When someone is asked who was the greatest quarterback in Miami Dolphins history, two names will dominate the conversation: Bob Griese, who led the great teams of the early 1970s, and Dan Marino, the prolific signal-caller of the 1980s and 1990s.
David Woodley served as a bridge between those two eras. He wasn’t nearly as prodigious as Marino, and unlike Griese, he didn’t have the great fortune or luxury of playing on stacked ballclubs.
Still, Woodley made his mark on Dolphins history while playing on some very strong but somewhat forgotten teams. Unfortunately, his desire to avoid the limelight and discomfort with fans and even teammates ultimately did him in.
On Oct. 25, 1958, David Eugene Woodley was born in Shreveport, La. to John and Hazel Woodley. John was an attorney, which allowed young Davis and his six siblings to live a comfortable, middle-income lifestyle growing up.
But in other ways, his childhood wasn’t comfortable, as John was an alcoholic. Growing up, David emerged as an introvert, and over the years, his standoffish demeanor would cause him to be misunderstood and even disliked at times.
Nonetheless, he stood out at Byrd High School in Shreveport, starting at QB for three seasons and earning all-state honors.
Woodley then went on to Louisiana State University down in Baton Rouge. He wasn’t a full-time QB, as he shared such duties with Steve Ensminger.
Although Ensminger wasn’t particularly more productive than Woodley, he was more popular with the fans since he was from Baton Rouge. Woodley would often get booed, and although he tried to use it as motivation, the disrespect ate away at his soul.
His biggest gift was not only his throwing arm, which dispensed passes quickly, but also his speed. As an LSU Tiger, he didn’t throw a lot of touchdowns, but he scored more of them with his legs than plenty of other quarterbacks.
He also had a strong visceral feel for the game, so much so that in high school he would change or concoct plays in the huddle.
As a junior, he ran for 398 yards and five touchdowns, and he upped that to seven touchdowns in his senior season of 1979.
That year, he drove LSU to the Tangerine Bowl, where it defeated Wake Forest University 34-10. Woodley was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
He seemed to be living the adolescent dream of many American men. However, the spotlight and the pressure of being a quarterback at a prominent football school and living up to such expectations killed him on the inside.
Something inside of him changed during his college days.
“He was such a natural and a prankster,” said Jerry Badgley, who played center while Woodley was at Byrd High School. “He was the guy throwing books out the window in English class, a mischievous, fun guy.”
The boos Woodley ensured caused him to turn inward. He turned to drinking beer to deal with the pain, and it became a habit.
“If he would get depressed, he would drink a lot,” said Suzonne Bruhnke, whom Woodley met in college and later married. “I’d try to get him in a better mood, and sometimes you just couldn’t.”
Just prior to his senior season at LSU, none of his teammates had seen him in quite some time. Head coach Charles McClendon asked John Ed Bradley, a fellow player, to find him by giving him a master key to all the players’ dorm rooms.
When Bradley went inside Woodley’s dorm, he saw his teammate drinking one of numerous beers and smoking cigarettes. Woodley looked pale, and he asked Bradley to leave him alone.
Things were looking up for him late in his senior year at LSU. With the football season over, Woodley was attracting interest from pro scouts, and when talking to Bradley one day that spring about the possibility of playing in the NFL, he perked up a bit.
Success And Agony In Miami
Woodley was almost an afterthought in the 1980 NFL Draft. The Miami Dolphins ended up selecting him, but they waited until the 214th pick in the eighth round.
The Dolphins had been one of the NFL’s most successful teams of the 1970s, having won back-to-back Super Bowls early in the decade while becoming the first and only team to go totally undefeated, during the 1972 season (including the regular season and playoffs).
But Hall of Fame QB Bob Griese was aging and hobbled by the end of the decade, and legendary head coach Don Shula liked Woodley enough to give him starting job in Week 4 of the 1980 season. It was the first time he would get on the field as an NFL player.
