Ickey Woods was watching the Cincinnati Bengals' first playoff game this postseason when he saw a familiar touchdown dance.
Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah scored against the Las Vegas Raiders. Uzomah, who was born four years after Woods became an instant NFL phenomenon with the Bengals, broke into the "Ickey Shuffle." Every NFL fan of a certain age — not just Bengals fans — instantly knew what Uzomah was doing and had a nice flashback.
"It was a very cool moment," Woods said. "I got a chance before the AFC championship game to thank (Uzomah) and tell him I appreciated it, and he said, 'I always have to respect the legends.' That was great to hear."
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Woods' enduring fame is pretty surprising, if you think about it. He played in just 37 NFL games. He played four seasons and he had just 459 rushing yards in his final three seasons. There have been plenty of running backs over NFL history who have burned bright for a season and faded away without another thought.
Woods' magical season, when he rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie, happened 33 years ago. And still, you probably remember him fondly.
Did he think that would be the case?
"Never in my wildest dreams," Woods said this week.
"I was fortunate enough to play on a team that made it to the Super Bowl, and I created a little dance called the 'Ickey Shuffle' that stuck over the years."
The Bengals' unlikely Super Bowl trip this season has meant another wave of attention for Woods.
'Ickey Shuffle' is a big hit
For some reason, the "Ickey Shuffle" became a phenomenon. He'd take a few awkward steps to one side, a few more to the other, spike the ball and fans would go wild.
The dance still lives on. A few years ago, Geico called and asked Woods to shoot a commercial in which he celebrates that his number was called at the deli counter and then breaks into his dance. You might have seen that ad a few hundred times.
"I was surprised," Woods said. "They called and said they had an idea, and they wanted to use the shuffle and wanted to know if I was interested. I definitely was interested."
If you think about the famous NFL players from the past, most had great careers. Very few are well known decades after retirement with only one notable season on their resumes. It speaks to Woods' dance, an instantly recognizable nickname (would we remember him so well if he went by Elbert, his given name?) and most importantly a down-to-earth personality that endeared him to everyone.
"I had a great personality, people loved to be around me and say I’m a great guy," Woods said. "I was just a people person. I love talking to people and getting to know people and they enjoyed that.
"That resonated with a lot of people and that might be why they remember me. When they were a kid they asked me for an autograph, and I was kind enough to give it to them."
It was a bummer that Woods didn't have more great NFL seasons, though perhaps that's part of the charm too.
Woods' career shortened by injuries
In 1988, Woods was great. He was an early second-round pick of the Bengals after leading the nation in rushing at UNLV. As a rookie, Woods rushed for 5.3 yards a carry while sharing time with James Brooks. The Bengals went to Super Bowl XXIII, where they lost in the final minute to the San Francisco 49ers.
"I thought we should have run the ball a little more in the big game, but that wasn't my decision," said Woods, the leading rusher in that Super Bowl with 79 yards. "Then we go to that prevent defense at the end of the game and it did exactly that, prevented us from winning the game."
Woods probably should have won rookie of the year, but lost out to Patriots running back John Stephens. Still, Woods was an instant hit.
Then, like that, he vanished. In the second game of his second season he had an explosive run around right tackle against the Steelers, was tackled low and tore his ACL. It took Woods more than a year to return, then before his fourth season he suffered another knee injury. He returned to play that season but rushed for only 97 yards. He hadn't turned 26 years old yet and wouldn't play in another NFL game.
"I don't harp on the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens," Woods said. "I was fortunate enough to play the game at the highest level, fortunate enough to play in a Super Bowl. I just count my blessings. Life goes on, and there's life after football."
Woods has used his fame for a good cause that came from a tragedy. Woods does speaking engagements for the Jovante Woods Foundation, named after Woods' son who died at 16 due to an asthma attack. He brings awareness to the severity of asthma and raises money, and it won't hurt to have his name mentioned over and over this Super Bowl week.
"It’s been good for me man, it’s putting me back in the light and that has been a blessing for me to raise money for my son’s foundation," Woods said.
The Bengals' Super Bowl run has given Woods more opportunities to get his name out there, not that anyone has forgotten him. He still lives in Cincinnati, where he said he gets recognized all the time. Whenever his name is brought up among football fans it's typically not lamenting that he didn't have a longer career or anything negative, but generally with a smile over a great season and a funny TD dance.
"I’m an ordinary person," Woods said. "I played football and most people play a sport like that and get a big head and think they’re better than the next person. I just wanted to be treated like the next person, and lived my life that way."