- Jeffri Chadiha, NFL
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The massive GMC Yukon pulled into Green Bay's Austin Straubel Airport on a typically chilly afternoon in the winter of 2006.
By that point Charles Woodson had settled into the SUV's seat while contemplating all the options he'd have as an unrestricted free agent following eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders. What he wasn't doing was savoring much of the visit he'd just had with the Green Bay Packers.
Aside from eating with the coaches and enjoying a brief conversation with his current driver -- then-Packers player relations director George Koonce -- all Woodson had appreciated about the trip was an on-time departure for his flight home.
Woodson wasn't moved when Koonce tried one last recruiting pitch while dropping Woodson at the airport.
"So I'll be seeing you at the OTAs in March?" Koonce asked.
Woodson just chuckled.
"George kept telling me I could really fit into a place like this," Woodson said during a recent interview.
"And all I kept thinking was that I was not coming to Green Bay. That wasn't going to happen."
It's interesting to hear Woodson talk about that memory today because he truly realizes how shortsighted he was at the time.
While Koonce saw a gifted player with the chance to join a tradition-rich franchise eager to start winning again, Woodson thought he'd end up wasting away in the NFL equivalent of Siberia. What Woodson couldn't see then was that he needed a place like Green Bay as much as that organization needed him. And today he's proved just how beneficial that union has been.
At this stage, there should be little doubt about who deserves to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Woodson's numbers alone -- 70 tackles, eight interceptions, four forced fumbles, two sacks and two defensive touchdowns -- should be enough for him to become the fourth cornerback to ever win that award.
Yet those statistics are even more impressive when considering the 33-year-old Woodson is in his 12th season. His play should be declining by now. Instead, he's raised his game to incomprehensible levels.
The Packers' Swiss Army knife
To understand what Woodson is doing, just recall that Rod Woodson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, had to move from cornerback to free safety by the time he'd reached his 10th season. Deion Sanders, a future Hall of Famer, had become so ineffective by his 12th season that he retired from the Washington Redskins following that year.
"What makes Woodson so tough is that he is a competitive tackler with great ball skills and he's a shutdown corner," said one AFC personnel director.
"People say that [Oakland Raiders cornerback] Nnamdi Asomugha is the best cornerback in the league but Woodson is definitely playing much better than him right now."
"I really don't think this year has been that impressive," Woodson said.
"And that's because I feel like I've always been doing the things that I'm doing now. I've had more than 20 interceptions since I came here [he has 27 in Green Bay and 44 for his career] but I've also had the chance to read more [in coverage] instead of always playing bump-and-run. For me, this is just business as usual."
That's not entirely true. Woodson used to be just a cornerback in Oakland.
I got that because that's what I want to do -- I want to live forever. I want to make a difference. I want people to be thinking about my name until the sun blows up.
”-- Packers CB Charles Woodson, explaining the meaning of one of his tattoos
Woodson has played cornerback, free safety, strong safety and even moved to outside linebacker in some schemes designed by defensive coordinator Dom Capers this season.
That versatility has allowed the Packers to match the 6-foot-1, 202-pound former Heisman Trophy winner against an assortment of playmakers.
Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said Woodson's most impressive plays sometimes don't involve pass coverage.
Woodson's goal-line tackle of Ravens running back Willis McGahee in a 27-14 win on Dec. 7 is proof.
"Charles dove about five yards from the goal line and swept the legs of a pretty good running back," Whitt Jr. said.
"That play embodied what he's all about. That's why I say you can't just call him a cornerback. He's played five different positions for us and all at a high level."
Woodson's impact on Green Bay isn't confined to game days, either.
His presence and leadership is so valued that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers continually encourages him to speak his mind because, "Charles has no idea how much these young guys look up to him."
When a group of team leaders met after a midseason loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped the Packers' record to 4-4, it was Woodson who delivered the most moving comments about not letting this team underachieve.
'I want to make a difference'
Just as impressive is the way Woodson has become a leader away from the Packers.
