Overlooked and unwanted at a time when the NFL draft comprised 20 rounds, Willie Wood signed with the Packers as a free agent and developed into one of the NFL’s best ever free safeties. Quicker than he was fast, he was an instinctive centerfielder and a perfect-form, shoestring tackler.
“Pound for pound, Willie was the best tackler in the game,” coach Vince Lombardi once said. Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka agreed. “He put me down a couple times, almost for keeps,” Ditka said of Wood.
During the one-platoon era of college football, which covered the years 1953 to 1964, players were basically forced by the substitution rules to play both offense and defense. Wood, in turn, doubled as a quarterback and defensive back at USC.
To see the game from both vantage points couldn’t have been better training for Wood’s pro career. He gained a natural feel for defense and intercepted 48 passes, the second-highest total in Packers history.
His most productive season was 1962 when he intercepted a league-high nine. His biggest play was his game-turning 50-yard interception return early in the second half of Super Bowl I. Leading by four points at the time, the Packers scored on a 5-yard run on the next play and erupted for a 35-10 victory.
Wood also was the Packers’ leading punt returner from 1960 to 1966 and led the NFL in 1961 with a 16.1 average, including two returns for touchdowns. His career average was 7.4 yards. At times in the early 1960s, Wood also handled the Packers’ kickoff chores.
Wood was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a starter on all five of Lombardi’s NFL championship teams and defensive captain of the Packers from 1970 to 1971. “He was the backbone of the defense,” said Pat Peppler, Lombardi’s director of player personnel over his final five seasons as coach. Dave Hanner, who spent 44 years in the NFL as a player, coach and scout, said, "I think Willie Wood was as good a tackler as I've ever seen.”
Wood was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
“He is the most daring of the defensive secondary,” Packers defensive backs coach Norb Hecker said in 1963. “He has wonderful reactions and he can jump like a kangaroo. We have a drill where the defensive backs jump up and try to touch the crossbar on the goal posts. Willie is only 5-10 and he can touch the crossbar with his elbow. He’s also maybe the best tackler on the ball club.”
The Packers signed Wood as a non-drafted free agent on Jan. 4, 1960, according to his personnel file in the NFL office. Bothered by shoulder injuries his last two seasons at USC, Wood wasn’t drafted by any NFL or rival American Football League team.
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. The letter was dated Dec. 10, 1959, 10 days after the 1960 NFL draft was held. On Dec. 29, 1959, 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 in his first camp 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. Then on Aug. 2, 1960, 11 days into camp, Lombardi changed his mind and moved Wood to defense. In his sixth game as a rookie, Wood was rushed into action for injured cornerback Jesse Whittenton and gave up two quick touchdown passes to future Hall of Famer Raymond Berry and was yanked for another rookie, Dick Pesonen.
A year later, despite his inauspicious debut, Wood took over as the starting right safety in training camp and started every game there for the duration of his career. While the Packers didn’t flip-flop their safeties, Wood was usually the free safety while the left safety was usually the strong safety. In 12 seasons, Wood never missed a game, playing in 166 in all.
Wood announced his retirement on Jan. 19, 1972, to become defensive backs coach in San Diego, where he spent three seasons. He subsequently 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 until he was fired 10 games into the 1981 season. When Wood was named head coach of the Bell on July 29, 1975, four days before the team’s season opener, he was credited with being the first African-American head coach in the modern era of pro football.
Born Dec. 23, 1936, in Washington, D.C. Given name William Vernell Wood.
- Safety: 1960-71
- Height: 5-10; Weight: 190
- College: Southern Cal, 1957-59
- Inducted Pro Football Hall of Fame: 1989
- NFL All-Decade Team: 1960s
- Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968
- Other years selected to an all-pro first team: 1963
- Pro Bowl Selection (game played since 1950): 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970
- Packers 50th Anniversary Team: 1969
- Packers All-Modern Era Team: 1976
- Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999