Since the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers have consistently produced great defenses.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, and Rod Woodson put Pittsburgh back on the map.
Those defenders were part of a talented Steelers team that played in Super Bowl XXX.
Believing Woodson was near the end of his career, Pittsburgh let him go after the 1996 season.
He would then star for three more teams and appear in two more Super Bowls.
Rod Woodson. pic.twitter.com/MqI7LRwlKu
— Steelers History (@SteelersHistory) May 28, 2022
In 17 seasons, Woodson set numerous NFL records including interceptions returned for a touchdown.
He is still considered one of the best defensive backs in league history, and Woodson’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame confirmed his bona fides.
This is the story of Rod Woodson.
Chip on His Shoulder
Roderick Kevin Woodson was born on March 10, 1965, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) March 10, 2021
Woodson grew up being teased about his biracial parents and the fact that he was of mixed race.
The taunts lessened somewhat when Woodson began to play sports.
It became obvious to classmates and onlookers that Woodson was athletic and could stand up for himself when needed.
“I was taught to never back down,” Woodson said. “When you’re mixed, you have three options: stay in the middle, pick a side, or stand on your own. My parents let me know I didn’t have to pick a side, because I always had a friend in my family. I learned to stand up for myself and to never be afraid.”
With the support of his family, young Rod had a chip on his shoulder and was determined to show doubters what he could do.
By the time he reached Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Woodson was known for his ability to play multiple sports.
He played football, basketball, and track at Snider, although he almost gave up the gridiron when he was a sophomore.
“My sophomore year, I quit football because I didn’t like the way the coach talked to me,” Woodson said. “I went back later in the season.”
He would be glad he did.
By the time he was set to graduate, Woodson was named an All-State defensive back as a junior then was named All-State as a defensive back and running back as a senior.
— stadiumtalkcom (@stadiumtalkcom) January 6, 2023
Additionally, Woodson was named to the inaugural list of the All-USA high school football team.
As a basketball player, Woodson was All-Conference during his senior year.
He was no slouch on the track, either, winning hurdle events left and right and winning four titles during his final two years.
There was no shortage of colleges who recruited Woodson, but when Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, offered him a full ride, Woodson accepted.
When Woodson arrived in West Lafayette, he was ready to help the Boilermakers wherever he could.
Purdue had just finished a 3-8 season in 1982 under new coach Leon Burtnett, and Woodson was itching to get the team more wins in 1983.
That wouldn’t happen, unfortunately, as the Boilermakers won only three games again during Woodson’s freshman year.
However, Burtnett played Woodson in the secondary and on special teams.
As a freshman, Woodson had 14 kick returns for 313 yards, three punt returns for 15 yards, and an interception on defense.
He also competed for the Purdue track team and qualified for the 1984 Olympics in the 100-meter hurdles.
Woodson chose not to participate so he could concentrate on preparing for football.
Rod Woodson, Purdue (1983-86) pic.twitter.com/ETBvkCq0xE
— collegefootballguy (@cfootballguy24) July 29, 2019
During his sophomore year in 1984, Woodson continued to thrive on special teams and in the secondary.
He returned 14 kicks for 217 yards and snagged three picks including one return for a score.
Purdue finally got back on track and won seven games, then lost to the Virginia Cavaliers in the Peach Bowl.
Woodson was named a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a defensive back after the season.
Woodson Shines for a Losing Team
For the next two years, Woodson continued to prove that he had otherworldly talent.
As the Boilermakers won just eight games total in 1985 and 1986, Woodson held his own.
As a junior, he returned 13 kicks for 270 yards and hauled in five interceptions for 110 return yards and a touchdown.
He repeated as a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a defensive back.
That same year, Woodson took second in the NCAA Track Championships in the 55-meter hurdles.
Football + Track & Field ? 🤔
Rod Woodson was also an accomplished track and field athlete at Purdue, and was twice awarded All-America honors. He finished 2nd at the 1985 NCAA championships in the 55 meter hurdles and 3rd at the 1987 NCAA championships in the 55 meter hurdles. pic.twitter.com/YTYJhHXulq
— Coach Nixon T&F/XC (@CoachNixonTF) July 24, 2021
During his senior year in 1986, Woodson returned 30 kicks for 735 yards and one touchdown and also returned 19 punts for 167 yards.
