The circumstances in which Reggie White and Charles Woodson came to Green Bay couldn’t have been any more different. One was hailed as a savior. The other in need of rescue. One the knight in shining armor. The other with cracks in not only his armor, but in his leg. One who spread faith. The other who spread a cancerous attitude throughout the locker room.
And yet somehow, despite vastly different paths to Green Bay, both players left with many of the same accomplishments. Both won a Super Bowl trophy. Both won Defensive Player of the Year. And both accrued enough Pro Bowl appearances and statistics to solidify themselves as eventual Hall of Fame inductees. Pretty impressive stuff.
And yet none of that is what I’ll remember most about either player. Because while Woodson and White gave the Packers plenty of tackles, sacks, interceptions and wins, they also gave the team something far more important:
Just one look around the sports world and it’s easy to see the teams without one. The Lakers boast four eventual Hall of Fame players in their starting lineup and can’t seem to translate numbers into wins. And up until recently, the Redskins were the poster child for haphazardly constructed rosters who had nothing more than bloated contracts and some jersey sales to show for it.
On the flip side, it’s just as easy to see the teams that have an identity. You can usually find them near the top of the standings.
For most people, a few moments encapsulate Woodson’s impact on the Packers’ identity. Maybe it’s the emotional halftime speech he gave while fighting back tears and the pain from a broken collarbone during Super Bowl 45. Perhaps it’s the locker room erupting after his famous, “We’ll go see him!” line after their NFC Championship win that same year. Or maybe it’s simply the tales of his obsessive film study and staunch work ethic.
For me though, what made Charles Woodson so important was that his biggest contributions often came in the smallest moments. One play in particular sticks out.
In week three of the 2009 season versus the Rams, the Packers defense lined up in what was for the most part, a pretty mundane game. Taking a handoff right, Rams running back and human wrecking ball Steven Jackson started to make his way up field in the same way you’d imagine a speeding HumVee plowing through a cluster of construction barrels.
With linebackers and defensive tackles bouncing off him, Jackson had just one man to get through in order to have a clear path to the end zone -— the 200-pound Charles Woodson.
That play started as 3rd and 9.
Jackson got 8.
Where most defensive backs would have been more than happy to pull the matador routine or at most, half-assedly go for a shoestring trip, Woodson squared up, lowered his shoulders, met Jackson head on and when he finally managed to peel himself off the ground, wound up looking like something that got tangled in the blades of your lawnmower.
But still, he got the stop. And it came in a game that meant next to nothing, against an opponent that probably wasn’t going to win, and in a situation that wasn’t make-or-break.
These are the things that defined Charles Woodson. Like Reggie White, Woodson didn’t just play alongside 10 other men. He played for them. But where Reggie led with a soft-spoken voice and a kind of sage wisdom (despite a vicious head slap technique), Woodson guided by example, showing a toughness and fearlessness that you could almost see infect other players. If Reggie was the Minister of defense, then Woodson was a Crusader.
As we all know, the Packer most defined by toughness is Brett Favre. But remember, Favre had options. He could slide, throw the ball out of bounds or in his later years when it became clear his consecutive game streak meant more to him than anything else, he could avoid contact and throw the ball up for grabs in the hopes of not only preserving his ‘Ironman’ legacy, but in potentially dramatic fashion.
Woodson didn’t have those choices. Maybe he did, but it was clear from the moment Jackson took the handoff, they were never really considered. Woodson was standing defiantly on the tracks against a runaway train. And even though you could feel the impact reverberate through the TV, and see the pain course through Woodson’s aging and already narrow frame, he got up, trotted back to the sidelines and let the kicking team come onto the field to continue a seemingly meaningless game. But again, it’s those meaningless moments that mattered most.
Because with Woodson, you always felt like he took those hits without ever thinking what it would do to him.
But rather, if he didn’t step up and take those hits -— what it would do to the team.
So long, Chuck. See you in Canton.