Though body's paralyzed, Woods' spirit is untouched

October 01, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Something so innocuous as going to meet his father for a ride home after an all-night card game led to Mike Woods never playing football again. Or even walking. It happened in Cleveland when the then-Baltimore Colts linebacker became the innocent victim of a shot from a robber's .38-caliber handgun.

His life changed forever when the bullet struck his spinal cord and he fell to the floor that May morning in 1982. Woods, a starter for the Colts in 36 of 48 games from 1979 to 1981, has been a quadriplegic ever since, although he says he has regained some feeling in his arms.

Since the shooting, there has been little reported about Mike Woods, who was 27 when his career ended so prematurely. He had been a second-round draft choice and the first football All-American in the history of the University of Cincinnati.

He was shot by an 18-year-old named Victor Gomez Jr., who decided to pull the trigger after robbing Woods' father. Woods remembers how it evolved. "It went 'bang,' " he said. "I didn't know I was hurt until I tried to move and couldn't. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He still lives near Cleveland, refusing to quit in the face of the massive problems that have confronted him. Woods, whose spirits continue to be upbeat, receives disability payments from Social Security and the Pro Football Players' Association.

He said he was told that Robert Irsay, the Colts' owner, and Irsay's lawyer, Michael Chernoff, instructed team employees to avoid visiting him after the shooting because it might mean the club would have some kind of financial responsibility. Irsay, indeed, distanced himself from his wounded player and, to this day, has never talked with him, Woods said.

When Woods returned to Baltimore for a visit to a game, he was wheeled to the Memorial Stadium press box and Irsay, only 15 feet away, never came to his side to say hello, to inquire about his condition or offer a comforting word.

But Woods says he's not upset over Irsay's attitude. Woods is much too positive for that, as he showed in a telephone interview from his home in Richmond Heights, Ohio.

"It's just like I always was . . . only I can't walk," he said. "There are good days and bad. You just have to deal with it. You know what I'm saying?"

After the accident it was difficult for him to watch televised football. He had been shot down in the prime of life, but he refused to complain or even to ask the one question that has no answer: Why me?

In conversation, he inquired about Lenny Moore, who served as the Colts' director of community affairs during Woods' time in Baltimore. "I thought about calling Lenny 9,000 times, but I didn't have his number," he said.

Moore and his wife, Edith, defied the Irsay-Chernoff edict that front-office workers not have anything to do with Woods. The Moores, much to their credit, traveled to Cleveland and visited him during the early phase of his rehabilitation.

Another close friend is teammate Sanders Shriver. "That's my man," he said with excitement. "I haven't heard from him in some time, but I know I will. I hope he's doing OK." As for quarterback Bert Jones, he wondered what happened to him after the Colts dealt him to the Los Angeles Rams.

Told Jones was living in his native Ruston, La., he said, "I thought maybe when he went to Los Angeles he'd go on to Hollywood to be a movie star."

He also wanted to know about Ernie Accorsi, now with the New York Giants as an assistant to the general manager. "I liked Ernie so much," he said. "A good guy and I learned a lot through him. I dTC talked to him when he was with the Cleveland Browns."

Accorsi, the Colts' general manager at the time of the shooting, and coach Frank Kush made the trip to Cleveland after Woods' injury to offer encouragement.

Despite his problems, Woods still doesn't indulge in self-pity. "You really need to do things for yourself. I used to be productive. You try to make the adjustment. Never asking for assistance has been the biggest change. My family has been important to me."

Woods lives with his father, wife, Marlene, and one of his four children. He passes the hours reading, working with a computer, being around his family and listening to music. Occasionally, with access to a van, he attends a high school football game.

He says he "really liked Jimmy Irsay, although I haven't talked to him in a while," relating how the owner's son once sent him a tape of some music they both enjoyed. As for the senior Irsay's stone-cold rejection, he said: "It takes a lot of fun out of it. You give all you have to give and expect it from them but . . ." His voice trailed off.

Through all the trauma, has Woods gained strength through religion? "That's a good question," he answered. There was a long pause before he replied: "Every day I'm growing with the Lord and I get a little bit closer."

When asked his feelings toward the man who was sentenced from 15 to 60 years in prison for gunning him down, he said: "Don't ask me. I went to court and looked him in the eye for half an hour." Did Woods talk to him? "Yeah, eye-to-eye," was the way he phrased it. Obviously, there was no reason for dialogue. Being in a wheelchair conveyed all the message that was necessary.

Mike Woods doesn't lament his situation. He refuses to cry.

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