On defense, he had two picks for 100 return yards and another score.
During the final game of the 1986 season, Woodson saw significant time on offense during the Old Oaken Bucket game against rival Indiana.
In addition to his special teams and defensive duties, Woodson played running back and rushed for 93 yards. He also caught three passes for 67 more yards.
His contributions that day helped the Boilermakers to a 17-15 victory.
For the third year in a row, Woodson was named a first-team All-Big Ten as a defensive back (one of four former Boilermakers to win three times).
He was also honored as an All-American kick returner.
.@cfbhall HOFer Rod Woodson ended his stellar @BoilerFootball career with 13 individual records. He left Purdue as the career leader in:
🏈 Solo tackles
🏈 INT return yardage
🏈 INTs returned for TDs
🏈 Kickoff returns
🏈 Kickoff return yardage#ImARealFan #BoilerUP pic.twitter.com/rzPJDQPDPK
— College Football Hall of Fame (@cfbhall) March 10, 2020
Woodson’s 11 total collegiate interceptions tied the program record, though that number has since been broken.
Woodson also owned Purdue’s record for interceptions returned for a score (3) although he is now second on that list.
In 2016, voters inducted Woodson into the College Football Hall of Fame.
First Round Pick
While preparing for the 1987 NFL Draft, Woodson continued to run track for Purdue, placing third in the 55-meter hurdles at the ’87 NCAA Championships. (Woodson was twice an All-American as a hurdler in college.)
He also competed in track events overseas and posted the fourth-best 110-meter hurdle time in the world.
Although the Boilermakers’ record from 1983–1986 was 18-26-1, Woodson was well known in NFL draft circles.
The Pittsburgh Steelers wanted him badly but were so sure that he would be taken before their spot at number 10 that then-coach Chuck Noll told his staff not to bother making a scouting report on him.
“I never even talked to the Steelers leading up to the draft,” recalled Woodson in 2022. “Not one conversation. I talked to all the other teams in the top 15, but the Steelers, we never had that conversation. I was expecting to go much higher, honestly, but I slipped down to tenth, which I was pretty happy about,” Woodson continued. “If I would have gone fourth or fifth, I would have been in Cleveland or somewhere, I would have been miserable.”
There is little doubt Woodson would have thrived no matter where he ended up.
— pittsburghpirateguru (@harvardplayer) December 27, 2021
However, getting drafted by an organization known for defense excited him.
“I was thinking in my head, ‘Hey, these guys are pretty good,” Woodson said. “I was thinking about the Steel Curtain… and then having the iconic Chuck Noll as head coach was so surreal for a country boy from Indiana, just playing for the Steelers.”
When Woodson arrived in Pittsburgh in 1987, the Steel Curtain glory days were long gone.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t nearly enough as the team had not reached the postseason since 1984.
As a rookie, Woodson played in eight games (but did not start any) and had 20 total tackles and an interception for a score.
He was also employed to return punts and kicks as Pittsburgh went 8-7 during the strike-shortened season.
Woodson Comes into His Own
Pittsburgh took a big step back in 1988, ending the year 5-11.
Woodson, however, started 16 games and had four interceptions, 88 combined tackles, and added a 92-yard kick return for a score.
In 1989, the Steelers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1984 with a 9-7 regular season record.
Woodson made first-team All-Pro along with his first Pro Bowl after returning another kick for a score and adding three picks, 80 total tackles, and four fumble recoveries.
— Steelers History (@SteelersHistory) November 19, 2022
Pittsburgh defeated Houston by three in overtime in the Wild Card round when Woodson crushed Oilers running back Lorenzo White and forced a fumble.
He then picked up the loose ball and returned it several yards before being tackled.
The play set up the game-winning field goal for Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, the Steelers lost to Denver by one in the Divisional round.
During the 1990 and 1991 seasons, Woodson solidified himself as one of the best cover corners in the league.
He pulled in a combined eight interceptions, six fumble recoveries, 137 combined tackles, and one sack. He also led the NFL in 1991 with 44 kick returns.
Although Pittsburgh missed the postseason both years, Woodson was voted to the Pro Bowl in ’90 and ’91. He was also a first-team All-Pro and second-team All-Pro respectively.
New Coach, Different Results
After the 1991 season, Noll retired as head coach of the Steelers.
