“I haven’t cried that much in I don’t know how long,” [Woodson] said.
But he wanted to address his team at halftime. Coach Mike McCarthy let him.
“You know how bad I want this, guys …” Woodson said, and that was it. Bawling again.
It was my first full game in Michigan Stadium,* and it was very hot. We sat in the visitors section in the north endzone and drank lots of water. Michigan was playing Notre Dame, back when the Irish were kind of good. I was living in northern Indiana at the time and my Dad was taking medical school classes on the Indiana-South Bend campus, so Mom would sometimes take me and Joellyn to the campus and we would walk around, looking at the old brick buildings. We went to our fair share of Friday night pep rallies. I had memorized the Michigan “Victors” and the Notre Dame “Victory March” fight songs by exposure, like some kids learn a language. Notre Dame still had the mystique. Because Dad liked Ohio State and I was an impressionable eight-year-old, I was probably a weird conglomerate Midwest-rooting fan — a third Michigan, a third Ohio State, and a third Notre Dame. All I needed was for one of them to have a great year and I’d be hooked.
September 1997. I was sitting in those classic blue bleachers in the Big House on that late summer afternoon, flipping through the media guide they used to pass out for free. Papa — my Mom’s dad, who used to play old Michigan Marching Band cassette tapes in his Chevrolet Astro van back when I could barely talk — was sitting beside me.
I was eight and I needed heroes. I was devastated when the New York Mets traded my favorite player Bobby Bonilla, but I quickly moved on to Todd Hundley, a switch-hitting catcher. At my first Mets game at Shea during the summer of ’96, I was sitting with my family in the outfield bleachers when Hundley came up. He would hit 41 home runs that year. He’s going to hit one right at us, my Dad told me. Because of course. That’s what he did — hit homers.
“Papa, who’s Michigan’s best player?”
He squinted behind his sunglasses. “I don’t know,” he said. “Probably Woodson.”
Woodson. I didn’t have to look through the roster, numerically ordered, very long. #2 Charles Woodson, junior, cornerback. I decided would watch him the whole game.
I don’t actually remember much from the game. I only have a few images in my mind, scattered Polaroids of disconnected moments. Like Notre Dame scoring their first touchdown, or a Michigan goal line stand followed by Papa yelling, “They’ve got a great defense.” I remember the 21-14 Michigan win too. And Woodson, of course, returning punts and playing offense and breaking up passes and making tackles. That’s what he did.
I remember only a few other things from that season. His touchdown against Penn State is one of them. I actually don’t remember the Ohio State game , which was Michigan’s final step to the Rose Bowl and a No. 1 ranking, and was also Woodson’s christening as a serious Heisman Trophy contender. I’m not even sure I watched the game.
But I do remember the punt return. Maybe I just saw a highlight. And I was unsurprised.
He won the Heisman that year — the only defensive player to do so — and I was too young to know anything about the vaguely racist controversy that Peyton Manning from Tennessee should have won it instead.
And then there was the Rose Bowl, where Michigan beat Washington State for the national championship. We went to Mom’s parents house in California for Christmas that year, and my Dad and Papa and uncle got to go to the game. I was still eight and it’s an expensive ticket, so I was relegated to the television. I remember two things: (1) Michigan won, (2) Charles Woodson had an interception in the endzone. Because of course he did.
I lost track of his career for awhile after that. I don’t think I watched him once while he was with the Raiders. But he was about 30 years old when he went to Green Bay, supposedly signaling the nadir of his career. He instead became one of the best corners in the game from that point, eventually settling into a new position that allowed him to utilize both his coverage ability and excellent tackling skills. In 2009, at 33, he was voted the best defensive player in the NFL. The first cornerback to win the award. I didn’t watch much Packers football, but when I did it seemed he always did something to change the game. It was just like Michigan.
I’m 21 years old. I haven’t watched tons of Woodson football, but enough to be amazed that, before Sunday night, I don’t remember ever seeing him fail. Of course he has, and I’m sure he has while I’ve been watching. But the point is that I don’t remember it. And in the Super Bowl — the only thing in football he hadn’t won — the man who spent a career carrying his teammates needed, for one night, his teammates to carry him.
*This was back in the day before 9/11 when they used to open the gates to the stadium in the fourth quarter and let fans watch for free. My sister and I had watched the end of a 1995 Michigan blowout of Miami of Ohio, but I was six and all I remember is wondering why all the fans clapped when an injured Miami player seemed okay (“aren’t they supposed to root against the other team?” I asked). I’m told I stood on the brick wall that surrounds the field and watched the post-game band show in awe. It’s probably true.