Woodley played poorly that week against the New Orleans Saints, completing just 4-of-15 passes and throwing three interceptions. At the time, few seemed sold on him – in fact, a local newspaper called him a “sacrificial lamb,” which struck a nerve with Woodley.
The next week, he was buried on the bench again.
After Griese injured his shoulder in Week 5, Woodley would soon move back into the starting lineup. He had some great moments, such as the Week 10 contest against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams in which he rolled up 161 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in a 35-14 win.
But overall he was shaky. Although he was named to the NFL All-Rookie Team, he finished the season with 14 passing touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
The Dolphins finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time in three years, not exactly a promising rookie year for something who was ill-equipped to deal with challenging times or the criticism that came with them.
With Griese retiring, the team would go with a unique arrangement at quarterback moving forward. Woodley would split the starting QB duties with Don Strock, something that is very tough to pull off, partly because it involves bruising the egos of both players.
But it would work, at least tenuously, and the split QB situation would be called “WoodStrock.” In many ways, it was successful for coach Shula and the Fins.
Woodley started all 15 games he appeared in during the 1981 season, and he threw for 2,470 yards and 12 touchdowns (along with 13 interceptions), while also rushing for 272 yards and four touchdowns.
Miami rebounded nicely to finish with a record of 11-4-1, which was first place in the AFC East. But beneath the surface, the dual QB system wasn’t really a day at South Beach.
In fact, for Woodley, it was a repeat of his time at LSU.
While Woodley continued to be brooding and standoffish, Strock was outgoing and easier to like. He was more of a natural leader and enjoyed fraternizing with his teammates on and off the field.
But Woodley handled it pretty well, at least on the outside, and he had his moments in ’81. On four occasions that year he threw for over 200 yards in a single game.
🗓️OTD in 1981: David Woodley celebrated his 23rd birthday by throwing for a career high 408 yards & 3 TDs vs the Cowboys! But it wasn't enough as Danny White crashed his bash by throwing 2 TDs in the final minutes to pull out a Dallas victory 28-27.#FinsUp #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/e2QjdIcNNn
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) October 25, 2019
In the divisional round, the Dolphins would face the San Diego Chargers, a freewheeling team that was, in some ways, the polar opposite of Miami. While the Dolphins went with a conventional approach by running the ball a lot, the Chargers loved to air it out with legendary QB Dan Fouts and head coach Don Coryell’s vertical offense, nicknamed “Air Coryell.”
The game started out looking like a disaster for Miami. Woodley played poorly early on, throwing an interception and no touchdowns, while San Diego made a mockery of the Dolphins’ defense, which was usually one of the strongest in the NFL.
The Chargers took a ridiculous 24-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, and Shula decided to bench Woodley in favor of Strock. It turned out to be the right choice, as Miami outscored San Diego 17-0 in the second period to pull to within a touchdown at halftime.
Strock continued to do work after intermission, throwing a touchdown pass early in the third and helping to tie the score. Fouts and Strock then traded touchdown passes, and after a Chargers miscue, the Dolphins intercepted a Fouts pass and scored to take the lead.
A subsequent Miami turnover led to another San Diego touchdown, and with seconds left, the Dolphins had a chance to win on a Uwe von Schamann field goal, but it was deflected, and the game went into overtime, where he missed another field goal, leading to a wild 41-38 loss for Miami.
Many consider the contest the greatest playoff game in league history, but unfortunately, Woodley not only came out on the losing side, but individually, he came out of it looking like a loser because of his poor performance and benching.
If he was crushed following the heartbreaking loss to San Diego, he didn’t show it. In fact, he kept his starting spot in 1982 and got considerably more playing time than Strock.
The 1982 campaign was shortened to nine games due to a player’s strike, but Woodley did fairly well, throwing for 1,080 yards and five touchdowns to go along with 207 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
In fact, in Week 1 against the New York Jets, he scored a receiving touchdown, making him one of the truly rare players in NFL history who have scored a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown in the same season.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 30, 2020
The Dolphins, with a 7-2 record, again won the AFC East, and they headed to the playoffs looking to avenge the ghosts of ’81.
