Steely attitude remains Ravens: Rod Woodson has had lots of practice keeping his emotions under control, so he doesn't foresee any problems when his old Steelers teammates visit.

September 02, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The regular-season opener is only four days away, but Rod Woodson is calm about playing against his former team -- for which he earned All-Pro recognition -- and the city where he still resides.

No butterflies. No sweaty palms. No shortness of breath.

It's just the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom Woodson spent 10 seasons at cornerback. And so what if he is the franchise's record-holder for punt returns, punt-return yards, kickoff returns and kickoff-return yards?

It's just the Steelers, for whom Woodson had 38 career interceptions and was a frequent MVP, not to mention being named to the NFL's 75th anniversary team while wearing black and gold.

"I got this old saying that you don't get too high with the highs and you don't get too low with the lows," said Woodson, 33. "Opening day with the Steelers is going to be fun and exciting, but so are the other 15 games.

"At certain positions, you can let the adrenalin flow, get wild and crazy. Not at cornerback. You get that way, and six points are on the board. I didn't get this far in my career by being panicky."

It's his style, attitude and leadership that pushed the Ravens to sign him to an $11.5 million, four-year contract last February. Team officials want him to share his approach with his inexperienced peers in the secondary.

Thus far, it's working, and the Ravens are sold on Woodson.

"When I was with San Francisco, guys like Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana had a certain air about them," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "Rod has the same presence.

"Despite all his accomplishments, he is very approachable. He gives us stability and leadership back there, something we needed more of. He's not going to panic under any situation."

"He's just a veteran guy who knows what it takes to get there. He's been there," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "He gives the defensive coordinator a lot of comfort because he can sit back, run blitzes and know he has a good cover guy back there, one of the best. Rod lets us be football players again."

It would be understandable if Woodson were a little edgy about Sunday's game. One of his best friends and workout partners during the off-season is Steelers defensive back Carnell Lake. Woodson, his wife and four children live in Gibsonia, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and Woodson still owns a restaurant in the area.

He isn't bitter about his departure from the Steelers, but he's been irritated by comments from Tom Donahoe, Pittsburgh's director of football operations. During the early months of free agency, Donahoe was asked if the Steelers might be interested in several former players, such as Woodson and outside linebacker Kevin Greene.

Donahoe replied: "We're not the Salvation Army."

"I don't dislike him as a person. I think he's a good person," said Woodson, who turned down a back-loaded, four-year, $7 million contract offer by the Steelers after the 1996 season.

"He's done some good things in this league. But I don't approve of the way he's criticized former Steelers for going out, trying to make the most money they can.

"This past year, he had the opportunity to go to Seattle to make more money. He went out for a visit, then came back and met with the Rooneys and got a pay raise. He believes players are expendable. You can't keep losing Pro Bowler, Pro Bowler, Pro Bowler every year. Eventually, it catches up with you.

"Those personal comments in the papers about players, that bothers me. His comments were totally unnecessary and unprofessional."

Marvin Lewis kept in contact with Woodson while he played with the 49ers last year. Lewis disagrees with those who say Woodson has not played well since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the 1995 season opener.

Woodson had 60 tackles last season, 45 solo. He had three interceptions and defended 23 passes, forced one fumble and recovered another. He also had 11 penalties, several for holding, which might have been an indication he was getting beaten consistently.

"He got a bad rap, and it was undeserved. I watched film, saw him get beat long one time," said Lewis. "He wasn't used properly. Basically, he was asked to play as a run-off, or run sideways with a receiver. In the past, he would square up with a receiver, then turn and run. It makes a difference."

Woodson is back in a familiar system and close to his family in Pittsburgh, two major reasons why he signed with the Ravens.

There is nothing more important to Woodson than family. As the youngest of three boys growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., he watched groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers try to tear his family apart.

Woodson's father was black. His mother is white.

He remembers his mother once getting hit in the head from behind and lying unconscious for hours, with part of her body in the street, as people walked by, with no one stopping to help.

He remembers threatening phone calls late at night and being called "zebra" by classmates in grade school.

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