked to me,” Woodson said. “I went back later in the season.”
His junior year, he led Snider to a state Class 3A runner-up finish and was named All-State as a defensive back. His senior year, Woodson was named All-State at defensive back and running back and made the first ALL-USA high school football team. These days, he stresses that lesson of perseverance at Valley Christian (Dublin, Calif.), where he is a volunteer coach. His youngest son, Jairus, will be a junior wide receiver and defensive back at Valley Christian next fall.
“I keep telling kids to keep pushing, no matter what happens,” Woodson said. “It shows that you’re willing to fight through certain adversities. If you always give up because you don’t make the team,that might be a microcosm for the rest of your life.”
Woodson played 17 years in the NFL, making All-Pro seven times and playing in the Super Bowl for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders. He’s third on the NFL’s all-time list for most career interceptions with 71. He qualified for, but did not run in, the 1984 Olympic Trials in the 110-meter hurdles and still holds Purdue records in football and track. Despite of what he accomplished, he prides himself on maintaining a lunch-bucket attitude as a commentator for the NFL Network or as a radio commentator on NFL games for Westwood One. He draws a distinction between himself and Deion Sanders, another Hall of Fame defensive back-turned commentator.
“I think there’s different ways to commentate,” Woodson said. “I think Deion is very colorful. People love the Primetime persona. For me, I am a blue-collar guy. I am only going to say what I believe in.”
Palmdale, Calif., football coach and athletic director Jeff Williams played free safety at Purdue and occasionally roomed with Woodson on the road.
“Rod was the epitome of a perfect teammate,” Williams said. “He had no airs about him. He was one of the guys, but he played with a lot of confidence. One of the things I admired about him is he was a football and a track guy. I haven’t talked to him in a few years, but I know if I need to get him on the phone, he’s always there.”
Woodson has had a few side business interests, with ownership in several car dealerships, but he’s most comfortable talking football. He helped out at the Steelers’ training camp last summer and is mentoring Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay.
“I just love football,” he said. “Everything I have gained in my life, I got from football. I know a little about a lot but I know a lot about football. I love talking about what I know and other than that, I’m pretty quiet.”
Besides Slay, there are a lot of current NFL defensive backs whom Woodson said could become great, including Patrick Peterson, Janoris Jenkins and Richard Sherman.
“I love the young players who are playing extremely well out there,” Woodson said. “You know the job of cornerback is extremely hard. Everybody only remembers when they get beat. It is harder for the guys playing defense today because of the rule changes. You kind of feel for guys having flags thrown that wouldn’t have been thrown in my day. It’s a different era. What I see with the really good players is they don’t let the new rules get in the way.”
Woodson played in 239 NFL games. Only two defensive backs, Darrell Green and Ronde Barber, played in more.
“To play that long, you can’t have any major injuries,” Woodson said. “But the biggest thing is what Chuck Noll told me my first year, ‘This game is 85 percent mental’. The players who can learn the game, a lot of times their careers can last a lot longer because they can adjust.”
Even late in his career, when his speed wasn’t what it once was, his football knowledge helped him adapt.
“The last year I played cornerback (before switching to safety), I was with the Baltimore Ravens,” Woodson said. “In one game, the Jets kept running a receiver in motion and then Keyshawn (Johnson) would run a hitch route. Later, when they ran the tight end in motion, I knew it was going to be the same play. I jumped the route and had an interception. That was all experience and film study.”