Deep in the bowels of a still-being-renovated UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena on Tuesday afternoon, revered former Packers defensive back Charles Woodson was all smiles, thank-yous and handshakes after being announced as an inductee into the hall of fame for a state that he didn’t even really want to come to a decade ago.
Woodson, who along with Badgers great Ron Dayne and LPGA legend Sherri Steinhauer was selected for induction into the historic Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame’s 66th Anniversary Class, will be officially enshrined next April. Additionally, Bud Selig will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. With Dayne a late scratch due to travel issues and Steinhauer unable to attend, Woodson held court at the event and talked about what it meant to be recognized among the state’s best sports figures.
"This ranks up there with the best moments that you have in life," said Woodson, looking sharp in a black shirt and blazer with no tie. "I think it is really just a testament to the dedication that you have, the passion that you have for whatever it is that you’re a part of. And then it’s also a testament to the people you were around, your teammates.
"It’s easy for these things to happen when you’re a part of great teams, and being here in Wisconsin and playing for the Green Bay Packers, being a part of one of the most storied franchises in the history of our game, these types of things happen when you’re a part of that. I’m very proud, I’m very happy and honored to be a part of it."
Standing at the podium during his press conference and speaking to reporters afterward, Woodson didn’t mind retelling the well-known story – "I’ve told this story a million times," he said, grinning – of how, initially, as a free agent in 2006, he wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of being in Wisconsin. After eight seasons with the Raiders, during which time the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner had twice been named first-team All-Pro, the brash cornerback left Oakland thinking he’d have his choice of suitors courting him for his playmaking talents.
He was wrong. Finding almost no other interest around the league, Woodson begrudgingly agreed to a seven-year contract with the Packers laden with performance incentives and bonuses. He said he "was reluctant to come to Green Bay" because he considered it a small, provincial town based on "preconceived notions" informed by what he’d heard from others.
But eventually, and especially after developing a close relationship with George Koonce, the former Packers player and director of player development, Woodson started getting out into the community more, meeting people and interacting with Wisconsinites – including coming down to Milwaukee regularly after Koonce took a job at Marquette. Woodson found himself caring less about how cosmopolitan Green Bay was and more about improving the team on the field and maturing as a person off it.
On Tuesday, he was asked how, with a decade of perspective, he felt about his time in Green Bay and how it changed his career and life.
"Once I got comfortable being here and understood what my role was going to be on this team and started playing football and making plays, then everything kind of came natural," he said. "I could just go out there and be a football player and be Charles and everything took care of itself.
"You know, I got married here, had my first kid while I was here, and then my second son I had during the Super Bowl run, so all of those things, man, kind of culminated in a great memory of my time here in Wisconsin."
Along the way, Woodson became a nine-time Pro Bowler, was named the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and, as team captain, delivered the famous, stirring halftime speech at Super Bowl XLV that many Packers credited as the reason they won the championship.
One of the players on that Super Bowl team, wide receiver Donald Driver, was next to Woodson at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. Driver was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame’s 65th anniversary class with retired Badgers coach Bo Ryan earlier this year and had his plaque officially unveiled outside Tuesday on the Walk of Fame.
At the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame at @UWMPantherArena, Bo Ryan and Donald Driver had their plaques unveiled. #Badgers #Packers pic.twitter.com/NMnnVf8QDi — Jimmy Carlton (@jimmycarlton88) October 25, 2016
Driver spent his entire 14-season career with the Packers, has remained involved in the state and speaks in cherished, gushing tones about his life being shaped in Green Bay and by its fans.
Woodson played for the Packers for seven years; how does he evaluate that chapter of his career, which executive director of the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame Brian Lammi reminded everyone is virtually assured of being recognized by another, bigger institution?
"It’s a huge chapter," Woodson said, mentioning that he’s often asked whether he wants to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Raider or Packer. "I’ve made it well known that I would retire as both, and the reason why is I couldn’t tell my NFL story, my NFL life, without talking about the Green Bay Packers. So the seven years I spent here, it was a blessing.
"It happened at a great time in my life, and I think this was the place I needed to be. I think that’s why things turned out the way that they did."
After switching positions and struggling with injuries, Woodson was released by the Packers after the 2012 season, a move that he said hurt but one he understood.
"Honestly, I didn’t want to leave; I think that really says it all. Every guy’s career comes to an end, whether you retire or a team cuts you or you get an injury, it’ll end," he said. "But how do you feel about that particular situation when it does end? I think about when I first got here, not really knowing what to expect, having a rocky start, and then to the point where this is where I wanted to retire at. It was a big difference."
This year, Woodson joined ESPN’s "Sunday NFL Countdown" and has already become a popular television personality for his honest, outspoken and progressive insight, especially in his support of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. He said it’s different being on the other side of the camera, offering his opinions and dealing with the public backlash, but he’s getting used to it and finds the work fun.
"It was the best while I was playing, and now it’s the best that I’m retired," Woodson said. "I’m enjoying life, I’m still staying plenty busy, but, you know what, I got to a point last season when I knew that I was done and I really feel like I’m one of the fortunate players to play any sport or be in any profession that you know when you’re done and you leave on your own terms. Most people leave this game, they leave it prematurely – they’re not ready to end their career but they have to, for whatever reason."
After 18 seasons, including seven unforgettable years in Green Bay, a place he didn't even want to come to then never wanted to leave, Woodson doesn’t miss football’s aches and pains and has no regrets.
"I felt like I was able to play out my career, I was able to exhaust every opportunity that I had in the NFL. So being retired, man, it’s all good. I wake up on Monday mornings and I don’t have those bumps and bruises that you’re used to having, the soreness. Maybe a little tired, but I’ll deal with that."
Woodson and his 66th anniversary class will be inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame on April 29, 2017, when they'll join 137 of the state's greatest sports icons.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.