A Quarter Century Later, Charles Woodson’s Heisman Season Still One Of A Kind
(In December, the Heisman Trophy Trust honored its 10, 25 and 50-year Heisman Trophy anniversary winners at the Heisman Trophy Gala.
Below is the profile on 25-year anniversary winner Charles Woodson that was included in the 2022 Heisman Trophy Journal
Woodson was recently spotlighted, along with a handful of other Heisman winners, in a documentary called The Perfect 10, which chronicled the 10 Heisman Trophy recipients also included in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Woodson is the most recent winner to join the exclusive club.)
Charles Woodson was an Ohio kid who went to Michigan, a star prep tailback who wanted to play defensive back in college. He was a modern-day collegiate throwback, excelling at cornerback before his talent demanded he add receiver and kick return specialist to his resume.
In December of 1997, he flipped the script again by winning the Heisman Trophy in a hotly contested race to become the first primarily defensive player to win the award and the first who saw significant time on both sides of the ball in some 60 years.
Was Woodson fundamentally a dominant cornerback? Was he also a threat at wide receiver that forced defensive coordinators to game-plan for him? Did he blossom as a punt returner? Yes to all of the above.
His high level of skill and versatility combined with a penchant for the spectacular launched Woodson from an All-American shutdown corner to Heisman contender and then to historic winner.
It all started across the state border in Fremont, Ohio, where Woodson grew up. He became star at Ross High, earning Ohio’s Mr. Football Award as a 1994 senior after rushing for 2,028 yards on 218 carries — while also playing DB.
A 1994 USA Today and Parade All-American, Woodson was heavily recruited as a running back thanks to his nearly 4,000 career rushing yards. But Michigan and head coach Lloyd Carr saw something else in Woodson and recruited him for the defensive backfield. That was all he needed to hear and Woodson signed with the Wolverines in 1995.
By the second game of his 1995 freshman season, Woodson had earned a starting job at corner. By season’s end, he had five interceptions and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and first-team all conference.
At the insistence of Carr, Woodson started digesting the offensive side of the playbook as a 1996 sophomore. He played about 10 snaps per game at receiver, ultimately catching 13 passes for 164 yards while rushing for another 152 yards on six carries. Meanwhile, he was still thriving at cornerback, breaking the Wolverine record for pass breakups with 15 while again leading the team with five interceptions. For that he earned AP first team All-American honors and was selected as a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.
A household name by the start of his junior year, Woodson’s No. 14 Wolverines opened with a late Sept. 13 home date against No. 8 Colorado. The last time the teams met in Ann Arbor, the Buffaloes and 1994 Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam pulled off the “Miracle at Michigan”, winning on a Hail Mary in the game’s final play.
There were no such dramatics this time as Michigan won 27-3. Woodson opened his season with five tackles, an interception on the second drive of the game and a key second-quarter catch for 29 yards that led to Michigan going up 10-0 before the half.
Woodson scored his first touchdown of the season in a Week 2 blowout of Baylor, snagging an inside screen pass from Brian Griese and weaving 10 yards into the end zone for Michigan’s first points of the game. He later grabbed another pass for 35 yards (he also had a 34-yard TD reception called back on a false start). On the other side of the ball, Woodson did not allow a reception and three of his five tackles were for loss.
Now ranked sixth, Michigan stayed local and hosted Notre Dame, eking out a 21-14 win. Woodson’s numbers were modest with four tackles, but he did have a key 20-yard punt return that set up the Wolverine’s go-ahead third-quarter TD drive.
Michigan opened Big Ten play at Indiana and its nation-leading defense shut out the Hoosiers in a 37-0 win. Woodson made his second interception of the season to go with three tackles and caught a 21-yard pass.
Still No. 6, Michigan returned to the Big House to host Northwestern, ending a brief two-game losing streak to the Wildcats with a 23-6 win. Woodson secured his third interception of the season in the fourth quarter that led to a Wolverine field goal and the game’s final scoring. He had an 11-yard sack among five tackles and also a 30-yard reception that led to Michigan’s first TD of the game.
Woodson next posted season highs in tackles (six) and punt returns and yardage (six for 70) in Michigan’s come-from-behind 28-24 win over No. 15 Iowa. The following week, Woodson’s legend would take off.
After five of six games at home, No. 5 Michigan traveled across the state to East Lansing to take on No. 15 Michigan State and dominated the Spartans in a 23-7 win. The Wolverines made many big plays that day, but it was Woodson’s unforgettable third-quarter interception that was replayed on highlight reels throughout the Saturday.
With Michigan leading 13-7, Spartan QB Todd Schultz was flushed out of the pocket on third down deep in his own territory and tried to throw the ball away. But Woodson had other ideas. Leaping high and twisting his body along the sideline, he snared the ball with his right hand, touched inbounds with his left foot and secured the ball with his left arm as he tumbled out of bounds.
Michigan failed to score off the ensuing possession, and it was one of two interceptions Woodson would make that day, but the sheer athleticism and dazzling nature of the play thrust Woodson into the forefront of the Heisman contender conversation.
