CANTON, Ohio — Charles Woodson didn’t know exactly what to expect when he stepped on an NFL field for the first time since bidding the game farewell seven months earlier. But it certainly wasn’t this.
In the shadow of the Hall of Fame he will one day join, Woodson was preparing to go live on ESPN’s “Monday Night Countdown” show the first weekend in August. Meanwhile at midfield of Tom Benson Stadium, NFL officials were investigating a botched paint job—the turf was hard and sticky in spots where the paint congealed. The preseason opener between the Packers and Colts, along with the carefully plotted rundown for the network’s pregame show, was about to be scrapped.
“The game is going to be cancelled,” announced Seth Markman, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s NFL studio shows. It was a little before 7 p.m. “Good test for us, actually. Welcome to the job. This is not a drill.”
Eight hours earlier, a dozen ESPN employees sat around a conference table at a nearby hotel, going over the A through E blocks of the show in an hour-long production meeting. Woodson, one of the newest employees, had written down some talking points on a 5×8 notecard: Spirit of Canton and being home in Ohio … Going to watch the Cleveland Browns and RGIII this season. If Hue can do for RGIII what he did for Andy Dalton, this team can surpass all expectations. It was akin to having a game plan on the football field, with play calls and assignments and techniques. Now, all of that was ripped up.
Woodson, an ESPN rookie, was unfettered by improvising in front of a national audience. After all, isn’t that one of the qualities that made him special during his 18-year NFL career as an NFL defensive back? Fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, he settled into a high swivel chair between Chris Berman and Matt Hasselbeck. Two seats down, Randy Moss was snacking on Sour Patch Kids. Woodson adjusted his navy blue vest as a production assistant helped him with his earpiece.
“I’m just excited I have my own chair,” he said with a grin.
* * *
Woodson was in that chair because of what happened on a Sunday morning in Detroit last November. The Raiders, his first and last NFL team, were on the road for a 1 p.m. contest with the Lions. And for the first time since his football life began at age 7, Woodson found himself not wanting to play in a game.
“I woke up that morning, and I said to myself, S—, I am retired,” Woodson says. “I knew it right then. I didn’t want to play anymore. That was the weirdest feeling I have ever had.”
For many players, retirement is involuntary. For others, it’s a gradual decision. For Woodson, it was as simple as going to bed as a football player and waking up the next day no longer wanting to be one. The night before had been ordinary; he went out to dinner with the president of his wine company and one of their distributors in Michigan. It snowed heavily that night, and in the morning, Woodson found himself hoping for a call cancelling the game due to weather. There had been times during three decades playing the sport when he didn’t look forward to meetings or walk-throughs. But that had never happened for a game.
He played that day, and played well, recording six tackles. But Oakland lost a tight one to the Lions, further denting their postseason hopes with a third straight defeat. Afterward, he gave a speech to his teammates in the post-game locker room that was even more significant than anyone else knew at the time.
“I remember breaking down to the team. I was crying,” Woodson says. “But they didn’t understand truly why I was crying. I was really mad about the game, but I was really, really crying, because I knew that was my last year.”
Physically, last season took a toll on his 39-year-old body, even though he didn’t miss a single game. He dislocated his right shoulder in the season opener, on the last play. He wore a harness afterward, but there were times when he was sure the joint was about to pop out (it never did). “You think about it,” Woodson admits, “like, damn, I hope the guys up front take care of this (tackle).” In Week 4 at Chicago, an opposing player fell on his other shoulder, injuring the SC and AC joints. Later in the season, he also played through an MCL sprain. The week of the Detroit game, some of his ailments were starting to feel better, and he was ditching the knee brace. So he knew his epiphany the morning of Nov. 22 was primarily a mental one.
“From that point on, the rest of the games, I was kind of going on autopilot,” he says. “I could play the game through repetition because I had done it so many times in my life that I could go out there and look like I always looked. But mentally, I was out of it.”
After flying home to the Bay Area, he told his wife. Her response: I’ll believe it when I see it. It makes sense, though, that a veteran defensive back, long coached to always move on to the next play, wouldn’t look back. Four weeks later, the Monday before the Raiders’ home finale, Woodson walked down to GM Reggie McKenzie’s office. Together, they called Mark Davis to break the news. Then, head coach Jack Del Rio called an impromptu team meeting. Woodson kept it short, because he started to get choked up. His only request: don’t tweet anything until I talk to the media. A few hours later, he made the announcement to local beat reporters.
