By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so too is the task of defining greatness in professional sports. Being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2009 certainly verifies Rod Woodson's greatness as an NFL player, and his biography is packed with reasons why he was a first-ballot selection.
In his 17 NFL seasons, Woodson had 71 interceptions that he returned a total of 1,483 yards, and he returned 12 of them for touchdowns, still a league record. Woodson finished his career with 4,894 kickoff return yards, 2,362 punt return yards and five touchdowns on returns – two punts, two kickoffs and one fumble. His 71 interceptions rank third all-time, and those 1,483 yards rank first all-time.
Woodson was named to the Pro Bowl 11 times, a record for a defensive back, and he was the first player to be voted to the game in these three ways: as a cornerback, a safety and a kick returner. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993.
In 1994, Woodson was one of only five active players – along with Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Reggie White and Ronnie Lott – named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. In 1999, he was ranked 87th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. The College Football News had him on its list of the 100 greatest players of the 20th century.
Those are the statistics, the honors and the awards. But greatness also can be described anecdotally.
In 1989, the Steelers put together an improbable run to the playoffs by winning five of their last six games to finish 9-7 and earn a spot in the AFC Wild Card Game against the AFC Central Division champion Houston Oilers. The Oilers already had defeated the Steelers twice that season, and the third game was to be in the Astrodome, known then as the House of Pain for the manner in which the hosts typically treated visitors.
In the days leading up to the game, Woodson came down with the flu, a sufficiently severe case that team doctors actually considered leaving him at home when the team traveled to Houston. But Woodson made the trip, and he also made the play of the game. In overtime, he stripped the ball from running back Lorenzo White, recovered the fumble and returned it deep enough into Oilers territory that the Steelers won on a 50-yard field goal by Gary Anderson.
In 1993, Bill Cowher's second season a coach, the Steelers opened the regular season against the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers had won four Super Bowls and employed and the best wide receiver in football in Jerry Rice. Woodson and Rice went at each other like crazy the whole afternoon, and what a show it was. Rice caught two touchdowns passes, but Woodson had two interceptions, and he also blocked an extra point.
He had missed the entire 1995 regular season with a knee injury, and in the 1996 opener the Steelers lost a game and four linebackers to injury in Jacksonville. The defense was reeling, and division rival Baltimore was due at Three Rivers Stadium the next Sunday. On the second offensive play of the game, Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde tried to go right at Rod Woodson. Big mistake. Woodson intercepted the pass and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown that righted a season ending with another division championship in Pittsburgh.
Woodson played the final seven seasons of his NFL career with San Francisco, Baltimore and Oakland, and the fact he didn't finish his career with the Steelers is something Dan Rooney still regrets.
"When Franco Harris went to Seattle, that was the most difficult," Dan Rooney told The New York Times in 1997. "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."
Some of that pain has faded with the passage of time, and Woodson was selected to the Steelers' All-Time Team as part of the franchises 75th Season Celebration. He served as an honorary co-captain for the team during the 2008 AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, and with his election into the Hall of Fame he stands alongside Mel Blount in Steelers history as the team's greatest defensive backs.
Hall of Fame: Woodson's greatness went beyond stats
By BOB LABRIOLA