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Former Packers safety Willie Wood dies at 83

Pro Football Hall of Famer started on all five of Vince Lombardi's championship teams


Willie Wood, Pro Football Hall of Famer, hero of Super Bowl I and starting safety on all five of Vince Lombardi's championship teams in the 1960s, died Monday afternoon, Feb. 3, at an assisted living facility in Washington, D.C.

Wood, 83, had been confined to assisted living facilities for roughly 13 years and had suffered from advanced stage dementia for close to a decade or more.

Wood played for the Packers from 1960 to 1971 and ranks second in team history with 48 career interceptions. Only Bobby Dillon, recently selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of its centennial class, had more with 52.

Wood's biggest interception occurred on the fourth play of the second half of Super Bowl I and served to turn a close game into a rout as the Packers made history with their 35-10 triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Wood returned the interception off Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson 50 yards and halfback Elijah Pitts scored a touchdown on the next play to give the Packers a 21-10 lead.

Kansas City coach Hank Stram called it the turning point, if not his team's death knell.

"We played well in the first half and at the start of the second half," Stram said after the game. "But that interception by Wood changed the complexion of the game."

Ironically, Wood died a day after Super Bowl LIV and Kansas City's third appearance in the game.

For most of Wood's career, the Packers didn't flip-flop their safeties based on the formation of the offense unlike a number of other NFL teams and so he lined up on the right side. That meant for the vast majority of plays, he was the free safety even if he wasn't listed as such.

Beside his ball-hawking ability, Wood also was known for his shoestring tackles and physical play. Fundamentally, he was one of the surest tacklers in NFL history.

"Pound for pound, Willie was the best tackler in the game," Lombardi once said. Dave Hanner, who spent 44 years in the NFL as a player, coach and scout, concurred. "I think Willie Wood was as good a tackler as I've ever seen," he said.

Wood became a starter in his second season with the Packers and over the next eight years they finished in the top four in the league in fewest yards allowed. Six other members of that defense also have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but some thought Wood was the glue to the unit and maybe its best player.

"He was the backbone of the defense," said Pat Peppler, Lombardi's director of player personnel from 1963 to 1967 and then for his successors through the end of Wood's playing career.

Although he stood just 5 feet 10 inches tall and carried 190 pounds, Wood also had remarkable leaping ability. "We have a drill where the defensive backs jump up and try to touch the crossbar on the goal posts," Norb Hecker, Wood's secondary coach, said back when he was still playing. "Willie is only 5-10 and he can touch the crossbar with his elbow."

Beside ranking second in all-time interceptions, Wood also holds the Packers' career record for most yards gained on punt returns with 1,391.

Wood was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989 and into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1977. He was named Associated Press All-Pro five straight years from 1964 to 1968 and he also was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times. What's more, he never missed a game in 12 seasons.

Wood played college football at Southern Cal during the one-platoon era, doubling as a defensive back and quarterback. However, he was bothered by shoulder injuries and didn't fit the prototype of an NFL quarterback at the time. Thus, he was bypassed in both the NFL and AFL drafts.

The Packers began to show interest in him after Bill Butler, athletic instructor at the Metropolitan Police Boys Club in Washington, D.C., Wood's hometown, wrote Lombardi a letter on Wood's behalf. Less than three weeks later, Jack Vainisi, the Packers' business manager, wrote Butler and informed him Wood had been offered a contract.

Wood was given an early look at quarterback by Lombardi and showed both savvy and sufficient arm strength. In fact, when Joe Francis broke his leg eight days into camp, Lombardi said Wood would replace him as the No. 3 quarterback. However, on Aug. 2, 1960, 11 days into training camp, Lombardi changed his mind and moved Wood to defense.

Wood retired as a player in 1972 to become defensive backfield coach of the San Diego Chargers. He later served as head coach for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League in 1975 and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League from 1980 to 1981. When Wood was named head coach of the Bell, he was credited with being the first African-American head coach in the modern era of pro football.

In February 2016, only days before Super Bowl 50, Bill Pennington of The New York Times published a story about Wood and his big play in Super Bowl I. But, by then, Wood was confined to a wheelchair and had no recollection of the play. "He does not even recollect playing in the first Super Bowl, on Jan. 15, 1967, or ever being on an N.F.L. roster," Pennington wrote.

Nevertheless, Bob Schmidt, Wood's guardian, former teammate and chief executive officer of the Pro Football Retired Players Association, said, "If anybody had a badge of courage dealing with it, he did."

Wood is survived by two sons and a daughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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