Charles Woodson and the Making of a Sports Hero

The most celebrated individual player award in college football which goes to the best college player of the year during the second week of December is regularly referred to as The Heisman. However, I have not referred to it as such since December 13, 1997.

It was that date when my favorite defensive player of all time beat out one of the most star-studded Heisman finalist fields in history. In a class that included Ryan Leaf, Peyton Manning, and Randy Moss, the Heisman went to Charles Woodson, defensive back from the University of Michigan. From that day forward, I stopped referring to Charles Woodson by his name and renamed him The Heisman. Anyone who won the Heisman got respect, but there is only one Heisman in my book, and it's Woodson.

See, there are plenty of players who leave lasting impressions in their respective sports. Whether it’s through the amount of rings and titles they win, the last-second shots, the game-winning touchdowns, a home run, a last-second defensive stand, or a strikeout to punctuate a game, there are players who have done these things and will live in sports lore. While there are players I appreciate and will always ride with, there are few whom I consider sports heroes. I can probably count them on one hand, and there are numerous reasons why those players are heroes, as opposed to merely some of my favorite players.

Charles Woodson is one of my sports heroes. He is not only my favorite defensive player of all time, not only one of my five favorite football players of all time, he is one of my five favorite athletes of all time. To understand Woodson leaving such an indelible mark in the life of this sports fan, let’s take it back to 1997, when Charles Woodson was in his junior season as a cornerback at Michigan. I don’t remember what game it was that season that drew my attention to The Heisman, but there were enough to remember that let it be known the college football world was seeing a special player. Whether it was the sideline pick against Michigan State, the punt return against Ohio State, the end zone picks against Ohio State and Washington State and more, The Heisman left his mark on the game of college football in an electrifying, memorable and cool way. His 1997 season was so influential that it almost got me to work up the nerve to go play football as a junior in high school. Up to that point, I was a 24/7/365 basketball player. It was the only sport I had any interest in playing, and as much as I enjoyed football, I never had the desire to go play until I saw The Heisman make it look so fun.

There is no loss of irony that two of sports heroes were in New York the night of December 13, 1997 as finalists for the Heisman (Woodson and Randy Moss). There is also no loss of irony that the Dallas Cowboys had the eighth pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, and I secretly prayed that either The Heisman or Moss would fall to the Cowboys, despite the Cows already having Deion Sanders at corner and Michael Irvin at wide receiver. While Moss could have gone to the Cows with the eighth pick (and they FOOLISHLY passed on him), The Heisman was plucked by the Raiders at the fourth pick, thus sending a favorite son of the Midwest to continue his football exploits on the west side in the state of California.

The Heisman became one of the rising stars of the NFL and continued to wow the football world with his on-the-field exploits. He soon found himself as a part of a team that would go to the Super Bowl in only his fourth season in the league. However, it was the prior postseason (2001) which people tend to remember more, and it's for his role in the game which spawned The Tuck Rule. The game never bothered me like it was bothered others (*cough, cough* Phillip Barnett), but that’s because I’m not a fan of the Raiders or the Patriots to begin with. When The Heisman hit King Brady and forced a fumble, all I figured was the Raiders would be on their way to Pittsburgh, and the rest would be history. It didn’t work out that way and, arguably, that play was one that people would remember about Woodson since the Raiders didn’t do much else after the following season (along with the Heisman’s struggles with injuries).

Part two of The Heisman’s act took place in Green Bay. For me, I never cared when people questioned his leadership or his maturity. Plus, his previous stop was Oakland, not exactly to be confused with a beacon of stability. (It was the Raiders for God's sake, and I can forgive anyone who has their leadership or maturity questioned if they were a member of that shithole. Hell, the only part that was fun to watch near the end of his first stint in Oakland was that he and Moss were teammates for a year, but the Raiders were so sorry that it was hard to really give a damn...but I digress.) The Heisman went on to reestablish his dominance in 2006 with the Packers and never let up. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, and the following season, he became a Super Bowl champion.

The Heisman could’ve hung it up right then and there, especially since he got injured in the Super Bowl and was unable to finish. He could have retired on the spot and freed up his Saturdays, so he could finally go back to New York on the second Saturday night in December to be a part of the festivities that award the best individual player in college football. He could have retired on the spot and gone to TV and waited five years for Canton to call with his invitation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Instead, he continued to play and, in 2013, went back to Oakland where it all started. At the time, I didn’t understand. Hell, we’re nearing the end of 2015, and I still don’t understand it. Once again, he took on a new challenge, which called for him to move to safety and played out of his mind. Even now, he is among the league leaders in picks, including picking off two passes this season against one of the Heisman finalists from that 1997 class, Peyton Manning.

Now in his 18th season, The Heisman has decided that enough is enough and that he is going to go home and be a family man. Even the way he announced it should be applauded. He did so right before his last home game in Oakland. No prolonged announcement, no season-long retirement tour, no fuckery. A simple presser to announce his retirement with two games left in the season. It allows the focus to remain on the team as they continue to look to build something special in Oakland while also celebrating the career of one of the best defensive backs of the last 25 years.

The interceptions, the touchdowns, and countless other accolades. Wearing #2 in college, being my first pick in the ETSF College Football Fantasy Draft, and being someone who is universally loved and appreciated by just about every member of TSFJ family, Charles Woodson has done it all. Even The Godfather of TSFJ himself, Jeffery Allen Glenn, resident Ohio native and long-time Charles Woodson antagonist, issued a cease-fire after 22 years of hate toward The Heisman for leaving his home state to attend college at Michigan.

Charles Woodson, King Woodson, The Heisman goes by many aliases here, but there is one in particular that holds the highest esteem for me as a fan of the game for 33 years: sports hero.

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