When he was a kid, he was only trying to reach the couch. His older brother blocked the way, grinning and cooing, “Come on, try it. Come on.” And so young Charles Woodson, with a balled-up sock under his arm, dove into every invisible air tunnel, hoping for a clear chute to the promised land of bouncy cushions.
“I’m gonna score on you!” he’d yell.
“No, you’re not!” his brother would answer.
Maybe it all began there, in that apartment in Fremont, Ohio, the twisting and turning, the tremendous speed, the slithery moves, the love of contact. And, oh, yes, the endlessness of it all. He loved how it went on and on. There could never be enough of this brother-on-brother game for Charles, because his father was absent, and his mother was paying the bills working days at a bottle factory.
“To have your older brother wanting to play with you and pay attention to you,” he says, “that was the greatest, right? We’d play all afternoon.”
Charles Woodson still wants to play all afternoon. In fact, if he could walk around with a full-length mirror, he would. Not because he’s so fond of his image. But because he loves a challenge, and covering himself might be the biggest challenge he could face.
Woodson as defensive back. Woodson as receiver. Woodson tackling running backs. Woodson becoming a running back. Last year, in the Michigan-Michigan State game, Woodson scored his first offensive touchdown as a Wolverine, and pundits declared: “Two-way player! Look! A two-way player!”
But he is more than that. And as he prepares for this year’s U-M/MSU showdown, the whole nation seems to be aware of him. You know how, in every sandlot game, there is the one kid who can play every position? When he throws the ball, it sails the farthest; when he runs, nobody can catch him; when he hits you, it stings; when he shouts, people listen; when he laughs, he laughs best. You know how it all just seems to flow downhill for him, honey to the hive?
You know that kid?
Then you know this kid.
For all his nagging, he’s popular
“I really do expect to score every time I touch the ball,” he says, stretching out on a leather couch in the recruiting room at Schembechler Hall. “I scored 78 touchdowns in high school. Seventy-eight. It felt like every play, I’d just break it.”
He says this with no bravado. In fact, he says it laughing, as if he can’t believe it himself. But then, there is something incomprehensible about the 6-foot-1 junior cornerback with a the narrow sideburns and the broad smile.
Here is a kid who says he feels most natural playing offense but chooses to play defense “because it’s a bigger challenge, and the team spirit is more intense.” Here’s a kid who trots from one side of the ball to the other side during practice, laying a lick on a receiver, then avoiding a lick by his fellow defensive backs. Here’s a kid who nags his coaches — “I’m ready, you can put me in, I’m ready” — and who nags the receivers he covers — “Why is your quarterback throwing over here? Didn’t you tell him not to come this way?” — yet for all his nagging, he is well-liked and popular. He leads the team in interceptions and punt returns, yet his biggest value may be in how little the opposing team throws in his direction.
“There are times,” he admits, “when we go four or five plays and there’s nothing coming in my direction, that it gets a little slow out there.”
Only a guy with 4.4 speed can use the word “slow” for playing football.
Deion II? No, Charles I
But the world needs to be filled with games to keep Charles interested. From the balled-up sock and the couch back in Fremont, to the all-day Saturday pickup games, to the high school football and basketball, to the Michigan practices in which he never stops, he goes from one position to the other. It’s never enough.
“I’ve always kind of found myself in sports,” he says. He knows his body, and he judges his own fatigue — the coaches trust him to do this — so that when his breathing is right, he’ll simply say through his face mask, “I can go” and the coaches pass the info along on the headphones “Charles can go, Charles can go” — and he usually does. You’d be crazy not to want Woodson on the field. He has been called the “best athlete on the team” so many times it’s like telling Donald Trump he’s rich.
But there is more to it. Woodson talks about winning this game Saturday — and winning all the rest of them — and there is an earnestness in his voice that suggests this is more than just jock talk.
“I know people at Michigan State are gonna boo us and scream at us,” he says.
“That’s cool. It’s what makes the game exciting. If we can make them silent, it’s worth it.
“We want to win everything. We’ve had enough years with four losses. This is it, right now. This is the year we want to go to the Rose Bowl and nothing less.”
He has heard the comparisons to Deion Sanders. He laughs at that the way he laughs at everything else. “Deion’s great,” he says. But he does not really want to be anybody’s second coming.
He plays three ways because it’s somewhere inside him that he has to, that he can, that he’s supposed to. On Saturday, he’ll go from one side to the next, from offense to defense to special teams, and he’ll be doing that same thing he has been doing for years; trying to make the right play, the perfect play, finding that magical opening to the promised land of bouncy couches and green end zone grass, where everyone is watching and the game goes on forever.
Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” 7:30-8:30 tonight, Book Nook, Allen Park, and 8-9 p.m. Friday, Borders, Utica. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.