Woodson was the person who gave the introductory speech for Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle at the state's Democratic convention in June.
He also was the man who threw a dinner party at the home of Herb and Natalie Kohler -- who created a manufacturing empire largely known for plumbing products -- last month.
Woodson used that function to raise money for the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, a cause to which he's also donated $2 million of his own money. At one point during that evening, Woodson could be found in the corner of the Kohlers' spacious living room, where he showed the Kohlers his tattoos and explained their meaning.
Woodson's growth as a spokesperson for that hospital even has impressed people who've known him for years.
When he was invited to speak to some Michigan alumni in Chicago over the summer, the opportunity terrified Tammi Carr, the associate director of development for Mott Children's Hospital.
"I sent him some information and notes and he kept saying, 'I'm good,'" said Carr, who also is the daughter-in-law of Lloyd Carr, Woodson's head coach at Michigan.
"But when he got up there, he did an amazing job of talking from the heart. I've never seen somebody talk off the cuff like that and reach so many people."
That moment speaks to two things about Woodson that make him such a great player: his confidence and his intelligence.
But what's also helped Woodson sustain his excellence later in his career is a change in attitude.
Just as he's had to work at being an intensely private person who is a visible spokesperson for the hospital, he's had to start altering his approach to the game. The result of that effort is a man who's far more focused on how he'll he remembered.
In fact, one of the tattoos the Kohlers didn't see the night of the dinner party was an Egyptian symbol Woodson had etched onto his right wrist a couple of weeks ago. It means "Live forever."
Said Woodson: "I got that because that's what I want to do -- I want to live forever. I want to make a difference. I want people to be thinking about my name until the sun blows up."
Insulted by Raiders
The people who knew Woodson in Oakland would have a hard time recognizing the player who's become so concerned about his legacy. They certainly remember the defender who made four straight trips to the Pro Bowl after becoming the fourth overall selection in the 1998 NFL draft.
What they also can't forget is the player who became far too comfortable with getting by on natural ability. As one team source said, "Woodson would go days without ever cracking his playbook."
Others say it wasn't uncommon for him to dismiss the value of film study.
"Charles always came to play on Sundays," said NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, who was a Raiders defensive back during Woodson's rookie season.
"But he literally would walk into a meeting room, put his playbook on the floor and go right to sleep. He always had great talent. The question was whether he would waste it."
Said Woodson: "You start to do a lot more things as you get older. I feel like I'm still a good athlete now but it was different at the start [of his career]. It wasn't until my sixth year in the league that I started to prepare for training camp.
"When I was in my first or second year, I would just go back to Atlanta [his offseason home] and it would be on. I wasn't worrying about longevity."
That approach eventually caught up to Woodson. Always willing to throw his body around, he didn't play a full season between 2002 and 2005. He missed 13 games over his last two years with the team.
The Raiders paid Woodson -- he made a total of $19.32 million after the team designated him as its franchise free agent in 2004 and 2005 -- but privately the questions about his production mounted.
After the 2005 season, the Raiders decided against re-signing him in free agency.
Former Raiders executive Mike Lombardi, who now is a columnist for the Web site nationalfootballpost.com and also works for the NFL Network, explained that decision by saying, "We had franchised Charles two times already and we didn't have the cap room to afford him any longer."
Woodson, however, already had indicated his discontent with a team that became a chronic loser after winning the AFC title in 2002.
When asked about those years, he said, "I hated coming to work because the losing was hard to deal with."
Woodson added that the Raiders insulted him when they let him go.
"I remember Mike Lombardi telling my agent that the Raiders didn't think there was any value to bringing me back," said Woodson, although Lombardi denied saying this.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'I have no value as a football player?' So I said, 'That's fine. I'll just go into free agency.' And that's when the phone never started ringing."
Knock, knock: It's Green Bay
Green Bay called first, but Tampa Bay was the only other team to approach Woodson -- and the Bucs wanted to move him to safety.
So Woodson kept calling his agent, Carl Poston, and asking about other potential suitors. Every time Poston responded, he told Woodson that teams either weren't interested or weren't calling back. After a few weeks had passed, Poston said the Packers kept calling for a commitment. Woodson's response: "What about Seattle?"
