As we continue our look at some of the Steelers former number one draft picks, it’s the turn of Rod Woodson. Without doubt, Woodson was one of SteelerNationUK’s favourite players. He won three of our MVP trophies. That is some indication of the high esteem the cornerback was held in during his playing days.
Before the 1987 draft, it was suggested that Woodson might be the best pure athlete available for selection. His coach at Purdue reiterated the claim, suggesting the player was, “the best athlete I’ve ever coached.”
Not only did Woodson earn All-American honours as a defensive back, he also played running back, wide receiver and kick returner. Football was his priority at Purdue, but he did occasionally run indoor hurdles and eventually outdoors in his senior year.
Coming off a 6-10 season, the Steelers needed a defensive back or a linebacker to booster their defense. It was predicted that Woodson would be a top five pick. A lot of fans were urging the Steelers to trade up, but that wasn’t coach Noll’s way.
The Pittsburgh Press predicted the Steelers had a 10% chance of selecting Woodson with their overall tenth pick. Also, believing Woodson would be gone, the Post-Gazette suggested the Steelers look at the second round to take a cornerback as they forecast Woodson would be gone when their turn came in the first.
Woodson became available after Cleveland traded for the fifth choice in the draft and took linebacker Mike Junkin while St. Louis baffled everyone by selecting quarterback Kelly Stouffer.
Coach Noll said, “We spent a lot of time on a lot of other people because we thought he’d go very, very high. The surprise is he was there, no doubt about that.”
Personnel director Dick Haley admitted, “It worked out real well. This guy can help us… a lot.” The Steelers drafted him to play corner and Haley acknowledged, “He could play anywhere back there – running back, receiver, but that’s not what we drafted him for.”
“Christmas in April,” enthused Tony Dungy, the Steelers defensive coordinator.
After he was drafted, Woodson decided he would attempt to compete in the 1988 Olympics. This mission took him to Europe where he participated in athletic meetings hoping to make the American Olympic team.
While he was earning money on the athletic field, most of his Steelers teammates were on strike. 1987 was the year of the NFL players’ strike with replacement players brought in to maintain the league’s schedule.
As Woodson’s holdout dragged on, Dan Rooney made one last attempt to get the player onboard by bringing the player and his mother for a visit to Pittsburgh. The invitation worked and on October 28th Woodson signed the richest deal in Steelers history.
“I always wanted to play football,” offered Woodson after signing his contract. “I always wanted to be a Steeler. Now I’m a Steeler, so I’m happy.”
Woodson blossomed into the star player that they believed he would. In 1994, he was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team, one of only five active players at that time to be named to the team.
In the 1995-week one win over Detroit, Woodson suffered a serious knee injury that was expected to keep him out for the season. The Steelers thought so much of their cornerback they kept his roster spot open enabling him to play in Super Bowl XXX.
SteelerNationUK’s watched their first game in Pittsburgh in 1993. The Steelers played host to an unbeaten Saints team. For SNUK, it was the perfect result. The Steelers won 37-14 and watched Woodson return an early interception 63 yards for a touchdown that set the tone for the game.
Woodson holds the NFL record for fumble recoveries (32) by a defensive player, and interceptions returned for touchdown (12), and was named the NFL Defensive Player for the year of SNUK’s visit. He was nominated to 11 Pro Bowls and earned six First Team All-Pro honours.
Woodson eventually won a Super Bowl XXXV ring with the Ravens.
Footnote to the 1987 draft:
Kelly Stouffer never played a snap for the Cardinals. He sat out his rookie year and then St. Louis traded him to Seattle. To acquire Mike Junkin, the Browns traded Chip Banks along with their first and second-round picks to San Diego for their first and second-round picks.
The Browns were expected to take linebacker Shane Conlan, but when they didn’t, it opened the way for the Bills to take him and leave Woodson on the board for the Steelers.