That was the end of an amazing era that saw Noll begin his head coaching tenure with the organization in 1969. He guided Pittsburgh to relevance with great personnel and four Super Bowl titles in that time.
In his place came Bill Cowher, a former NFL linebacker and the recent defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cowher brought a gruff demeanor that was perfect for the Steel City.
As we head into Easter break, here is a quote from Hall of Fame coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Cowher! pic.twitter.com/MgXeuWaUM9
— BW Center for Coaching Excellence (@center_bw) April 14, 2022
As a former defender, he identified with the Steelers’ defense and sought to make it into a fearsome unit.
Linebacker Levon Kirkland arrived and Darren Perry was added to the secondary.
The defense brought an intimidating attitude to the field and ended the ’92 season as the second-ranked defense in the NFL.
Woodson was on fire as well, piling up four picks to go with 100 total tackles, a career-high six sacks, and a punt return for a touchdown.
He was a first-team All-Pro for the third time and also participated in his fourth Pro Bowl.
Woodson was fearless and threw his body into big running backs and tight ends, even though he was listed at 6’0″ and 205 pounds.
“If you want to be the best cornerback, you have to play like a linebacker, too,” said Woodson. “You have to take on pulling guards and tackles, and you must hit tight ends and running backs. Most cornerbacks, if they’re honest, will say, ‘I’m a cover guy. I don’t want to get involved in contact.’ You can’t be passive. If you don’t sell out on every play, you’ll come up a play or two short.”
Not only did he thump opponents in the run game, but Woodson also enjoyed covering the game’s best receivers.
“To play cornerback you have to be the best athlete on the field,” Woodson said. “You’ve got to respect wide receivers but never fear them. If you fear them, you’ll lose.”
Not even the great Jerry Rice was immune to Woodson’s confidence in himself.
“It has been said Rice can’t be covered man-to-man, but I say, Why not try? Why be afraid of a receiver?”
The ’92 Steelers ended the season 11-5 but lost to Buffalo in the Divisional round.
Defensive Player of the Year
In 1993, Woodson started the year with a bang when he intercepted San Francisco quarterback Steve Young twice in Week 1.
A few weeks later, Woodson became the highest-paid defensive back in the league when the Steelers signed him to a four-year, $12 million extension.
He then promptly rewarded the franchise with two picks against the Falcons a week later.
Woodson kept the party going in Week 7 by intercepting two more passes against the Saints.
Altogether, Woodson had eight interceptions for 138 return yards and a pick-six and added 95 tackles, two sacks, and 632 combined kick and punt return yards.
He was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year along with another first-team All-Pro nod and Pro Bowl.
Pittsburgh failed to ride the Woodson momentum after a 9-7 season and lost to Kansas City, 27-24, in the Wild Card round.
One year later, Woodson had four interceptions for 109 return yards and two pick-sixes in 1994.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) March 9, 2021
He also added three sacks, 83 total tackles, and 684 combined return yards resulting in a Pro Bowl selection and second-team All-Pro honors.
Pittsburgh was blessed with a rugged defense that included a linebacking core of Lloyd, Kirkland, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, rookie Jason Gildon, and fellow defenders Woodson, Lake, Deon Figures, and Perry.
The team won 12 games, then beat Cleveland in the Divisional round before losing to San Diego in the AFC Championship game.
Knee Injury Nearly Ends Woodson’s Career
Woodson and the Steelers firmly believed that 1995 would be their year to reach the Super Bowl.
In the first game of the season against the Detroit Lions, Woodson gave chase to Lions running back Barry Sanders.
As Sanders suddenly changed direction, Woodson tried to mirror him and felt his knee buckle.
“My foot went in one direction, my knee the other,” he said.
The result was a torn ACL, and it looked like Woodson was done for the year.
Hall of Famer Rod Woodson won the Ed Block Courage Award with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1996. Woodson played in one game in 1995 before tearing his ACL. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/DRXu3wkiVx
— Ed Block Foundation (@EdBlock) July 9, 2019
Thankfully, Cowher decided not to place Woodson on injured reserve and opted to wait and see how his star defender’s rehab would go.
As the Steelers went 11-5 and returned to the postseason, Woodson watched as Lake took his place.
Fighting to Come Back
The injury looked to have long-term repercussions and was possibly career-ending, but Woodson attacked rehab like it was his life’s mission.