Not long before, Markman had gotten a phone call. It was from Jerry Silbowitz, a longtime talent agent. He’d soon represent Woodson in his post-football career. “It’s not definite,” he told Markman, “but it looks like Charles Woodson is going to retire. Would you be interested?”
Markman didn’t have to think twice. In his office in Bristol, Markman keeps a list of players on the cusp of retirement whom he thinks would be good on TV. Woodson had been on that list, for at least five years.
* * *
The morning of the Hall of Fame Game, Woodson was not a man having second thoughts. He’d spent the past few days watching TV footage of his two former teams, the Packers and Raiders, report to camp. “I’m not pulling that sled anymore,” he said happily. Instead, he was sitting in the Len Dawson Meeting Room at a Canton hotel in a Jordan sweatsuit, ready to take notes with one of those fluorescent green-capped Courtyard Marriott pens ubiquitous among the sports media.
“Waking up this morning, really proud to have this new group here with us,” Markman said, opening the production meeting. “And we have football. So let’s go.”
The conversation started with the HOF speech Brett Favre gave the previous night.
“You know, I played against him the game after his dad died,” Woodson said. “It was an avalanche. There was nothing we could do. I don’t believe in ghosts, but if there was ever a time when I thought a ghost was around helping that team, that was it.”
It’s a bit of a gamble, Markman admits, to go into an NFL season with this much turnover on their biggest NFL show. ESPN has the rights to Monday Night Football, and the Countdown crew is on national TV before, during and after the game. This year, more than half the seats are new, between Tom Jackson retiring and Woodson, Matt Hasselbeck and Randy Moss replacing Cris Carter, Ray Lewis and Mike Ditka. The three ex-players were all part of the draft class of 1998, and Woodson and Hasselbeck are fresh off the field.
“A goal for us, honestly, was to become a little more relevant and a little more contemporary,” Markman says. “With all due respect to the guys we have had, as I looked at our set over the last couple years, I felt like we had gotten a little bit too far away from the field. What our fans want to hear about now, more so than ever, is what’s current, what is really happening, what are players really like now? It was a natural time to turn it over a little bit.”
Moss worked as an analyst for FOX since retiring in 2012, and the man who coined the phrase “straight cash, homie” is known for being outspoken. Hasselbeck has long been a de-facto team spokesman, and his younger brother, Tim, also works for ESPN. Woodson, on the other hand, spent much of his career letting his play do most of his talking. “He was one of those special players that did what really was not vocal,” says Moss, who played with Woodson in Oakland in 2005. “The times that he did speak, it was time to go out there and really run through that brick wall.”
“[Doing TV is] no different than a game,” Woodson says. “Things don’t go your way. Gotta adjust. Gotta roll with it.”
Markman and Rob Savinelli, who runs ESPN’s talent department, flew out to Oakland to meet with Woodson in early January. After one dinner, and no audition, they offered him the job. Ranked fifth on the NFL’s career interceptions list, and a nine-time Pro Bowler, Woodson carried credibility. He had impressed ESPN execs with the thoughtful, well-spoken insight he’d shared as a player in Sunday production meetings before MNF broadcasts. And some of his passionate addresses to his teammates are legendary, like the one he gave the Packers at halftime of Super Bowl XLV minutes after breaking his collarbone.
ESPN wants him to build off that, rather than formal training, of which he hasn’t had much. Since signing a three-year contract with the network in February, Woodson made one trip to Bristol for orientation and a rehearsal broadcast this summer. During that visit, Markman showed the group a clip from the Broadway hit Hamilton and a rollicking Charles Barkley TNT blooper reel. His message: The best entertainment comes when you think outside the box. Woodson’s raw-ness came through in the rehearsal, and his new peers loved it.
“Do you think Denver will repeat and be AFC West champs?” Berman asked.
“Hell, naw,” Woodson boomed back. He picked, of course, his Raiders.
“Look, he’s never done this before, he doesn’t know what camera to look at, and that’s the great thing about these guys,” Markman says. “We are giving him feedback and coaching, but it is not really about the mechanics of TV. We are sort of embracing the fact that he doesn’t understand everything to do with TV and all the terminology. I think that is a goal of our show, to make it much more natural, unscripted and off the cuff. Really, just a bunch of people talking football.”
