Wood synonymous with perseverance

It's been nearly 30 years since Willie Wood last combed a football field; three decades since he searched for unsuspecting wide receivers who dared to float over the middle. But the game hasn't left the former Green Bay Packers safety. One needs just a simple glance at the gimpy Wood to realize that.<p>

Football's battle scars are evident throughout the Packer legend's body. At one time, a twist of the neck and a bend at the waste were causes for sheer pain. Thankfully, recent surgeries alleviated those nagging injuries. But now, it's the knees that bother the 62-year-old Wood. And because of that, a walking cane has become his best friend.

An incredible 12-year journey, one whose road carried him from an unwanted rookie to the doorstep of the National Football League Hall of Fame, had finally taken its toll.

"Trauma to the body," is how Wood explained his injuries during a recent interview, saying all were football related. "But that's the price you pay. You just have to pay the piper."

With all of his surgeries, it seems as if Wood has given the piper enough to put a nice down payment on a brand new home. But he's not complaining. He says his neck and back "those surgeries took place last year and earlier this year, respectively" feel fine now. And he's expecting his knees will get better, too, once the effects of a late June surgery finally wear off.

"I've had some physical problems as of late," he said from his Green Bay restaurant, Willie Wood's Shorewood Inn. "I've had a long fight with my knees. But I'm coming along. Things are working out fine."

Father Time may break down a person's body, but he can't touch a person's toughness.

And although Wood's ailments became a burdensome part of his life, he hung in there, underscoring the essence of his athletic prowess, the characteristic of the legendary teams he played on, and the makeup of the coach he went to war for. You look up perseverance in the dictionary, and there's a good chance you'll find a picture of Wood included within the definition.

Life hasn't exactly been a piece of cake in his later years, and it certainly wasn't a walk in the park during his earlier years, especially when he went undrafted in 1960 after playing quarterback and defensive back at the University of Southern California.

Refusing to accept that his playing days were over, Wood wrote letters to four teams – the Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, and the Packers – asking for a tryout. Only Green Bay responded.

"I suspected that I wouldn't be drafted," Wood, who suited up for the Packers from 1960-71, recalled. "But the late Jack Vainisi (Green Bay's talent scout at the time) came out and talked to me.

"I told him that I would do anything. I had no basis to bargain with, so he told me not to talk with any other teams because the Packers wanted to sign me. And it was shortly thereafter that I became a Green Bay Packer."

As it turned out, Wood's free-agent signing may have been the best-ever by then-coach Vince Lombardi.

During his 12-year career, Wood blossomed into one of the NFL's best-ever safeties, earning All-Pro honors from 1963-68 and Pro Bowl selections in 1962 and 1964-70. He was nominated into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1989, at the time becoming the 11th member of a Lombardi-coached Packer to be enshrined. He was also elected into the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame in 1977.

Like all of the Packers from that era, Wood credits Lombardi for much of his success.

"(Lombardi) was a very domineering person; very intimidating," he said. "He had that gravely voice. I felt fortunate that he handled the offense more than the defense so we didn't have to listen to (his yelling) all of the time.

"I remember he didn't say much to me (when I first came to camp). But about three weeks in, he came up to me and told me I was doing a good job and to not get lazy. It was really inspiring to get a compliment from him, and I made sure that I never laid down."

While Wood's determination and tremendous work ethic certainly played roles in helping him land a permanent spot on Green Bay's roster, it was his athleticism and his willingness to help out in any way that Wood feels struck a cord with Lombardi. "I was a football player," he said. "I could do most things that they'd ask for. I could kick off and punt. I could run back kickoffs and punts. You name it, I would do it. "I think (Lombardi) liked that. He knew I had the talent, and I think those are the reasons why he was interested in me."

Overall, Wood finished with 48 career interceptions, leading the league in 1962 with nine. Perhaps his most memorable interception came in the Packers' 35-10 win over Kansas City in Super Bowl I.

With Green Bay leading 14-10 in the third quarter, Wood picked off a Len Dawson pass intended for tight end Fred Arbanas and pranced 50 yards to the Chiefs five-yard line.

Moments later, Packers running back Elijah Pitts scampered in from five yards out to give Green Bay a 21-10 advantage, deflating any hopes of a Chiefs upset.

The versatile Wood, a cornerstone of a strong Packers defense that helped lead Green Bay to five NFL titles from 1960-67, also led the league in punt returns in 1961 with a 16.1 average.

"We didn't know what was really going on at the time," said Wood of the Packers' success. "We were always looking towards the next week; looking to win. You didn't realize how special it was. We just kept beating a lot of talented teams."

Coaching experience

Wood turned in his uniform for a headset following the 1971 season, serving as defensive backs coach for the San Diego Chargers from 1972-74 before becoming head coach of the Philadelphia Bell of the defunct World Football League in 1975.

"I was around (in Philadelphia) long enough to have a cup of coffee," Wood said, chuckling, in reference to the WFL's financial woes, which caused the league to fold in middle of its first season.

In 1976, Wood became a scout for the Oakland Raiders, then returned home to his native Washington, D.C. where he started a construction firm.

After a couple of years away from football, Wood returned to the game in 1979 when he became the secondary coach for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, whose head coach at the time happened to be former Packers offensive lineman Forrest Gregg, a teammate of Wood's.

One year later, Wood was named Toronto's head coach after Gregg bolted for the NFL to take over as head coach at Cincinnati. After one-plus seasons, Wood was fired by Toronto, ending his coaching days for good.

"If things don't go well, the fingers are usually pointed at the head coach," Wood said of his time in Toronto. "At that point, I had had enough of coaching."

At ‘home' in Green Bay

Wood still owns and operates the construction firm he started over 20 years ago. But his recent health problems have kept him away more than he would like.

As a sidelight, Wood and a partner bought and opened up his Green Bay restaurant – the former Carlton Inn – a little over a year ago, which is located on the city's east side along the bay near the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

So far, Wood has said his plunge into the restaurant business has gone well despite limited knowledge on the subject.

"I didn't know much about it when we started," he said. "My partner is into that. I was just as interested in the property as I was in the business. It's a supper club, kind of like a beef house. We've added a lot of seafood to the menu. We offer a good mixture of food at a reasonable price. The food is excellent, and we've been blessed with a great staff. We want people to come here and enjoy themselves."

The best part, Wood said, of co-owning a restaurant that bares his name is that it allows him to get back to Green Bay more often. Wood said he's usually in town one or two days a month, giving him the opportunity to keep tabs of old "and new" friends.

"When I look back at the times in Green Bay, I think back to when my family was all together," said Wood, whose wife passed away 11 years ago and whose two boys, Andre and Willie, Jr. are now 40- and 30-years-old, respectively.

"It was a great place to raise a family, and we were very happy here. It was really a wholesome time for my family. Coming back to Green Bay is like coming home, and if I had to do everything all over again, I'd jump at it."

Bad knees and all.

Editor's note: This feature appeared in the July 1999 issue of Packer Report.

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