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Joy Ride Cool, confident cornerback Charles Woodson is hell on wheels for the Raiders' improved defense

Charles Woodson was six when he first got burned on a crossing
route, and the lesson he learned from that horrifying experience
helped propel him to football stardom. On a hot Alabama morning
in the summer of 1983, Charles and six of his relatives were
crammed into a Buick LeSabre, on their way from Fremont, Ohio,
to a vacation in southern Mississippi. While driving on a raised
section of freeway in Birmingham, Charles's mother, Georgia, put
on her left turn signal and tried to get out of her lane, which
was about to end. A semi blocked her path. The man in the
passenger seat of the truck sneered at Georgia, and the driver
refused to let her merge. The Buick ran out of room, spun out
and smacked into a guardrail before stopping in the middle of
the road.

The damage was minimal--the windshield was cracked and a couple
of passengers suffered bumps and bruises--but the terror was far
from over. Charles looked back and saw another truck barreling
toward the Buick. He looked to the side and saw a 30-foot drop
onto another roadway. "The semi stopped on a dime," he recalls.
"Otherwise, I wouldn't be sitting here telling you about it
today." As the drama unfolded, Georgia, a devout member of her
Pentecostal church, began to pray. "The Lord protected us," she
says. "It was a busy time of morning, but He stopped the traffic."

Charles was struck by another force: his mother's poise under
pressure. "That's the way she is, and that's how I turned out,
too," the 6'1", 200-pound Woodson says. "All through my
childhood my mother was under incredible strain--working 12-hour
days, trying to support three kids by herself--but she never
showed it."

Sixteen years later Woodson, the Oakland Raiders' sensational
second-year cornerback, has mastered the art of performing at
high speeds with a low pulse rate. As flamboyant as Woodson is
on the field (and as saucy as he can be in interviews), the
chill factor is what sets him apart. Even behind the wheel
Woodson is shockingly laid-back. He reclines so far in the
driver's seat that only the top of his head can be seen--if you
happen to get a clear view of the backseat window. "Riding low
is the only way I know," he says. "I had one cousin who lay back
so far, it looked like the car was driving itself."

When things heat up on the field, Woodson is colder than frozen
tundra. "He's fearless," says Tampa Bay quarterback Trent
Dilfer. "There are certain guys you play against who act like
they're the best guy on the field. He's one who went out and
backed it up." For all the attention Minnesota wideout Randy
Moss received during his rookie of the year rampage in 1998,
Woodson made an equally forceful impact, helping transform the
Raiders' defense from the league's worst to one of its best. "A
lot of rookies come in scared to give up a big play, but this
guy went right after the league's best," Oakland coach Jon
Gruden says. "He wasn't on Monday Night Football last year, and
I don't know how much people around the country saw him, but he
played his ass off, and guys around the league know it."

If rival players knew the extent of Woodson's nonchalance,
they'd be shocked. Take Baltimore wideout Patrick Johnson, who
says Woodson "seems to be studying film like a veteran. When we
played them last year, he knew where we were going and the exact
routes." Apparently Woodson has ESP. "I'm not real big on
watching film," he says. "You see the same stuff over and over,
and it gets boring. I fall asleep in meetings so often that I
think people have come to expect it. As soon as the lights go
off, I'm out."

Woodson has long been sleeping his way to the top. During his
freshman year at Michigan, a few minutes before the Wolverines
ran out onto their home field to battle Ohio State, Woodson
dressed, sat down in front of his locker and started snoozing.
He awoke to hear teammate Marcus Ray yelling, "What the hell are
you doing?" All Woodson did was produce what his coach, Lloyd
Carr, called "the greatest performance by a Michigan freshman in
the history of that series," holding All-America wideout Terry
Glenn to four catches for 72 yards and intercepting two passes,
including the one that clinched the Wolverines' 31-23 victory.
"That's Charles," says Ray. "Once he sets his mind to something,
you can pretty much consider it done."

Those closest to Woodson swear his bravado stems not from
insecurity but from faith in his abilities. "If people think
he's cocky, he got that from me," says Georgia, who supported
her three children by operating a forklift for a northern Ohio
canning company. "I always taught him not to shy away from
anything if he can back it up."