That year, the playoffs had an expanded format where 16 teams participated, meaning that Miami would have to play a wild card game against the New England Patriots. During the regular season, the Dolphins had suffered an embarrassing 0-3 defeat to the Patriots in Massachusetts in arguably Woodley’s worst game of the year.
But this time, the Dolphins were the home team, and Woodley made the most of the outing with 246 yards and two touchdowns while completing a remarkable 16-of-19 passes on the day, leading Miami to a 28-13 win.
Next up was last year’s party poopers, the San Diego Chargers. Anyone thinking that Woodley was going to succumb to his demons was sorely mistaken, as he completed 17-of-22 passes for 195 yards, two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown.
The contest was never really a contest, as the Fins shut down the Chargers, 34-13.
Woodley had a poor game in the AFC Championship game against the Jets, throwing three interceptions, but Jets QB Richard Todd had an even more disgusting performance, and the Dolphins won 14-0 to advance to Super Bowl XVII.
There, Miami would face off against the Washington Redskins, winners of eight games in the regular season, a team that was led by star QB Joe Theismann. The Dolphins were favored slightly, as even though the Redskins’ offensive line was fearsome, Miami had one of the league’s best defenses, which was nicknamed the “Killer Bees.”
Normally, playing in the Super Bowl elicits a tremendous amount of excitement for the players involved.
It is a shot at the world championship, and often the only shot they will ever get. The media coverage is out of the world, as are the television ratings, and players usually have to learn to shut out all the external noise and focus on the task at hand.
One would think that the occasion would bring Woodley out of his shell, but it didn’t.
The Dolphins made the trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. for the game, and on their first night there, Strock took a handful of his teammates out to dinner at a Japanese steakhouse.
Woodley? He stayed in his hotel room, ordered food by himself, smoked cigarettes and perhaps drank some beer.
During media availability, he was similarly taciturn with the media. At age 24, he was the youngest quarterback in Super Bowl history, and a reporter asked him what he thought about that.
Woodley’s answer was a curt and empty “not much.”
“I don’t think he enjoyed any bit of it,” Dolphins receiver Jimmy Cefalo said. “Not a single lick of it.”
But Woodley came out focused, and early on it looked like he may end up having something to be happy about after all. On Miami’s second offensive possession, he hit Cefalo for a 76-yard touchdown reception.
— Jeff Pearlman (@jeffpearlman) February 5, 2021
When von Schamann made a field goal and Fulton Walker converted a kickoff into a 98-yard touchdown return, Miami led 17-10 at halftime, and fans back in South Florida were getting ready to ice down some champagne.
But Woodley picked the worst 30 minutes of his life to go into a slump. He threw eight passes in the second half and completed none of them, and not coincidentally, Miami’s entire offense fell apart.
On the other side of the football, Miami’s defense couldn’t pick up the slack, leading to a 27-17 loss.
Woodley’s poor performance in Super Bowl XVII was universally panned, and it would prove to be the beginning of a downward trend for him.
He was still the Dolphins’ starter to begin the 1983 campaign, but other than a Week 2 win against New England, he struggled, and so did the team’s offense.
Coach Shula had seen enough. In Week 6 he sent Woodley to the bench and promoted a rookie named Dan Marino.
Marino proved to be a revelation right away, and the newest sports star in South Florida. Behind his leadership, the Dolphins finished 12-4, and their offense looked better than it had in years.
Meanwhile, Woodley was forgotten, as he wouldn’t see the field after his demotion.
At the conclusion of the season, Miami would trade him to the Pittsburgh Steelers. There, he would be replacing another great QB: a fellow Shreveport native named Terry Bradshaw.
The Steelers were still a good team, but they were no longer the powerhouse they had been in the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls. Pittsburgh believed so much in Woodley that it instantly signed him to a three-year contract worth about $2 million, and head coach Chuck Noll seemed to have high hopes for the 25-year-old.
