January 14, 2011

"HAVE YOU EVER LOOKED AT HIS LEGS?" (via Matt Murphy):

Welcome to Danny Woodhead's world (Elizabeth Merrill, 1/13/11, ESPN.com)

"I got most of our furniture at garage sales," Annette said, "because we couldn't afford anything else."

Mark painted houses as a side job so Annette could stay home with the kids. She home-schooled them until they reached high school. "We were all close because we were always around each other," Joel says.

All of the Woodhead men are known as "Woody." Mark is "Big Woody." When the boys were old enough, they tagged along and helped their dad paint in the summer. And when work was done in the afternoon, they would all golf together. Danny is a scratch golfer, a fact he tries to keep quiet.

In North Platte, athletes rarely specialize. There aren't enough bodies. So Woodhead played football, basketball and soccer in high school. Before every game, Annette gave her kids Scriptures to read. Joel wrote his on his shoes; Danny kept his in a glove.

She texts Scriptures to Danny now. And before every Patriots game, the couple calls him and they all say a quick prayer together.

There's a 10-year-old story just about everybody in North Platte remembers: The Bulldogs were playing in the state semifinals, tied with a few minutes to go. It was Danny's sophomore season. Millard North lined up to attempt a game-winning field goal from 35 yards out. Woodhead, who had done just about everything to will his team to victory, walked over to the special-teams coach.

"I can block this kick," Woodhead told him.

"Well," the assistant said, "get in there, then."

Woodhead came off the edge and blocked the kick, and the Bulldogs won the game and made a rare trip to the state finals. North Platte is one of the smallest schools in Class A, the biggest class in Nebraska. The Bulldogs are pitted against teams from Omaha and Lincoln and are almost always the underdogs. But the players always liked going up against the bigger schools, proving they weren't a bunch of country bumpkins from the west, showing that they weren't too small.

"It definitely gave us a little extra motivation to be better and to succeed against those teams," Joel said. "We wanted to prove everybody wrong."

The Woodheads always had this saying: When one door closes, go to the open one. And Danny has seen his share of slammed doors. In high school, he was one of the most electrifying players in the state, yet he didn't get a scholarship offer to play for the Cornhuskers. In college, he won the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy -- twice -- but didn't get drafted.

The first snub was probably more painful to North Platte than it was to Woodhead.

"Nebraska had every game film of every football game he ever played in; we sent all that stuff every week," said former North Platte coach Bob Zohner. "So they knew very well what he could do.

"He went down and met with [former NU coach] Frank Solich. I talked to Danny that next Monday, and the first thing he said to me was, 'Coach, why would I want to go someplace where all they tell me is things I can't do?' They told him he was too small for a running back, which is kind of ironic. … He was talking to Frank and looking at him eye to eye."

Solich -- a 5-foot-7 former Cornhuskers fullback and current coach at Ohio University -- did not return a message ESPN placed with the Bobcats' media relations department. Bill Callahan, his successor at Nebraska, didn't see enough in Woodhead to offer a scholarship, either. Callahan ran into Woodhead a few years later, when both men were with the Jets.

From the beginning, Woodhead just wanted to play football. He didn't want to walk on and play special teams in Lincoln, which was the offer back then. So he went to Chadron State, a Division II school in the northern Nebraska panhandle. The town has one stoplight, and the school is so remote that deer will occasionally walk out onto the field during football practice. But Woodhead shook things up in the tiny town. He ran for 7,962 career yards, which was an NCAA all-division record at the time. He scored in 37 straight games.

"Have you ever looked at his legs?" Chadron State coach Bill O'Boyle said. "His calves belong on a guy about 6-foot-4. His lower body is unbelievable. He's just one of those guys who can go from 0 to 60 in about two steps.

"He's used to working for everything he gets. A lot of guys get handed stuff because of their talent. People are going to shrug him off because he's short and he played at a lower-level school, but his work ethic, I'm sure, is second to none on that team."

Woodhead got his work ethic from his dad. His humility is something that is just expected in North Platte. One day, Woodhead was playing Nintendo with his brother and needed a chair to sit on. He grabbed one of his Harlon Hill trophies, which are as big as a small child, screwed the football off of it and sat on the base of the trophy.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 14, 2011 6:37 AM
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