Reinventing greatness

Rod Woodson: The Ravens safety, a Pro Bowl choice at three positions and member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team, is back in the Super Bowl, five years after his first appearance.

January 24, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - Their best player is one of the nation's most controversial athletes. Cleveland might welcome back the owner - in another millennium.

Thanks to lightning rods like Ray Lewis and Art Modell, the Ravens are not the most beloved team to grace a Super Bowl. They nonetheless offer one of the more incredible feel-good stories in pro football in the person of Rod Woodson, the venerable free safety whom only New York Giants fans would dare wish ill will upon.

Dick "Night Train" Lane. Mel Blount. Ronnie Lott. Woodson is mentioned among the best ever to prowl a secondary, as he was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary team in 1998. He's the only man to go to the Pro Bowl as a cornerback, safety and kick returner, and it seems that the only thing lacking from his resume is a Super Bowl championship ring.

Woodson played in Super Bowl XXX for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but described the experience as a "cameo." A lithe cornerback with unparalleled cover skills, he began that 1995 season at the top of his powers, but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the season opener. Woodson became the first player in NFL history to return from a torn ACL in the same season, but his Super Bowl consisted of 15 plays.

"The first time I got here, I was hurt," Woodson said. "At the most, I was 75 percent. To have the opportunity to get back again and be healthy, and to know that when the defense steps on the field I get to be out there every single play, that's a good feeling."

Woodson would spend one more year in Pittsburgh. He visited Baltimore after the 1996 season, as the Steelers nominee for the Ed Block Courage Award, and didn't know he would be back so soon. After an unfriendly departure from Pittsburgh, he spent one season in San Francisco, then signed with the Ravens in 1998. The prevalent opinion was that Baltimore was getting a has-been.

"People write players off every day," said Woodson, who'll turn 36 in March. "Any time you turn over 30 in a professional sport, and you have an injury, they say you've lost it. It really takes about two years for the knee to completely heal from an ACL injury. It took me about 2 1/2 years for mine to completely heal. By then, I was in Baltimore."

Woodson converted from cornerback to free safety in 1999 and was named to the All-Pro team a sixth time. The switch came easily, because Woodson had played safety as a high schooler in Fort Wayne, Ind., and collegiately for Purdue.

"When Bill [Cowher] came to Pittsburgh, I always played around with him," Woodson said. "I said, `I'd be a good free safety.' I started football as a free safety. I played high school as a free safety, and played in college as a free safety. They moved me to corner when I got to the pros, but my comfort level at free safety was always there. The hardest part is playing downhill, coming up and playing the angles. Some of those running backs are big guys."

Woodson had four interceptions this season, giving him 58 for his 14-year career. He also provided guidance for a secondary in which the other three starters began the season with a combined six years in the NFL. While the youngsters learned from Woodson, he was driven by one more shot at a Super Bowl, this time on two sturdy legs.

"It made me appreciate the little things," Woodson said of his 1995 injury. "Getting up and playing with my kids, not hobbling down the steps. It made me respect all that even more."

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