At Michigan, where as a junior he became the first primarily
defensive player to win the Heisman and led the Wolverines to a
share of the 1997 national championship, Woodson was the human
sound bite. He started getting bad press, however, after he
announced he was leaving early to enter the NFL draft. He was
criticized for, among other things, flirting with the idea of
choosing rap mogul Sean (Puffy) Combs as his agent--Woodson says
he never harbored such an idea but would have listened had Combs
pitched him--and blowing off the Wolverines' White House visit
shortly before Oakland made him the draft's No. 4 pick. "I had a
meeting scheduled with Al Davis, my future boss," Woodson says.
"Hey, the President's a big deal, but I'm sure I can get to the
White House another time."

Can he get there with the Raiders anytime soon? The notion that
Oakland could reach the Super Bowl in the near future seemed
preposterous before Woodson arrived, but last year its defense,
under new coordinator Willie Shaw, made one of the more dramatic
turnarounds in recent NFL history. The key to Shaw's aggressive
scheme was the cornerback play of Woodson and veteran Eric
Allen, who was Pro Bowl-bound until tearing a knee ligament in
November. After Allen's injury opposing quarterbacks started
avoiding Woodson's side of the field like the back of a crowded
747, and the Raiders, 7-3 when Allen went down, finished 8-8.
Woodson intercepted five passes, forced two fumbles and scored a
touchdown to earn NFL defensive rookie of the year honors and
make the Pro Bowl as a replacement for injured New York Jets
cornerback Aaron Glenn.

Yet the year ended on a choppy note: After months of lobbying
Gruden to use him in the part-time wideout role in which he
thrived at Michigan, Woodson's public response was less than
gracious when his coach announced he'd be used on offense in the
season finale at Kansas City. The next day Gruden told reporters
he had changed his mind, and Woodson now doubts the sincerity of
Gruden's original statement. "He just said that for the media's
benefit; he never meant it," Woodson says. "Besides, why would I
want to go out there in a meaningless game and risk getting

Ouch, babe. Woodson's candor sometimes stings as much as one of
his lunging body slams, but unlike Deion Sanders, the current
king of corners, he doesn't concoct juicy quotes to cultivate an
image. Most great cover men adopt an air of indomitability, and
Woodson is in the perfect place to sharpen his strut. No team
has a cornerback tradition as rich as the Raiders', which
includes Hall of Famers Willie Brown and Mike Haynes and
standout Lester Hayes. With his speed, toughness and uncanny
ability to make adjustments in midair, Woodson seems on his way
to being worthy of their company. "When he learns more about
technique," says St. Louis Rams receivers coach Al Saunders, "he
has a chance to be one of the best to ever play the position."

That might require Woodson, a bigger sleeper than The Blair
Witch Project, to stay awake for a film session or two, but he's
a quick learner. He got uncharacteristically amped before his
first regular-season game because he was about to face Kansas
City Chiefs wideout Andre Rison. A few weeks after the draft,
Woodson had been lounging at his home in Orlando when a fax
arrived bearing an action photo of Rison and the message:
"Remember, I'm a Michigan State guy. I'll see you at the
opener." Rison schooled Woodson, burning him for three
first-quarter catches, including a 30-yard touchdown on a skinny
post, until the kid cooled out. "His resiliency was tested,"
Gruden says, "and he responded like an eight-year veteran." When
Rison saw Woodson again in the season finale, he was blown away
by his improvement. "He has a chance to be great," says Rison,
"and he acts like he knows it."

Woodson often opts to immerse himself in someone else's drama.
Sitting on the living room couch in his Alameda, Calif., town
house a few days before the start of training camp, he gestures
to a dark-haired gentleman on the TV screen and says, "That's my
man right there." He's referring to Victor Newman, his favorite
character on the soap opera The Young and the Restless, whom
Woodson admires for obvious reasons. "The more critical the
situation gets," says Eric Braeden, the actor who portrays
Newman, "the more ice-cold Victor becomes." The scary thing is,
Woodson expects to get colder as he gets older. He says his
rookie year was "very average" and views the Hall of Fame as a
plausible destination. "I don't think that's too heavy," he
says. "I can't see it happening any other way."

You look for a grin, a hint that the hyperbole is for effect, but
instead his eyes narrow and his voice turns frosty. "Put a bull
and a cat in an arena and have them run at each other," he says.
"What do you think the bull is thinking? When I cover somebody,
that's what I'm thinking."

He takes a sip of ice water and lies back on the couch, looking
sleepy and secure.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK FAST LANE Woodson may some day ride into the Hall of Fame like his wheelman here, Dick (Night Train) Lane, whose 14 interceptions for the Rams in 1952 are the NFL record.