Former Michigan great Charles Woodson gains entry into pro football Hall on first ballot

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Charles Woodson, who distinguished himself at Michigan and won the 1997 Heisman Trophy as primarily a defensive player, will be enshrined in the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the 2021 class.

Woodson was informed of the honor, achieved in his first year of eligibility, on Saturday. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2018. This is the second straight NFL Hall class that includes a former Michigan player, as offensive guard Steve Hutchinson is in the 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.

Oakland Raiders free safety Charles Woodson (24) waves to fans as he walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs won 23-17.

During his first 14 NFL seasons, Woodson played cornerback, his primary position at Michigan, then played safety later in his career. He was drafted with the fourth overall pick by the Oakland Raiders in 1998 and that season was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He played for the Raiders through 2005, then joined the Green Bay Packers, where he won a Super Bowl.

While with the Packers from 2006-2012, Woodson was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 and had nine interceptions that season. He returned to the Raiders in 2013 and finished his career there. Woodson, a nine-time Pro Bowl player, announced his retirement after the 2015 season.

Woodson, 44, is a native of Fremont, Ohio. During his junior season at Michigan, he helped lead the Wolverines to an undefeated season and a share of the national championship in 1997. He won the Heisman Trophy that season, the first primarily defensive player to do so, and Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, also first-year eligible for the NFL Hall of Fame, was runner-up.

“Charles was the most phenomenal athlete I’ve ever been around,” Jon Jansen, a two-time Michigan captain and teammate in 1997, told The Detroit News. “We recognized that when he first stepped on campus. We would be doing drills, and he was just one of those guys where he would do it once, and then the next time he did it, he was the best at it.”

There were many highlight-reel moments during Woodson’s career, but among the most memorable was his one-handed interception at Michigan State. Woodson, leaping high in the air, caught the ball with his right hand, then managed to touch his left foot inbounds on the Michigan sideline.

“Obviously, everybody talks about the interception at Michigan State, and I remember seeing that, looking down the sideline, and when he went up, I thought, ‘Oh, he’s either gonna bat it down or it will just be incomplete,’ because I thought he already was out of bounds,” Jansen said. “And then when he came down and was able to get his foot in bounds, to this day, I’ve seen a lot of things happen on the football field, it’s the only time I was ever in awe or amazed at something I saw an athlete do in person.”

Woodson in 2017 described that interception to The Detroit News.

“The way when you go up for a pass or anything, naturally you go up with two hands, you try to secure it, tuck it in and make sure you’ve got it,” Woodson said. “When the quarterback was rolling out, my thought was, ‘If he tries to throw this away, I’m going to go get it.’ As I’m running across the field, I was able to reach up, (and) naturally you want to use two hands, but I thought, ‘Man, the only way I’m getting that ball is with one hand.’

“How high did I jump? I jumped as high as I needed to.”

Monday Night Football analyst Brian Griese, who quarterbacked that 1997 Michigan team, was asked this week if the Wolverines would have won all those games that season without Woodson.

“Of course we do, what are you talking about?” Griese said, laughing, acknowledging Woodson was the difference-maker on that team.

Griese joked with Woodson last week and fabricated a story about talking to Manning.

“I kidded with him. I said, ‘Hey I talked to Peyton Manning this week, and he was really hoping you weren’t gonna get in on the first ballot as payback for the Heisman,’” Griese said.

While Woodson was the center of attention and an awards magnet in 1997, Jansen said he remained humble.

“We all knew, and he knew, that he was the best athlete on the field,” Jansen said. “He knew the headlines were going to be about him, that everybody was going to ask us about him, they were going to ask coach about him, the highlights were going to be what he had done. I’m sure privately, seeing all that stuff had to make him feel good, but it was never about Charles.

“To have an athlete accomplish what he was accomplishing at Michigan, winning the Heisman as a primarily defensive player, it was never about Charles. He really made us feel like that award and his awards were won by all of us. That is, I believe, one of the special things about that team. Charles could have been a ‘me guy’ and nobody would have complained about it, right? But he wasn’t. When you start winning and you start getting other guys that people aren’t noticing, you can all of a sudden have a lot of different factions. Charles by not drawing attention to himself, he really allowed that team to be as close as they were because it was never about an individual.”

Jansen’s long NFL career ended in 2010. He played with several great athletes, mentioning cornerback Champ Bailey, safety Sean Taylor and receiver Michael Westbrook.

“But none of them even come close to Charles,” he said.

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis