Charles Woodson arrived in Oakland with his own set of wings and immediately traveled a road so treacherous it should not be followed by anyone who aspires to enduring athletic greatness.
Do not follow the Woodson blueprint because, well, you can’t.
Young Charles fought numerous injuries as well as himself before, in the middle of a tremendous NFL career, Mature Charles made peace with both and polished to shine his Hall of Fame credentials.
There was a time when it was an even bet whether Charles would make it to age 39 in good health, much less as a superb football player. He touched down in Oakland with a winning smile and a bit of restlessness to his spirit, coming to the Raiders in 1998 holding the Heisman Trophy in one hand and an oversize bag of Swagger in the other.
He pulled it off because he was incredibly gifted. He could, when fully engaged, be the best football player on the field for either team.
Young Charles was equal parts play and work and play, capable of fantastic performance yet never far from a good time once he showered and left the premises. He would cruise – or snooze – through defensive meetings during the week, shut down Randy Moss on Sunday afternoon and frolic deep into Sunday night/Monday morning.
The Welcome to Oakland party for Woodson, held at a downtown social club no longer in existence, introduced him to the local nightlife. There were many nights when Woodson, usually with a teammate or two, often in casual dress, would drop by a sports bar near Lake Merritt or a night club in uptown. Woodson was the life of the party, straight from the book of Joe Willie Namath.
Young Charles would spend the week hanging with the mischievous Andre Rison and, later, the rollicking Charlie Garner, and still throw a blanket over the NFL’s best receivers. Teammates marveled and coaches exasperated over the young buck who was squandering his peak physical years – and still going to Pro Bowls.
Imagine if Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel were consistently putting up Brady-like numbers on Sundays while maintaining his preferred nocturnal routine. Inconceivable, eh? C-Wood had more than a touch of that about him.
The worst of Woodson on the field was stunning and usually revealed against those receivers he deemed unworthy of his full focus. David Boston and Drew Bennett, to name two, gave Woodson fits.
In a conversation we had back in 2013, shortly after he rejoined the Raiders, Woodson conceded he was “kind of wild” early in his career. He was single, wealthy, handsome and fit. The Bay was his pool. He dived in.
Woodson by then had figured it out. After being rejected in 2006 by the Raiders – they let him walk as a free agent – and subsequently ignored by much of the NFL, he was practically forced to rebuild his image in, of all places, Green Bay.
One could practically hear the music, the throbbing soundtrack to Woodson’s life, screech to a stop.
Woodson’s friends have told me Green Bay was the best thing to happen to Charles. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who was in Green Bay with Woodson arrived, echoed the sentiment. Even Woodson acknowledged that the move – initially perceived as a form of banishment – sounded the alarm of reassessment.
He regrouped as a Packer and played the best ball of his career. Woodson, at 33, was named Defensive Player of the Year. He had achieved balance in his personal life, becoming a husband and a father, discovering the benefits of having a real work ethic while still being young enough to do the work.
So he returned to Oakland in the summer of 2013 as a football man in full, having seen it all while living most of it. And it showed. Charles Woodson is a leader by deed – and by example. He is, at age 39, the best player on a decent defense who does not go by the name of Khalil Mack.
Woodson always knew he was a star and now, 18 seasons after his arrival in the NFL, as he scripts the epilogue of his career, there is no debate.
He did it his way, taking a path that would have defeated lesser souls, which nearly all of us are.