Woodley would compete with incumbent backup Mark Malone for the starting QB spot in 1984. Although Woodley would win that competition, it would not be smooth sailing.
He played well in his first three games, throwing a total of six touchdowns and just two interceptions, and the Steelers started 2-1. The fans took a liking to him, as he seemed more reliable than Malone.
Classic Clip of the Day…
Lipps & Weegie
In ‘83, Pit beat the Jets in the last game at Shea. In ‘84, they beat the Jets in New York’s 1st game at their new home.
On Thurs night in week 2, the Steelers scored 2 TD’s on David Woodley passes to oddly named rookies. pic.twitter.com/euzwRqdYcT
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) April 17, 2019
But the team regressed, losing two of its next three as Woodley reverted back to his old ineffective self. With him suffering a bruised shin and multiple concussions, Malone would take over for him under center, and although he didn’t perform much better, the results were noticeably better, as Pittsburgh won six of its nine games with him as its starter.
Malone was made the starter once the 1985 season commenced, but when he missed multiple games due to injury, Woodley was back in the starting lineup, but it didn’t translate into wins.
After reaching the AFC Championship the year before, the Steelers went 7-9 in ’85 and missed the postseason.
By now, the negative energy of not living up to other people’s expectations and failing to produce wins on the field for his team was taking over for Woodley. His beer drinking intensified and got worse, and his love for the game was waning.
In Week 14 against the Chargers, Woodley felt he’d had enough. Just an hour before kickoff, he called his wife from the locker room and told her he was calling it quits.
She was able to talk him out of it, and he ended up having his best game of the season, completing 24-of-35 passes for three touchdowns and an additional score on the ground.
But it wasn’t enough to change his fortunes. Noll let him know just prior to the 1986 season that, once again, he would not be starting.
Woodley instead decided to retire, giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. He was just 27 years of age.
If Woodley seemed like a joyless human being, football was the one thing that brought him happiness. Without it, he became something of a lost soul.
“Football was his life,” said Bruhnke. “He didn’t know what to do with his time after that. We had a health club we had bought in Miami, and he just kind of let it go, too. He just didn’t have any heart for anything after that.”
Without the game, his drinking got even worse. Instead of just imbibing beer, he turned to rum, and it became too much for Bruhnke, who divorced him in ’86.
For a minute, there was a glimmer of hope. Woodley was invited to try out for the Green Bay Packers during training camp in the summer of 1987, but that hope fizzled out fast when he didn’t make the roster.
He had nothing to turn to in retirement, or at least nothing he was willing to turn to. Former teammates, such as Cefalo, sometimes tried to reconnect with him, but all they heard was crickets.
At one point, Woodley did attend LSU-Shreveport in order to get his degree in information technology while managing the athletic facility there.
For a brief period, he even did color commentary on the radio for football games at his alma mater, Bryd High School.
But his demons, and his resulting drinking, were what dominated his life. His liver got battered from all the alcohol he consumed.
One day, his belly swelled up due to his drinking. Woodley decided to stay up all night and not sleep because he was afraid he wouldn’t wake up.
In 1992 he needed to get a liver transplant. With no real means of financial support, he ended up having money troubles.
In late 2002 and early 2003, Woodley started calling some of his old mates and tried to reform those old connections that he never really built. He also called Bruhnke and apologized for all of his misdeeds that may have caused her pain.
He must’ve known the end was near. In the spring of 2003, he ended up in the hospital due to alcohol-related complications, and he passed away on May 4.
Woodley’s career and life is a cautionary tale about what it takes to be a pro athlete and find happiness through such a career. It takes much more than athletic ability, intelligence or even intangibles such as work ethic, determination, desire or coachability.
Succeeding in the public eye like that also requires the ability to adroitly engage in the requisite give-and-take with fans and the public. Some souls simply were not gifted with that ability.