DALLAS – Charles Woodson(notes) vividly remembers his first day of practice as a Green Bay Packer. Challenged by numerous coaches, marginalized as a sulking veteran with unwanted attitude, the chastened cornerback and Oakland Raiders refugee felt the sting of a bad reputation that had preceded him to Titletown.
"I didn't like anybody," Woodson recalled Tuesday, shortly after concluding his media day interview session at Cowboys Stadium. "That's what I remember about that day."
That day in 2006 made quite an impression on Woodson's new teammates as well. "It was rough," one Packers starter from that season remembers. "There was this one coach in particular who was all over him, and Charles did not take it well. The coaches were treating him like a guy with a bad attitude who they wanted to break, and he played right into it. There was a whole lot of yelling."
As Woodson prepares for the second Super Bowl of his 13-year career in Sunday's matchup between the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, he's getting shout-outs as a positive force in the football universe from all kinds of luminaries – including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
"I love what he represents," Goodell said of Woodson on Wednesday. "I just think everything about what he's doing is great."
To say that Woodson's image has undergone a monumental makeover in the five years since he left the Raiders to sign a free-agent deal with the Packers is an understatement. Since arriving in Dallas, he has candidly and forcefully harkened back to the lonely two months he spent as a free agent following the '05 season – a time when only one team showed legitimate interest in the former Heisman winner and All-Pro.
"It was time to go," Woodson says of his departure from the Raiders. "Green Bay – I was there because no one else wanted to take a shot on [me]. I had a bad rap. I was a little bit of a wild child. I enjoyed myself as a young man. I guess they were tired of it. That is one of the reasons why I was out of Oakland and why nobody wanted to take a shot on me.
"There was talk about my game declining and not being the player that I was and that I had lost a step – all of that came into play when it came to finding another team."
Woodson continues: "It was kind of decided for me. Nobody wanted me coming out of Oakland. I tried to go to a few other places and tried calling a few other places to see if they wanted my services. Some teams returned calls, some didn't. Green Bay was the only team that was calling my agent and trying to set up a time for us to go there and visit Green Bay and that's how it worked out. The decision was pretty much made for me."
It's a decision for which, looking back, Woodson is eternally grateful. After a choppy beginning, the reluctant signee began to fall in line with the program in Green Bay, coming to trust coach Mike McCarthy and his assistants. Woodson scaled back his social life, got married and had a son and came to embrace the joys of a low-key existence in Titletown. He became a respected locker-room leader and is on a potential path to a spot in the Hall of Fame.
After three productive seasons, Woodson was reenergized by the arrival of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who installed a 3-4 scheme before the 2009 season that allowed the team's top corner to be utilized in numerous ways. Once a shutdown cover man, albeit one with an uncanny physical presence and a penchant for ferocious tackling, Woodson now became a versatile defensive back who blitzed from all angles, worked the slot in nickel alignments and sometimes rotated to safety – as he did at the start of the Pack's 21-14 NFC championship game victory over the Chicago Bears.
He responded with an incredible '09 season that included nine interceptions, two sacks, three defensive touchdowns, 18 pass deflections and 74 tackles – and NFL defensive player of the year honors. While the numbers weren't as gaudy in 2010, Woodson remains a force for the league's No. 2 scoring defense as the Packers try to win their first championship in 14 years.
Not surprisingly, he loves the way Capers deploys him. "The island's fun," Woodson says, "but there's not a lot of action on the island. I like to be in the mix."
Woodson is approaching Sunday's game with a sense of urgency for numerous reasons. It's true that he may have other opportunities, given the overall youth of the Packers. At 34, he would seem to have plenty of football left – like former Steelers, 49ers and Ravens Hall of Famer Rod Woodson (no relation) and many other accomplished corners, Charles will likely extend his career by switching to safety.
With fourth-year cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) blossoming into one of the league's best cover men and ultra-fast rookie Sam Shields(notes) coming off a breakout performance in Chicago, Woodson can see the future: "I told our cornerbacks coach, Joe Whitt, that whenever I move to safety, however fast that happens will depend on Sam Shields and when he's ready to be a full-time corner. That's when I'll make that move."
Yet Woodson also understands the fleeting nature of NFL success – and how an opportunity can be stolen or squandered. He speaks from experience.
A star coming out of college, Woodson walked into a talent-rich Oakland locker room and shone from the start. By the 2001 season the Jon Gruden-coached Raiders were poised to win a championship and appeared to clinch a divisional-round playoff game against the Patriots – in the infamous Snow Bowl in Foxborough – when Woodson blitzed off the blind side and dislodged the ball from former Michigan teammate Tom Brady(notes).
The recovery by Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert would have essentially ended the game, but the seldom-applied Tuck Rule allowed New England to retain possession on a replay reversal, and NFL history was irrevocably altered. The Patriots went on to win the first of three Super Bowls, Brady became a mega-star and Gruden left to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Woodson still reflects back upon the play and the Super Bowl that might have been.
"I think we had that game stolen from us," he says. "There's no guarantee we'd have gone on to win the Super Bowl. But we had an opportunity stolen from us. It's crazy. I think about it from time to time. The hard part is, it wasn't something that happened on the field. It was an interpretation. That's a hard way to lose.
"I just read a couple of weeks ago that there may be some thought to review that rule again and maybe throw it out. If they do that I will be a happy man."
Woodson also remembers how the Raiders, after reaching the following year's Super Bowl under Bill Callahan, got blown out by Gruden's Bucs. Woodson, who had an interception in the game, played despite having suffered a broken leg weeks earlier. Even more crippling to the Raiders was center Barret Robbins' Tijuana party binge two days before the game that caused him to be sent home, disrupting Oakland's offensive scheme and preparation.
"I just wish I didn't have to go into that game with a broken leg," Woodson says. "All of us on that team wish we would have had another week to prepare for some of the distractions that happened that week. … Barret Robbins not making it to the team function. It had a great effect on the team. He was our starting center. He was the captain of that line. It altered everything, especially for our offense. We didn't recover from it and ultimately lost the game.
"I remember being on our way to a meeting and there were whispers about something happening, but nobody really knew what was going on. Then it finally got around that he hadn't made it in. Nobody knew where he was. It was just a crazy situation and something that you never expected to happen."
Back then, Woodson was a party animal in his own right. Now he's a respected team leader who's in the perfect place at the perfect stage of his career – and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"You go into situations a lot not knowing what that situation can become," Woodson says. "You go in there kind of blindfolded. It opened up my eyes knowing that you have to be a little patient with a situation because it is probably the best situation you can be in. That's what Green Bay was for me. I didn't want to go there, but I ended up there. It turned out to be a really great move for myself.
"Both myself and the community were apprehensive at first. They didn't know what they were getting from Oakland. It took both parties some time to get used to each other. What happened is people just really watched me. They watched the way I played the game and fell in love with the way that I played the game. At that point we both grew on each other."
And now? Well, as his coaches and teammates can attest, Woodson pretty much likes everybody.