Pittsburgh dispatched Buffalo and Indianapolis in the playoffs for a spot in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys.
It was the organization’s first Super Bowl since 1979 and the third time the Steelers and Cowboys faced off on the NFL’s biggest stage.
Miraculously, Woodson was cleared in time to play in the game.
When the news became public, Steelers teammates and fans rejoiced while the media rolled their eyes.
Several talking heads believed Woodson’s availability was only a gimmick and that he wouldn’t be the same player he was before the injury.
By making the roster for the title game, Woodson became the first-ever NFL player to return from major knee surgery in the same season he sustained the injury.
Although he was limited to a handful of snaps, at one point in the contest, Woodson knocked down a pass intended for Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin.
Rod Woodson returning from knee surgery for Super Bowl 30 and doing this after a big play. Shame the Steelers lost that Super Bowl though. pic.twitter.com/fpvodZNaEq
— Larry Lau (@larrymfinlau) October 20, 2022
Woodson then bounced up triumphantly and exalted by raising his repaired knee and pointing to it.
Unfortunately, Woodson couldn’t help Pittsburgh in the long run and Dallas defeated the Steelers 27-17.
Woodson Leaves Pittsburgh
In 1996, Woodson returned as if nothing happened.
He started all 16 games and had six interceptions for 121 return yards and a pick six.
Woodson also had 67 combined tackles, one sack, and a fumble return for a score.
Rod Woodson of the Pittsburgh Steelers signals touchdown after returning a Cincinnati Bengals fumble for a score
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) May 21, 2022
Because of his knee injury in 1995, Woodson never did return kicks and punts on a consistent basis for the remainder of his career.
His stats in ’96 led to a second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections.
Pittsburgh went to the playoffs and was humiliated by New England in the Divisional round 28-3.
As the season was concluding, Woodson and Steelers management began discussing an extension.
Eventually, a deal couldn’t be completed, and the franchise decided to part ways with Woodson, leading to shock and dismay from Steeler nation and Woodson himself.
“The new way of doing business in the NFL is not a pleasant business,” Woodson said after his release. “Management thinks this is a young man’s game. There is no consideration for what you have done, only what they think you can do.”
It wouldn’t be long before Dan Rooney, owner of the Steelers, regretted giving up on Woodson.
“When Franco Harris went to Seattle, that was the most difficult,” Dan Rooney said. “But this thing with Rod is right up there. I really wish he was finishing his career with us for a lot of reasons. It hurts.”
San Francisco Signs Woodson
Apparently, several other organizations around the NFL felt that Woodson had plenty left in the tank including the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners signed Woodson before the 1997 season and put him in a secondary that included Merton Hanks and Tim McDonald.
This also led to a reunion with former Steelers teammate Kevin Greene.
In 1997, Woodson proved he could still play well and recorded three interceptions (all in the same game, a career high) and 48 total tackles while the Niners won 13 games.
Niners legend Rod Woodson pic.twitter.com/BSoarUUA1m
— Baron von Lector, The Berlin Brawler 🇩🇪🇺🇸 (@BaronVonLector) October 20, 2022
After the Niners beat Minnesota in the Divisional round, Green Bay upended San Fran in the NFC Championship game.
When the season concluded, the Niners deemed Woodson and Greene too expensive and cut them both as salary cap casualties.
Woodson Becomes a Raven
San Francisco’s loss was the Baltimore Ravens’ gain.
Baltimore was about to begin its third season after relocating from Cleveland. The franchise had only won 10 games in the previous two years.
— GC4* (@GodzChild4eva) November 16, 2016
Woodson proved himself yet again by snagging six interceptions for 108 return yards, two pick sixes, and 88 combined tackles.
He couldn’t help Baltimore in the win column, though, as the team won just six games.
The Ravens fired Marchibroda after the season and hired former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick before the 1999 season.
Baltimore won eight games during the year and Woodson became the NFL’s interception leader with seven and returned two of the picks for touchdowns.
He was named to his eighth Pro Bowl after the year.
Ravens Reach Super Bowl XXXV
Billick quickly got the Ravens on the winning track, and the team assembled a great roster for the 2000 season.
Baltimore’s defense was one of the most talented units in pro football history, boasting the likes of Woodson, Tony Siragusa, Adalius Thomas, Sam Adams, Peter Boulware, Ray Lewis, Duane Starks, and Chris McAlister.
