(Courtesy: Con Marshall)
Danny Woodhead, the player who led the way as the Chadron State College football team rose to become among the nation’s best in NCAA Division II, surprised many of his fans last weekend by announcing his retirement from the National Football League.
Just a couple of days earlier after he was released by the Baltimore Ravens, that story quoted Woodhead as saying, “I can’t wait for my next stop.”
Apparently he decided in short order that 10 years in the pros were enough.
The retirement stories said he went from undersized and undrafted to a big-time playmaker in the NFL.
Although listed as just 5-8, 185 when he arrived at Chadron State in the fall of 2004, he came up big in everything he did athletically. As a senior at North Platte High School when he rushed for 2,037 yards and 31 touchdowns, he was the Nebraska Gatorade Football Player of the Year, offensive captain of both the Omaha World-Herald’s and Lincoln Journal Star’s all-class, all-state football teams and was Huskerland Report’s Player of the Year.
Since he also had averaged the state-best 26 points for the North Platte basketball team that winter, he also was named the Omaha and Lincoln newspapers’ 2003-04 Male Athlete of the Year.
Early in his pro career, Woodhead received a special parking place at the New England Patriots’ training camp after he won the team’s golf tournament.
Undoubtedly if Tom Osborne or Frank Solich had still been coaching at Nebraska, they would have offered Woodhead a scholarship or tried to convince him to walk-on with the Cornhuskers. But when Woodhead was a high school senior Osborne was in the U.S. House of Representatives and Solich had been fired that fall.
The new NU coaching staff led by Bill Callahan wasn’t interested in such a small running back. Apparently, neither were the other big time teams.
Since both of Woodhead’s parents, Mark and Annette, were Chadron State graduates and older brother Ben was a senior wide receiver on the CSC team, the Eagles had an inside track in landing him. Head coach/athletic director Brad Smith cashed in the chips. While such information is seldom announced, Woodhead was said to be the first athlete to receive a “full-ride” from the college.
Woodhead didn’t start the first game his freshman year, but he clinched the starting job in the third game when he rushed for a school-record 306 yards and scored five touchdowns. That was just the beginning of a fantastic career.
He would have three more games with 300-plus yards, set the NCAA II record for most 200-yard or more games (19), score touchdowns in 38 consecutive games and romp at least 50 yards to the end zone 21 times.
He became college football’s all-time leading rusher with 7,962 yards, rolled up 9,480 all-purpose yards and scored 109 touchdowns (tying him for the most in college football annals), helping him win two Harlan Hill Trophies, which go to Division II’s outstanding player.
The Eagles were 12-1 overall, were undefeated in the RMAC and ranked fifth in NCAA II by the American Football Coaches Association at the end of both his junior and senior seasons.
In addition, Woodhead was NCAA Division II’s National Scholar-Athlete his senior season in 2007 and graduated with a 3.72 GPA after majoring in both health and physical education and math. Two years later, he was voted the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s All-Time Outstanding Offensive Player when its All-Century Team was selected.
None of the NFL teams drafted him in the spring of 2008, but in short order the New York Jets signed him as a free agent. He suffered a serious knee injury during a training camp practice that summer. That’s usually curtains for an undrafted player, but the Jets left him on injured reserve and he made the roster the following season, but eventually he was released.
The Patriots quickly nabbed him and he played for them the next three years, becoming an important cog in Tom Brady’s offense, often entering the game on third down and either running through a small crack in the line or catching short pass and turning it into a big gain. He rushed for 547 yards and five touchdowns in 2010 and caught a touchdown pass from Brady in Super Bowl XLVI in 2012.
The next four years he was an all-purpose back for the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers. He also was an invaluable piece of Philip Rivers’ arsenal. He caught 76 passes for 605 yards and six touchdowns his first year there in 2013.
After breaking a leg, Woodhead missed all but three games in 2014, but he returned in 2015 for another excellent season, grabbing 80 passes for 755 yards and 16 TDs and also rushing for 336 yards and three more scores.
Another ACL injury in the second game ended his 2016 season. The following winter, he signed a three-year, $8.8 million contract with Baltimore, but a hamstring problem put him on injured reserve through the first eight games last fall. He saw enough action late in the year to catch 33 passes for 200 yards. Still, the Ravens released him while paring their payroll before next month’s draft.
During his farewell message, the media reported that the ever-gracious Woodhead thanked God, his family, his agent, his former coaches, singling them out by name, his former high school, college and NFL teammates and the medical personnel who had helped him along the way.
The Associated Press story ended with, “I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, but know that I’m thankful for everything everyone has done on my journey.”
Danny and his wife Stacia, his high school sweetheart, have four children and a home in the Omaha area.
More accolades will be coming his way. Both the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference long ago let him know they were ready to induct him as soon as his playing days were over.