One of the most exceptional defensive players in NFL history, Willie Wood almost saw his goal of playing professional football pass him by.
A quarterback at USC, Wood was bypassed in the draft and had to resort to a letter-writing campaign to get a shot in the pros. Writing letters on Wood's behalf was his Washington, D.C., Boys Club coach, Bill Butler, who had used similar methods to attract USC coaches years earlier.
The challenges facing Wood in trying to make his way in the NFL were multiple. For starters, Wood was entering professional football in an era of prejudice when black athletes were largely considered unfit for the quarterback position. Beyond that, Wood was coming off a severe collar bone injury that had hampered him over two collegiate seasons, and, at only 160 pounds, he was vastly undersized.
Wood's letters went out to several teams including the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams, but only the Packers responded.
Slotted for defense, Wood went into training camp against 24 other defensive backs. He made the team, but played sparingly as a rookie, seeing most of his time on punt returns.
However, in 1961, his second NFL season, Wood got his chance and made five interceptions filling in down the stretch for an injured Jess Whittenton. Meanwhile, he continued to return punts, leading the league with a 16.2-yard average and two returns for touchdowns.
One season later, in 1962, Wood made a career-best nine interceptions at safety and was named to the Pro Bowl for the first of what would be eight times over his career (1962, 1964-70).
In the Packers' 16-7 win over the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game that season, Wood made a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff return.
Although undersized coming into the league, the 5-foot-10 Wood got his weight up to 190 pounds. He was still considered on the small side, but gained a reputation as one of the league's hardest hitters.
Tackle statistics are unavailable for that era, but Vince Lombardi, Wood's head coach for five NFL title-winning seasons and two Super Bowl championships, called him the team's surest tackler.
Meanwhile, Wood led the Packers in interceptions five seasons (1961-63, '65, '70) and garnered Associated Press All-Pro honors six times, including consensus All-Pro recognition in 1965 and 1966.
In Super Bowl I, Wood set up the first of three second-half touchdowns for the Packers with an interception and a 50-yard return that gave the Packers possession at the 5-yard line. The Packers only led 14-10 at the time, but went on to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs by the score of 35-10.
Respected for his toughness and ability to play through injury, Wood played 166 consecutive games over his Packers career, a stretch bettered by only Brett Favre and Forrest Gregg.
Wood wore jersey number 24 during his Packers career. After retiring from the game following the 1971 seasons, he took up an assistant coaching position with the San Diego Chargers.
In 1975, Wood became the first black head coach in professional football, taking over the reins of the Philadelphia Bell, a team in the World Football League. The WFL quickly folded, but Wood became the first black head coach in the Canadian Football League a few years later, leading the Toronto Argonauts in 1980 and 1981.
William Vernell Wood was born December 23, 1936, in Washington, D.C.
Wood's Career Stats courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau:
Dear Mr. Lombardi,
I am Bill Butler, athletics instructor at the Boys Club in Washington, D.C., and my reason for writing is simply because I was told by Willie Wood, QB and co-captain of the Southern California Trojans, that you were interested in him, but I didn't see his name on your draft selections and I wondered why.
Willie came up under my wing at the Boys Club and I know he's a terrific football player ... I can say quite safely that the Trojans' offensive style of play certainly didn't embellish Willie's all-around ability by any means, for this kid is a "thinking man's" ballplayer, a real good field general of the Eddie LaBaron mold, good ball handler, strong runner and a tremendous passer. He can really throw the long ball.
Mr. Lombardi, if you could see this kid unshackled you would really agree with me.
If you hadn't contemplated giving him a chance, just try him one time and I'll guarantee you'll be glad you did. If you can find the time, I sure would like to hear from you and maybe we at the Boys Club can be told by you the things maybe we fail to see.