SNIDER: Willie Wood was one of the city’s great players

Rick Snider
February 04, 2020 - 1:33 pm
Willie Wood was one of D.C.'s great players

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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Get together a group of the District's oldest sports fans who remember the legends of the 1950s and '60s and Willie Wood's name always comes up.

"This guy was a great player," said retired News Channel 8 sportscaster Glenn Harris. "He would knock your head off. He was physical. He was quarterback in high school and college, but being a great athlete, he just switched up to safety (in the NFL)."

Wood died on Monday at age 83. Another loss of the greatest generation. Late D.C. Council member Marion Barry renamed a stretch of 1st and N Sts. NW where Wood grew up to 'Willie Wood Way' in 2012 so folks wouldn't forget the player.

Wood was a great football and basketball player at Armstrong High during segregation, before becoming the first African-American quarterback in the Pac-10 at Southern Cal. African-Americans didn't play quarterback in the pros, so Wood went undrafted in 1960.

That didn't stop him. Wood wrote to Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi asking for a tryout. After a week at quarterback, Lombardi switched Wood to free safety, where he played 12 seasons with the Packers. Wood was a five-time first-team All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler who played on five Packers championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

Wood was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989 as one of only 17 undrafted players to reach Canton.

In Super Bowl I, Wood sealed the victory with a 50-yard interception off Kansas City's Len Dawson. In Super Bowl II, he returned a punt 31 yards that would be a record for 16 years. Wood's 1,391 career punt return yards remain a Green Bay record.

Wood led the NFL with nine interceptions in 1962 and finished with 48 in 166 regular-season games. A member of the 1960s All-Decade Team, Wood was called the best tackler "pound for pound" ever by Lombardi. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound defender's vertical leap was so amazing he could touch the crossbar with his elbow during drills.

Wood later became the first African-American head coach of the modern era when taking over the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League in 1975. He was also head coach of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in 1980-81.

Last year, Wood was named No. 13 in Washingtonian magazine's top 25 living athletes. A name from the past unknown to millennials. It's a good thing Wood's play was legendary.

Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks

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