In fact, the defense ended the ’00 season having set league records with the fewest allowed points in a 16-game season (165) and the fewest rushing yards allowed during a season (970).
Woodson had four interceptions and 77 total tackles along with selections for second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl.
Hall of Fame DB Rod Woodson on the #Ravens' 2000 championship defense: "the process was to be the best that we can be each and every day. Or be a better version of ourselves tomorrow than we are today. Well, how do you do that? You gotta work." #RavensFlock #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/DRYgp7z4sy
— Maher 🇵🇸 (@pabloikonyero) August 19, 2022
The Ravens won 12 games and then beat Denver, Tennessee, and Oakland in the playoffs.
For the first time in the team’s short history, it would play in Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants.
In the title game, Woodson made six total tackles as the Ravens humiliated the Giants 34-7.
“In that one given year, we were arguably the best defense in NFL history,” Woodson said in 2007. “The downside is that we were only together for one season.”
Woodson Becomes a Raider
The following year, the Ravens returned to the postseason but lost in the Divisional round to Woodson’s former employer, Pittsburgh.
In 2001, Woodson had three interceptions, a pick six, and 76 combined tackles that led to a Pro Bowl spot.
After the season, he was released as a cap casualty for the second time.
Once again, a team would benefit from his release as the Oakland Raiders signed Woodson for the 2002 season.
He promptly led the NFL in interceptions with eight for 225 return yards and two scores along with 82 combined tackles.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) February 28, 2015
Oakland was already a good team and Woodson was the icing on the cake in ’02.
After winning 11 games, the Raiders defeated the Jets and Titans in the playoffs and faced Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Woodson played in his third Super Bowl with his third different team and defended a pass along with collecting eight total tackles.
The Buccaneers and former Oakland head coach Jon Gruden were too much, however, and Tampa Bay won easily, 48-21.
In 2003, Woodson started 10 games and had two interceptions and 51 total tackles.
Oakland regressed terribly and won only four games.
Then, in the summer of 2004, the Raiders released Woodson and he retired.
During his impressive career, Woodson had 71 interceptions (third best all-time) for 1,483 return yards (second-best all-time), 12 picks for scores (tops all-time), 32 fumble recoveries (best ever for a defensive player), one fumble return for a touchdown, 13.5 sacks, and 1,158 total tackles.
August 8, 2009 🏴☠️🏈#Raiders Rod Woodson was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
*As a Raider, played 26 games w/ 10 Ints, 2 TDs & 4 fumble recoveries. His 98-yard pick 6 at Denver is the 3rd longest in team history. He was named 1st Team All-Pro. pic.twitter.com/tSMUF32fRL
— AFL Godfather 🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) August 8, 2022
Furthermore, Woodson had 2,362 punt return yards and two returns for scores and 4,894 kick return yards, and two more returns for touchdowns.
He was an 11-time Pro Bowler (a league record for his position) including Pro Bowl trips as a corner, kick returner, and safety (another first). Woodson was also NFL Defensive Player of the Year once, two-time league interceptions leader, six-time first-team All-Pro, and three-time second-team All-Pro. Finally, he played in three Super Bowls with three different teams, winning one.
Woodson has since been named to the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams, the league’s 1990s All-Decade Team, the Steelers’ All-Time Team and Hall of Honor, and the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Since retiring, Woodson has not strayed far from football.
In 2009, voters inducted him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“The pinnacle of any professional football player’s career is to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and I’m definitely honored and humbled,” said Woodson.
He was an analyst for the NFL Network and BBC Sport for several years before entering the NFL’s minority coaching intern program.
Woodson served as an intern coach with Cincinnati and Denver and was also on the staff of the Raiders for four years.
Your NEW #LasVegas #XFL entry, the Vegas Vipers have a logo! It's right there upper left. Rod Woodson is fired up about this football venture for him. Pro Football #HOF 'er after spending 17 yrs as a player in the #NFL and some coaching. Woodson still holds record most pick-6 pic.twitter.com/BuLr76aCOR
— Parker andTheMan (@parkerandtheman) October 31, 2022
In the spring of 2022, Woodson became the head coach and general manager of the XFL’s Vegas Vipers football team.
Woodson is married with five children and currently lives in California.