In 2004 I first became enamored with the story of Danny Woodhead, a North Platte, Neb. all-around athlete who became a living legend in high school for his exploits in football, basketball, and track. He set all kinds of records on the gridiron but large colleges were put off by his small size. He was maybe 5’8 and 180-190 pounds then. Many a big school has bypassed a great player by only looking at the measurables and not assessing an individual’s heart, worth ethic, competitiveness, and instincts for the game. Woodhead clearly had those qualities and if coaches had only believed their own eyes they would have seen a special athlete with big-time running capability. Without an attractive offer in hand, however, Woodhead decided to stay close to home and attend nearby Chadron State College, an obscure Division II school. There, his legend only increased. Long story short, he became the leading rusher in NCAA history, regardless of division. He personally ran for more yards from scrimmage than the majority of college teams did during his four-year career. He helped lead a turnaround at Chadron, which went from doormat to contender, I finally caught up with him in 2006, when he won the Harlon Hill Trophy as D-II’s best player for the first time. The award is D-II’s equivalent of the Heisman, and he won it again at the end of the 2007 season. No one will ever know what Woodhead would have done at a D-I football power like Nebraska, which showed only tepid interest in him at best when he was in high school, but it’s safe to say that after what he did in college and what he’d done by not only making it to the National Football League but thriving there, that he would have performed very well had he been given the opportunity.
In 2008 he was signed as a free agent by the New York Jets, and he so impressed the coaching staff that after suffering a serious injury in preseason camp he was retained by the team, and he once again made the squad for the 20o9 season. He shined in some exhibition games and though he saw limited action during the regular season he did produce well when given the chance. He became a darling of the Jet press corps and fan base, and his legend grew more when he was featured in the HBO reality show, “Hard Knocks. ” Head coach Rex Ryan often praised Woodhead. Woodhead recovered from his injury and made the team to start the 2010 season but he was released only two weeks into the campaign. That’s when the folktale of Woodhead took another fateful turn: the NFL’s premier franchise did what it’s done innumerable times before by picking up a cast-off that the brain trust of coach Bill Belichick & Co. recognized as having real value. The Pats’ acquisition of the no-name Woodhead has more than panned out, as Woodhead has scored a touchdown in each of his first two games with the club, earning praise from his new coaches and teammates, and along the way he’s become an instant folk hero in New England.
The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared after Woodhead’s Harlon Hill-winning junior season at Chadron, when the thought of an NFL career was yet a distant dream. That dream has now been fulfilled and it still has a long way to go before it’s finished. Indeed, Woodhead is only just getting started.
Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
By winning the Harlon Hill Trophy last weekend as the nation’s best Division II college football player for 2006 Danny Woodhead won one for all the guys told they’re too small, too slow or from the wrong athletic pedigree. Coming out of North Platte, Woodhead, now the super stud, record-setting tailback for Chadron State College (Neb.), heard doubts about his ability despite being Nebraska Class A football’s all-time rushing-scoring leader.
The modest Woodhead isn’t sure his award is vindication so much as inspiration for underdogs. “I don’t know if it’s a win for ‘em, but I think it’s encouraging,” he said. “It makes ‘em think they have a chance because if I had a chance of doing it I think anyone can. It’s not about your size. It’s about how if you keep working hard something like this could happen. It probably teaches don’t let people tell you you can’t do it, because I’ve been told I couldn’t do stuff since I was in 8th grade.”
D-I schools gave him a look after high school but no offers. A pair of D-II schools courted him and the one he chose, Chadron, lacked a powerhouse program. He followed older brother Ben there. Besides, it was closer to home than his only other suitor, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
At North Platte High he compiled huge numbers, but didn’t meet the profile of a big-time back. In the eyes of major college recruiters he was under weight, (190 pounds) and a step slow (4.6 in the 40). Also hurting his cred was where he played. Western Nebraska doesn’t produce many D-I prospects. Most of his yards came against the Grand Islands and Cretes, not Lincoln or Metro Omaha schools. The theory went, You-may-be-all-that-in-the-sticks, but-you-ain’t-shit-where-it-counts. Then, too, he’s white, when the prototype ballcarrier is black. What’s a guy to do?
Well, in Woodhead’s case he got bigger, stronger and faster and in the process put up eye-popping stats his freshman and sophomore years, rushing 562 times for 3,609 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns for Chadron teams that were competitive but lost as often as they won. He also proved a dangerous receiver. Each year he made the Associated Press Little All-America Team. Combining great lower body strength, superb balance, uncanny vision, excellent speed and rare endurance, he sheds tacklers and makes people miss and just keeps coming at you.
Then he took his game up a notch in 2006. In a year in which Chadron went 12-1, advanced to the playoffs and nearly beat D-II finalist Northwest Missouri State, he went off the way Barry Sanders did his Heisman year. Woodhead earned 1st Team All America honors and D-II’s Heisman equivalent when he gained 2,736 rushing yards and 3,158 all-purpose yards and scored 38 touchdowns and 228 points, tops in each NCAA category. To put it in perspective, by himself he outrushed and outscored most collegiate gridiron teams. His 2,736 rushing yards set the all-division single season mark. With a full season to play, Woodhead, a junior, has 6,345 rushing yards and 84 touchdowns. He’s on pace to break every NCAA career rushing, all-purpose yardage and scoring record. He may eclipse some marks by huge margins.
Like all great athletes he’s not content. “I don’t want to be satisfied with what I’ve done,” he said. “I want to work just as hard as I can to get better.” He intends leading Chadron to the D-II title game, which the return of 19 players with starting experience makes plausible. He’ll be the favorite to win a second Harlon Hill.
Whatever he does next, he knows people will ask, Could he have done it in D-I? “We could play the what if game,” he said, “but honestly it’s not going to get us anywhere. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m having a blast playing football. It’s something you don’t want to end, so I’m just going to cherish it while I have it and I’m not really worried about what I could be or would be doing in Division I.”
The next question is, Can he make it in the NFL? It doesn’t matter. You see, he’s already a legend. His feats should do wonders for recruiting. Thanks to him, other guys who don’t fit the mold may be dreaming big . Now that’s a legacy, man.
Woodhead compiled just under 10,000 all-purpose yards during his Chadron State career. Here are a few of his college stats:
RUSHING GP NO. YDS LOSS NET RSH AVG TDS LNG PER GM-AVG 11 250 1646 49 1597 6.4 21 89 145.2 13 344 2854 98 2756 8.0 34 88 212.0 10 278 1854 85 1769 6.4 21 91 176.9 10 284 1892 52 1840 6.5 25 73 184.0 44 1156 8266 7962 101 RECEIVING GP NO. YDS AVG. TDS LNG 11 38 484 12.7 2 85 13 45 403 9.0 4 43 10 30 367 12.2 0 32 10 16 163 10.2 2 55 44 129 1417 8 SCORING GP TDS PTS
11 23 138
13 38 228
10 21 126
10 27 162
44 109 654
- Danny Woodhead: New England Patriots Find a Diamond in the Rough (bleacherreport.com)
- Woodhead leads group of unlikely, likeable Patriots (sportingnews.com)
- He helped more than a little bit (boston.com)
- Danny Woodhead dumps his agents (profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
- Lockout or not, Pats’ Woodhead keeps offseason approach same (nfl.com)
- NFL Star Danny Woodhead Signs Deal With Skechers (shoppingblog.com)
- The Most Beloved Player on Each NFL Team (bleacherreport.com)