No. 4 Michigan kept the pedal down the following Saturday, improving to 8-0 with a 24-3 win over Minnesota. Woodson, now fully on the national Heisman radar, kept his momentum going as well, scoring the Wolverines’ first touchdown of the game on a 33-yard run off of a reverse.
Week 9 saw No. 4 Michigan play in front of a record crowd at No. 2 Penn State against a Nittany Lion team with a 12-game win streak in a huge match-up — and one the Wolverines’ dominated, 34-8. Woodson scored one a 37-yard TD pass from Griese in the second quarter, lining up in the slot and catching a seam pass, going untouched into the end zone. He also had two tackles and two pass breakups and helped limit PSU star receiver Joe Jurevicius to just 20 yards receiving.
Now ranked No. 1 and a week away from facing highly ranked rival Ohio State, Michigan took care of business in a snowy battle at No. 23 Wisconsin, winning 26-16. Woodson’s fingerprints were all over this win as well. He completed his only pass of the season on Michigan’s opening TD drive, taking a lateral pass from Griese and sending it right back to his QB for a 28-yard gain to the 1-yard line. He later secured his sixth interception of the season to thwart the Badgers’ late second-quarter drive.
Woodson completed his 1997 Heisman resume on just about the biggest stage imaginable, leading No. 1 Michigan to a 20-14 win over rival No. 4 Ohio State in front of a record crowd at the Big House as the Wolverines completed their first prefect regular season in 26 years.
Woodson’s 37-yard second-quarter reception on third-and-12 to the 16-yard line set up Michigan’s first score and, after Ohio State went three-and-out, Woodson scored his fourth TD of the season on a 78-yard punt return. Receiving the ball at the 22, he dodged Ohio State’s first wave of coverage, broke to the left sideline and raced to the goal line, finally tackled by his own teammates in celebration.
Woodson sent the crowd into a frenzy again on the opening drive of the second half, intercepting a second-and-goal pass in the end zone (his seventh of the season). Ohio State eventually closed to within 20-14 in the fourth quarter, but that was as close as Woodson and Michigan would let the Buckeyes get.
“Those are plays people don’t forget,” Michigan’s Carr told ESPN two decades later. “And for us, that put us in a position where we had a chance to play for the national championship. He started the season strong, but finished it even stronger. I can’t imagine anybody doing more or meaning more to his team, and doing it consistently at the biggest moments the way Charles did.”
Woodson finished the regular season with seven interceptions, 44 tackles (four for loss), five pass breakups, 11 receptions for 231 yards and two touchdowns, one 33-yard TD run, 33 punt returns for 283 yards and two many highlight plays to count.
He and Michigan fans had to wait three weeks for the Heisman announcement without a game. Meanwhile, preseason favorite Peyton Manning played twice more and completed a fantastic regular season, leading Tennessee to an 11-1 record, a win in the SEC title game and a berth in the Orange Bowl.
The pair were invited to New York as finalists along with Marshall’s breakout wide receiver star Randy Moss and Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf, who Woodson would square off against in the 1998 Rose Bowl. In what was considered an upset, Woodson won Michigan’s third Heisman Trophy on Dec. 13, 1997, with 1815 points to Manning’s 1543 to join fellow Wolverines Tom Harmon (1940) and Desmond Howard (1991) as Heisman Trophy winners.
Woodson, who also won the 1997 Jim Thorpe and Bronco Nagurski Awards along with another first-team All-American nod, and Michigan completed their storybook season with a 21-16 win over Leaf and the Cougars in the Rose Bowl to win a share of the 1997 national title (with Nebraska). Woodson made his eighth interception of the season on a diving end zone grab and broke up four passes on the day.
Woodson declared for the 1998 NFL Draft after the season and was drafted fourth overall by the Oakland Raiders. He began what would become an amazing 18-year, Hall-of-Fame career with the 1998 Defensive Rookie of the Year honor.
He played his first eight seasons with the Raiders, his next seven with Green Bay and his final three again with Oakland. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection who made three All-Pro teams and was the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year (when he had nine interceptions) as a Packer before winning a Super Bowl with Green Bay in 2010.
He finished with 65 career interceptions (fifth most in NFL history), returning 11 of them for touchdowns. He also forced 33 fumbles, recovered 18 others and returned two for scores while finishing with 1,220 career tackles (and 20 sacks). His 13 career defensive touchdowns are tied for first in NFL history. He is the Raiders franchise career leader in forced fumbles (18) and defended passes/deflections (84) and the Packers franchise leader in interceptions returned for scores (nine) and defensive touchdowns (10).
Following his retirement, Woodson has had a successful career as a broadcaster for ESPN and now Fox Sports while also pursuing interests in private business.
In 2021, Woodson, along with fellow 1997 Heisman finalist Manning, was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, becoming the 10th Heisman winner in the Hall.
Any way you look at it, Charles Woodson’s journey in 1997 was a one-of-a-kind season for a one-of-a-kind player.