At a Pro Bowl dinner in Honolulu in February, two quarterbacks
huddled to make a defensive read. "Look around this room," Steve
Young said to Warren Moon. "What's your biggest nightmare?"
With an expert eye, Moon took in the scene and its population of
defensive menaces, including Eric Davis, Merton Hanks, Carnell
Lake and Tim McDonald. "Me scrambling and Darren Woodson with a
clean shot," Moon replied without a moment's hesitation.
If former Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham had been
at the table, he might have chimed in with the following: "Nah,
if you want something to give you night sweats for the rest of
your life, listen to this. It's late in the fourth quarter.
You're down by five, just eight yards away from a huge upset of
Dallas. You throw a tight spiral and Darren Woodson picks it off
and runs it back 94 yards for a touchdown. That, my friends, is
no mere nightmare. That is hell on earth, and I lived it on
December 4, 1994."
It's difficult to say whether the Eagles' Rodney Peete would
have had anything to add to the conversation. The last time he
met up with Woodson, in the divisional playoffs last January,
Peete left the field with a concussion.
On any other team, a guy who inhabits the bad dreams of so many
notable opponents would be the toast of the local sports-talk
circuit and the endorser of a dozen products. He would be, in
other words, what corner Rod Woodson is to Pittsburgh. But
stationed, as he is, so close to the luminescence of Troy
Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders, the hard-hitting Darren
Woodson has thus far been consigned to the shadows, a virtual
what's-his-name on the highest-profile team in football. "People
recognize me on the street," says Woodson, smiling. "I can tell.
They have that look in their eyes that says, That's somebody...
The 27-year-old Woodson is the rare Cowboy who is hard to place.
He isn't one of the nearly 20 Dallas players with their own
radio or TV shows, he doesn't make controversial remarks that
find their way into print, and his name has yet to appear on a
police blotter. But in '95 the four-year vet led the team in
tackles (144) and became the first Cowboys safety in 16 years to
be named to consecutive Pro Bowls.
"Darren is the total package," says Dallas defensive coordinator
Dave Campo. "He has a combination of size [6'1", 215 pounds],
speed [4.4 in the 40] and lateral movement that is rare in a
strong safety. In fact, he covers one-on-one so well he could be
a corner. He is the kind of guy coaches like to build a team
Woodson's value to Dallas can be summed up in two words:
franchise player, which is what owner Jerry Jones considered
naming the safety just to keep him out of free-agency waters.
This off-season the Cowboys parted ways with defensive tackle
Russell Maryland and linebackers Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones.
They even said adios to Super Bowl MVP cornerback Larry Brown.
But to Woodson they clung like bark to a tree, adjusting the
contracts of several players so that his six-year, $18 million
contract could fit under the salary cap.
"We know what he has meant to the three Super Bowls we've won
and what he means to our future," said Jones after the February
signing, which made Woodson the highest-paid safety in NFL
history. "There was no way that we weren't going to do whatever
it took to get Darren Woodson."
Though his agent, Leigh Steinberg, sees him as "poised at the
edge of greatness," Woodson doesn't seem to be in a big hurry to
get there. The gap between his value and his still faint
celebrity doesn't seem to bother him. "Look, I've been blessed,"
says Woodson. "I never expected to go to the Pro Bowl or get a
great contract. I've worked hard to get where I am, but I'm not
looking for a lot of celebrity as my due. I'm not above doing
the big-time-athlete thing every once in a while. I can drive
the car, put on the rings, wear the snazzy clothes. But that's
really not me."
Indeed, Woodson can't seem to get the hang of the modern
ballplayer's lifestyle. He doesn't watch TV, has never played
Sega and only occasionally suffers a trip to the mall with his
wife, Juli; three-year-old son, D.J.; and newborn daughter,
Miranda, because, he says, "The mall doesn't make me grow."
Woodson prefers doing lawn work outdoors or burying his head in
biographies of Malcolm X, Lee Iacocca and Colin Powell. "Guys
who have really moved people," he says.
"Darren wants to know everything, and he brings great insight to
everything he knows," says Dallas free safety Brock Marion. "He
should have been a lawyer."
Woodson will be the first to tell you that this thirst for
knowledge was not always among his top priorities. The youngest
of the four children Freddie Luke raised by herself in the
projects of west Phoenix, Darren stayed off the streets by
playing sports and going to church on Sundays. But in school, "I
screwed around," he says. "I was the kid in the back of the
class playing with my gum, talking to the girls and not paying
attention." Coming out of Maryvale High, where he played running
back and linebacker, he paid his own way and sat out his
freshman year at Arizona State as a Prop 48. The next season he
joined his childhood buddies--Phillippi Sparks, now a Giants
cornerback, and Kevin Miniefield, a defensive back with the
Bears--on the Sun Devils' defense. ("Ask Darren who taught him
how to backpedal," says Sparks.) After a second-team All-Pac-10
senior season in 1991, Woodson was drafted by the Cowboys with
the 37th overall pick, four spots ahead of Sparks. Woodson left
Arizona State with a degree in criminal justice, but the stigma
he came in with still haunts him. "Being a Prop 48 really hurt,"
he says. "It felt like failure, which is my greatest fear in
These days Woodson is an avid reader, though you wouldn't know
it by visiting his house. As with most things that come into his
possession, Woodson gives his books away. Recently a woman
sitting next to him on a plane asked about a Dean Koontz novel
he had nearly finished reading; she walked off the plane as the
book's new owner. Except for his three Super Bowl rings, which
he keeps in a lockbox, and his replica Super Bowl trophies,
Woodson is simply not into collecting things. "I read about some
guy who collects snakes," he says, his brow knitting in
distaste. "What's that all about?"
Woodson did make one conspicuous acquisition not long ago, and
it wrenched his gut to do it. "We bought a Mercedes," he says.
"It cost $72,000, and it made me sick to buy it. That was more
than we made in five years when I was a kid."
Clearly, this greatness thing will take a little getting used
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/ROSATO PHOTO Though a standout defender on the glossy Cowboys, Woodson basks in anonymity. [Darren Woodson]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYERThe hard-hitting Woodson, a two-time Pro Bowl strong safety, is now the highest-paid player ever at his position. [Darren Woodson tackling Terry Allen]