That was exactly the feel in the production meeting. Just a bunch of people talking football—and who happen to have played with a lot of the guys on the field.
“You ever have to tackle Eddie Lacy, Charles?” Markman asked.
“I missed him on purpose one time!” Woodson said. He quickly added: “It was preseason, man.”
“See, that’s exactly what we are looking for!” Markman said.
“Fantastic,” added ESPN insider Adam Schefter.
“That’s why you guys are here,” Markman said.
* * *
A little after 5 p.m., in a classroom at Canton McKinley High School, adjacent to the Hall of Fame Stadium, Woodson sat draped in a cape as foundation was lightly airbrushed onto his face.
“What’s that, like, a spray tan?” he asked.
“First official time getting your makeup done,” the make-up artist announced.
Woodson thought about what he’d normally be doing three hours at this point before a game. “Putting on make-up,” he offered, referring to eye black. He started ticking off his old routine: Getting to the locker room at least three hours before kickoff, picking out the equipment he’d wear that day, getting taped, heading out for warm-ups. His uniform now consisted of a navy blue three-piece suit, a custom-made dress shirt with his initials embroidered on the cuff and black Air Jordans.
Woodson has a wine label with a Napa tasting room not far from where the Raiders hold training camp, he’s been trying to pick up golf—with mixed results—and has spent many days this offseason swimming with his two sons at home in the Orlando area. But he also knew he couldn’t be disconnected from football so quickly. He’s a loyal guy, only having played for two NFL teams during his 18-year career. He signed so quickly with ESPN, because he wanted to join his third professional team as quickly as he could.
After he was told to jot down a halftime food order from Bonefish Grill, Woodson hopped on the back of a golf cart to ride out to the field with Hasselbeck and Moss. As concerned officials from both teams milled around the midfield paint calamity, Woodson was mobbed by Packers: Personnel exec Alonzo Highsmith, who was instrumental in bringing him to Green Bay for seven seasons; Joe Whitt Jr., the cornerbacks coach; Sam Shields, “my little protégé,” Woodson called him. He got animated in a conversation with HaHa Clinton-Dix, who wears Woodson’s Packers No. 21 and got a dose of the wisdom that comes with it. To take the next step, Woodson told the young safety, you have to play with instincts. There will be three or four plays every week that are going to be there for you because you studied them on film. Go get them.
Woodson is still playing off instincts. Countdown was supposed to begin at 7 p.m., but they cut in to the 6 p.m. SportsCenter hour for a live report from Canton. Berman introduced the new team. Moss promptly called for someone to be fired over the field debacle.
“In the big picture, if you want to know the real, there are too many preseason games anyway,” Woodson said.
“First-rounder,” Hasselbeck teased.
For the next two hours, they spitballed on live TV. As Berman said, “draw the playbook up in the dirt, and go long.” The show hopped between the set on the field, sideline reports from Lisa Salters and Schefter and some big-picture team analysis up in the booth from Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden. Later, Aaron Rodgers walked over to the set.
“That’s my brother right here,” Woodson said. “My brother that helped me get that elusive ring I finally got, which I appreciate.”
“Why aren’t you wearing it tonight?” Rodgers asked.
“You know what, I should have,” Woodson said.
When Rodgers got up to leave, he took a second to process his ex-teammate’s new job. He told Woodson he’s used to either seeing him in either the same uniform or in another team’s uniform. “Now you’re really on another team,” the quarterback said.
By 9 p.m., the ESPN set was the only remaining action in the stadium. An enclave of fans leaned over the railing of the stands, trying to get the attention of the former players. “Go Blue!” one shouted at Woodson. Another called out his hometown: “Fremont, Ohio!” The last order of business was the standard “Come on, man!” segment. It’s not easy to pull off, especially because the narration has to match clips on a delay, but Berman nodded approvingly afterward.
As they signed off, Woodson tossed the obsolete rundown sheet and those 5×8 index cards off his desk and in the air.
“No different than a game,” he said. “Things don’t go your way. Gotta adjust. Gotta roll with it.”
He climbed out of his new chair for the night. Like a legendary defensive back would be, he’s on to the next.
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