Niyo: Hall of Famer Charles Woodson had his defining pro moment against Lions

Detroit News

Charles Woodson didn’t get a chance to celebrate the signature moment of his stellar college football career at Michigan quite the way he’d planned.

That electrifying punt return against Ohio State in 1997 — a play that helped clinch a Rose Bowl berth for the undefeated Wolverines on their way to a national title — was supposed to end with Woodson striking a Heisman pose, he admitted afterward, “but my teammates mobbed me too fast.”

Yet if ask him now — on the verge of his induction next month into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — to point to the defining moment in his remarkable NFL career, he’ll mention the one time he did strike that pose.

Lions fans probably remember it, too, because it came in Detroit on Thanksgiving back in 2009, when Woodson was the star of the Green Bay Packers’ defense. And it came in a game where then-rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford was making a surprising start for the lowly Lions only four days after suffering a separated left shoulder in a wild comeback win over Cleveland.

But it was Woodson who stole the show that day with a performance that went a long way toward him winning NFL defensive player of the year honors that season.

“I ended up with 10 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a touchdown, and uh, probably something else, I’m not sure,” he recalled this week in a media session ahead of next month’s Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in Canton, Ohio.

There was “something else,” of course. Woodson picked off Stafford twice that day, and after he’d returned the last interception for a pick-six to seal the win, he gave the Michigan fans at Ford Field a glimpse of that Heisman pose in the end zone, “just to remind those guys what it was like back when I was in school.”

More: The top five moments in Charles Woodson’s Hall of Fame career

Still, it’s that game as a whole that he remembers now, all the tackles and the blitzing and the ball-hawking ability that was on display. Woodson held Calvin Johnson — his Hall of Fame classmate this year — to just two catches for 10 yards on 11 targets that afternoon, though the eight-time All-Pro defensive back lamented the fact that one of Megatron’s catches accounted for the Lions’ lone touchdown of the day on their opening drive.

And it explains why he’s headed back to his home state next month to join a hallowed football fraternity, along with his former Michigan teammate, Steve Hutchinson, and the likes of Johnson, Peyton Manning, Troy Polamalu, Edgerrin James, John Lynch, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Cowher and Paul Tagliabue. (Last year’s special 20-member Hall of Fame class, which included Hutchinson, also is being honored this year after the 2020 ceremony was postponed to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

“That kind of epitomized what I was as a football player,” Woodson said of that Thanksgiving win in Detroit. “That particular game right there, it defines me as a football player and what I could do on that field.”

In short, he could do it all, which is something he’d shown in high school —  rushing for more than 2,000 yards as a senior at Freemont Ross — and then again in college as a rare two-way player on offense and defense who also starred as a return man on special teams.

Woodson, who ranks among the top five in NFL history in interceptions and passes defended, was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s. He then won a Super Bowl in 2010 with the Packers as the leader of Dom Capers’ defense, though he was forced to celebrate that win with his arm in a sling after breaking his collarbone in the first half of the victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But looking back now, he calls that six-year stint in Green Bay in the middle of his career a “beautiful transition,” sandwiched between a beginning and an end with the Oakland Raiders.

It was in Green Bay where he married his wife and became a father to two sons, all of whom were on hand when Hall of Fame CEO David Baker knocked on his door in February to share the news he was headed to Canton as a first-ballot inductee.

“It’s funny because you kind of talk to yourself before those moments come and you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to keep it together. I’m not going to cry,’” Woodson said. “But when the moment’s real, it’s real. … It kind of hits you. And then when I turned around and I saw my two boys, my wife and my mom standing there, in your mind you immediately start running back all of the time spent at your craft and being able to get to that moment and what it takes to get there.”

And that he’ll get there alongside Manning seems especially fitting. It was Manning, after all, that he beat out for the Heisman Trophy back in 1997, a stunning result as Woodson become the first primarily defensive player to win the award. When the two met up at the Super Bowl in Tampa earlier this year, shortly after the Hall of Fame announcement, they joked about it.

“It’s like, man, ‘We’re tied at the hip,’” Woodson said, smiling. “Here we are, 18 years for both of us in the NFL, Heisman Trophy candidates together, played each other multiple times. Our names will always be synonymous in NFL history, so it’s a great honor to go into the Hall of Fame with one of the best to ever do it — a guy who really was a trendsetter.”

And it’s an honor that’s just now starting to sink in, a few weeks before the ceremony.

“It’s something that you get to celebrate forever,” Woodson said. “It’s not one night. It’s not like I go in on (Aug. 8) and it’s over and I’m no longer saying I’m a Hall of Famer. No, I’m gonna say I’m a Hall of Famer on that Monday, that Tuesday, the next week, the following year. I get to celebrate that for eternity and what an unbelievable experience it’s going to be that night. And then for a lifetime to say, ‘I’m a Hall of Famer.’

“A game that you used to sit down and watch as a kid and it seemed so out of reach. All of a sudden you get there, you play your time and then they tell you, ‘You know what? You’re good enough to be amongst the greats.’ It don’t get no better than that.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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