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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,193

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This is the grave of Willie Wood.

Born in 1936 in Washington, D.C., Wood grew up as part of the working class of that city. He went to high school and turned out to be a very good football player. He was a national prospect in the years before that was really a thing like it is today. He decided to spend his freshman year playing for a junior college in California, as this was the era before freshmen could play varsity sports. Then in 1957, he enrolled at USC, where he immediately became a dominant safety. He was recruited across the country by, of all people, Al Davis, at that time an assistant for the Trojans. As there were only a few Black players on teams at this time, and none in the big southern programs, this was a real achievement for Wood. He also played quarterback, making him the first Black starting quarterback in what was then the Pacific Coast Conference, which is the ancestor of today’s Pac-12. He did have injury problems, particularly with his shoulders, and missed a bunch of time in both 1958 and 1959.

Now, today, Wood might have been drafted as a quarterback. But the idea of a Black quarterback was not something NFL teams were willing to consider then and in fact it would take decades for them to do so. The struggles of total legends like Warren Moon to get an NFL job shows just how hard it would be. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Doug Williams leading Washington to the Super Bowl, especially because he wasn’t some amazing athlete compared to other quarterbacks and thus his success couldn’t be explained away like it might be for a Lamar Jackson, if he had won a Super Bowl in this era.

So Wood ended up not being drafted at all, mostly because of the injuries. But he wrote to the Packers and got Vince Lombardi to give him a try out. Lombardi did allow allow him to play QB for a few days in training camp. Wood himself may have expressed his desire to switch to safety. In any case, he found immediate success at that position. He started immediately and would remain the free safety for the Packers for his entire career. One of the reasons Wood was successful is that Lombardi was pretty good at mentoring Black players and thus there were older Black players on the team that took Wood under their wing. Green Bay was hard for him too–there weren’t any Black people there and that really scared him, as you can understand. But Lombardi had told his white players that if they said anything racist, he’d cut their asses. So that set the tone that even in a lily white city, this was a team that was not going to put up with any of that trash. Not surprisingly, it also became a team that won games.

Wood became a dominant force. He was an All-NFL player six times between 1962 and 1971, was an 8-time Pro Bowl selection, and was the key to a dominant defense on the best team of the era. This was truly the Packers peak period and they won five titles during Wood’s career. They lost one championship game as well. This included the first two Super Bowls. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1962 and was a dominant punt returner too. He had a key pick in Super Bowl I and had a long punt return in Super Bowl II that changed the game. He also once kicked an extra point, presumably when a kicker got hurt.

As a player, Wood was known for having a nasty streak, one he was proud of. He said of himself, “Determination probably was my trademark. I was talented but so were a lot of people. I’d like people to tell you I was the toughest guy they ever played against.” He was a small guy, only 5’10”. So he had to be tough to survive. Said his former teammate, the legendary guard Jerry Kramer, “Next to Lombardi, Wood scares his own teammates more than anybody else does.”

In 1971, Wood retired from the game. He went into coaching. The San Diego Chargers hired him as their defensive backs coach. His coaching career was less successful. He held the Chargers job until 1973, when he was fired. He became the head coach in 1975 for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League, one of the occasional upstarts to challenge the NFL’s dominance, but that league folded in its second year, which was Wood’s first on the job. In 1979, the Toronto Argonauts hired him as their DB coach. After that year, its head coach, Wood’s former teammate Forest Gregg, went to the NFL to be the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Wood got the job to replace him in Toronto. This made him the first Black head coach in CFL history. But after an OK 1980 season, the team was 0-11 in 1981 and ownership fired Wood. That was the end of his coaching career.

After coaching, Wood opened a construction business in Washington. His son was a relatively successful coach as well in upstart leagues and at the high school level. Wood did have some of the health problems that afflicted many football players, including bad joints and, eventually, dementia. He knew that he was declining in 2002, when he stated, “I have no regrets about my career whatsoever. I got more out of it than anyone would have ever imagined.” He died in 2020, at the age of 83.

Willie Wood is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Also, this is an appropriate post as we enter the NFL season this week, which of course excites me tremendously. We hope to annoy people who think “sportsball” is a witty term by even more NFL coverage than usual this year.

In 1989, Wood was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Wood is the first player from the 89 class to pass away, but if you want this series to visit people from other classes inducted in this era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Henry Johnson, the running back inducted in 1987, is in Antioch, California and Tom Landry, the legendary Cowboys coach inducted in 1990, is naturally enough in Dallas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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