Woodson, Koonce Form a Deep and Lasting Bond

Charles Woodson was named NFL defensive player of the year on Tuesday. One of the people he thanked was former Packers linebacker and director of player development George Koonce. Koonce, the AD at UW-Milwaukee, tells their remarkable story to Packer Report.

Charles Woodson stood at the podium in the Lambeau Field media auditorium on Tuesday afternoon as the NFL's 36th defensive player of the year.

Woodson thanked George Koonce. And Koonce, from his office as athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, thanked Woodson for something much more meaningful.

We'll leave the best for last. Instead, we'll start at the beginning.

As Woodson said on Tuesday, the story of his icy arrival in Green Bay has been a told a "million times." Woodson didn't want to come to Green Bay. He didn't want to play for Green Bay. He didn't want to live in Green Bay.

But beggars can't be choosers.

"It's not a secret that I didn't want to come to Green Bay," Woodson said, thanking general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy for overlooking the "negative perception" surrounding Woodson's final couple years in Oakland.


Charles Woodson
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
"I got here, and it was rough because I just couldn't get over that fact mentally of only having one option leaving from out of Oakland. It took some time. It just took me playing football, playing good football, and we were able to get past a lot of things early. Just the way that this organization, the way they take care of you, the community is great. The way Mike has taken care of me, our relationship has gotten a lot better. Just the people here have been good, all over the state of Wisconsin. I've gotten to meet a lot of great people in this state who — a lot of them texted me today and told me congratulations on the award — that have made this transition a great transition for me, and it was truly a blessing coming to Green Bay."

One of the "biggest reasons" why Woodson warmed to Green Bay was Koonce. During the team's courtship of Woodson, Koonce was the Packers' new director of player development. When Woodson made his free-agent visit to Green Bay, it was Koonce who drove Woodson to and from Austin Straubel International Airport.

"It was a tough sell," Koonce told Packer Report on Tuesday evening. "Like a lot of players around the country, they just don't have the knowledge of Green Bay and the whole state of Wisconsin. There are some perceptions out there that I don't think are really true."

Woodson, with nowhere else to turn, agreed to sign a seven-year contract with the Packers on April 26, 2006. But Koonce's sales pitch wasn't over. Far from it. Koonce played linebacker for the Packers from 1992 through 1999, starting 112 games — including all 16 as the leading tackler for the Super Bowl XXXI championship team in 1996. He talked regularly with Woodson, talking up the good things about Green Bay and setting straight some of the stereotypes about the NFL's smallest city.


George Koonce in 1998
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"I had a chance to share some things with Charles about my experience and the things that I observed when I was in the green and gold, and it seemed to be very helpful for Charles," Koonce said.

That included dispelling the notion held by many black players about playing in Green Bay. The Packers aren't just Green Bay, they're a fabric of Wisconsin. Less than two hours to the south is Milwaukee, which, as Koonce points out, has a minority population of 51 percent.

"There's a lot of diversity in the state of Wisconsin, if that's what you're looking for," Koonce said. "I think there's a lot of exceptional African-American business leaders, community leaders — and I've helped to introduce Charles to different people."

The rest, of course, is history. Woodson went from clashing with McCarthy and spending his offseason working out in Houston to becoming a team leader and a staple in the offseason program. In eight seasons in Oakland, Woodson intercepted 17 passes. In four seasons in Green Bay, he's picked off 28. This year, Woodson tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions and ranked second among defensive backs with four forced fumbles in joining Reggie White as the only Packer to win this award. There is increasing talk about being a potential Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"You don't come into the season thinking about these types of awards," Woodson said. "You come in with the team goal and that's to get to the Super Bowl. For your individual play, you want to do everything that you can to help your team win. What this award says is that I played at a high level, a consistent level all year that people noticed. That's what feels good because there are a lot of good players around this league, a lot of guys that could be standing on their particular team receiving this award, and they deserve it, too. So, it feels good to be up here today to accept the award, not only for myself but my teammates. Like I said, we would much rather be preparing this weekend, but hopefully they are somewhere watching right now, wherever they are at. Some guys are still here, some guys are home already, and hopefully they can smile a little bit about this even though it hurts that we are not preparing for this weekend."

Koonce and Woodson's time together in Green Bay was short. In June 2007, Koonce left the Packers to become senior associate athletic director at Marquette University. They remain incredibly close. So close that when Koonce's wife, Tunisia, died of breast cancer at age 38 on Oct. 8, Woodson stepped to the forefront.

Woodson is donating 50 cases of his TwentyFour wine — a large chunk of the winery's 800-case yearly production — in honor of Tunisia. The bottles will have a pink label, and proceeds will help with the early detection of breast cancer.

"He didn't have to do that," Koonce said. "It just shows you what kind of person he is and what kind of heart that he has. When he told me that him and his business partner, Rick Ruiz, had decided to do a label in honor of my wife, he didn't know that I was on the other end of the cell phone basically in tears. That really, truly meant a lot to me. Charles knows how much Tunisia meant to me and my family. For him to do something like that from the bottom of his heart, I can't thank them enough."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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