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Game Changers: How Charles Woodson went from Michigan legend to NFL Hall-of-Famer

The former Wolverine had the most remarkable season a primarily defensive player has ever had.

SB Nation team communities will deep dive into the stories of the iconic sports figures who are known to be some of the league’s biggest game changers, while highlighting the game changing moments that gave them that title. Today, Maize n Brew dives deep into the career of Charles Woodson.

Twenty-six years ago, the Michigan Wolverines did something they hadn’t done since 1948 — win the National Championship.

Lloyd Carr finally got Michigan over the hump his mentor Bo Schembechler never could, and did so with a strong group that included Brian Griese, Jon Jansen, Chris Howard, Marcus Ray, Glen Steele, Sam Sword and, of course, the Heisman Trophy winner in 1997, Sir Charles Woodson, among many others.

It was a wild journey just to taste the sweet successes of 1997. Prior to the 1995 season, head coach Gary Moeller was fired for a public intoxication incident that led to his arrest. Carr — a longtime assistant coach at U-M — was hired to lead the program back to where Schembechler left it when he retired.

Year 1 of Carr’s head coaching tenure was also Woodson’s freshman season. It was the beginning of something great that culminated in an undefeated regular season and Rose Bowl win over Washington State to cap off the 1997 season.

But you likely wouldn’t have thought greatness was coming after two average seasons that resulted in four losses each — making it four straight seasons of four losses — two bowl losses to Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively, and a whopping SEVEN upset losses.

But something in 1997 changed. The team came out the gates swinging, upsetting No. 8 Colorado, 27-3, at the Big House. Woodson started off his Heisman campaign with a bang, as he had five tackles and the first of eight interceptions on the season. That pick, which seems like he leapt 20 feet into the air to make, came early in the game and set the tone for not only the game, but the entire season.

Woodson was a Swiss Army Knife no opposition could successfully game plan for. The next week, he compiled three tackles for loss against Baylor, as well as two receptions for 45 yards and one touchdown on the offensive side of the ball.

That wasn’t the only time Woodson would score on offense in 1997. He had the go-ahead 33-yard rushing score at Michigan Stadium against Minnesota, as well as a 37-yard touchdown in Beaver Stadium against No. 2 Penn State. Just to get some passing stats on his resume, he even completed a 28-yard pass to Griese the following week at Wisconsin, and had an additional three catches for 27 yards. He also added an interception and a pass breakup in the contest as well.

Woodson was a lockdown corner the entire season, gathering two interceptions at Michigan State, and one pick against Indiana, Northwestern and Wisconsin. There had been shutdown cornerbacks in college before, but none as dominant as Woodson’s 1997 season.

Heading into The Game at 11-0, Woodson and the Wolverines were looking to do something they hadn’t done since 1971 — finish the regular season undefeated. And thanks to Woodson’s efforts on offense, defense and special teams, Michigan was able to do just that.

In the regular season finale at the Big House, Woodson had three tackles, an interception in the end zone, and a pass breakup on defense. On offense, Woodson caught a 37-yard pass from Griese on Michigan’s first scoring drive in the second quarter. And then as everyone recalls, Woodson channeled his inner Desmond Howard and took a punt 78 yards to the house to all but solidify his Heisman Trophy win.

After compiling 43 tackles, five tackles for loss, eight picks and nine pass breakups, 12 receptions for 238 yards and two receiving touchdowns, a rushing score and the punt return touchdown against Ohio State, Woodson became the first player to primarily play defense to win the Heisman Trophy, greatly upsetting Tennessee fans from coast to coast in the process.

University of Michigan Charles Woodson, 1997 Heisman Memorial Trophy Award Ceremony

Woodson capped off a remarkable junior season — and collegiate career — with another interception in the Rose Bowl victory against Washington State, along with four pass breakups. He also had two rushes for six yards and a catch for seven yards.

Present day, Woodson is still the only primarily defensive player to win the Heisman. Few have come close in recent memory — Aidan Hutchinson (2021), Chase Young (2019), Jabrill Peppers (2016), Manti Te’o (2012) and Ndamukong Suh (2009) — but none have tasted sweet victory like Woodson.

Woodson went on to be among the best cornerbacks in the NFL for more than a decade. He was taken fourth overall in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders and was voted the Rookie of the Year. He also was named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, and won a Super Bowl ring with the Green Bay Packers in 2010. During his NFL career, Woodson was named a Pro Bowler nine times, an NFL First-Team All Pro four times, a Second-Team All Pro four times, and led the league in interceptions twice. He retired after the 2015 season.

Post-playing career, Woodson has still remained prevalent in the game of football. He was an analyst with ESPN before going to FOX Sports, where he remains to this day and is a huge part of Big Noon Kickoff.

From his stellar 1997 season to key moments in the NFL and everywhere in between, Woodson has always been a game changer.