The anonymous AFC personnel director said Woodson's limited prospects resulted from the fact that "he hadn't been playing all that well in Oakland and when you factor in the injuries, the perception was that he was going downhill."
Woodson, however, suspects his time in Oakland tainted his reputation.
"I didn't understand it," Woodson said. "Instead of looking at the tape, there was this reputation that had built up off perception. If people really saw the way I played, there was nothing they could say about my game. I played through injuries. I played the run. I threw my body around. I did everything I could to help us win games."
The one factor that sustained Green Bay's interest in Woodson was the long-running admiration Packers general manager Ted Thompson had for the player's ability.
When Thompson was the Seattle Seahawks' vice president of football operations from 2000 to 2004, he used to watch film of Woodson and tell his scouts, "That's what a cornerback is supposed to look like."
And when teams were ignoring Woodson in free agency, Thompson followed his own impulse.
"We had people we trusted telling us that he could still play," Thompson said.
Woodson eventually signed a seven-year, $52 million deal, but he came to Green Bay with a serious chip on his shoulder. He kept to himself.
He annoyed coaches with his tendency to break simple rules, like wearing his hat backward.
"I didn't really talk to anybody," Woodson said. "I talked to the defensive backs because that's who I was working with but I was still caught up in the fact that nobody wanted me except Green Bay. I thought I wasn't supposed to be in Green Bay. I was supposed to have my pick of teams and I thought that wasn't right."
If Woodson wasn't crazy about Green Bay, there were some fans who felt the same way about him.
Shortly after signing with the team, Woodson went to dinner at a local restaurant with Koonce. As they ate quietly in a private area, they heard a nearby couple talking about what a mistake the Packers had made by signing an ex-Raider.
"I could see that Charles was angry but I told him not to worry about it," said Koonce, who is now the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "I told him that if he took care of his business, everything would take care of itself."
Life improves after 30
Whether it was the result of a bruised ego, a bitter spirit or undeniable ability, Woodson channeled his disenchantment into a positive direction.
He intercepted eight passes in his first season in Green Bay. He added four more interceptions in 2007, when he helped the Packers reach the NFC Championship Game. Last season Woodson elevated his game even more. Along with seven interceptions and two defensive touchdowns, he registered three sacks and his first Pro Bowl appearance since his days in Oakland.
Woodson also made huge strides off the field. He made valuable business connections through Koonce, a former Packers linebacker.
Without the nightlife that surrounded him in the Bay Area, Woodson also had more time to focus solely on football. Even when a fractured toe kept him from practicing most weeks last season, his preparation never waned.
"Every time I walked by the guy in the training room, he'd be looking at his computer and watching film," said Packers wide receiver Donald Driver.
Woodson actually claimed he isn't watching any more film than he did earlier in his career; it's that he's studying it more efficiently these days. He actually looks at four different sets of videotape -- categorized by down and distance, personnel, field position and splits -- to determine when and where teams will attack him.
"I could always pick things up quickly but I've gotten to a point where I'm putting it all together," Woodson said.
"When I was younger, I felt like some of this stuff didn't matter. But now there's no wasted motion in my play. When I see something, I go get it."
The arrival of Capers this year has meant just as much to Woodson's effectiveness.
The two men discuss game plans every Saturday night and Capers invites Woodson's input on strategy. The versatility that Woodson now provides has given the Packers great flexibility in mixing up coverages and applying pressure to the quarterback.
Aside from a 37-36 Week 15 loss to Pittsburgh -- when Steelers quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards and three touchdowns -- the Packers' defense has been dominant. But even with Big Ben's impressive numbers, the Steelers schemed their passing attack away from Woodson.
I don't mean to offend anybody by saying this, but he's the best football player I've ever seen in person. I've never seen anybody dominate a position the way he has.
”-- Packers QB Aaron Rodgers on Woodson
As Capers said: "We were a middle-of-the-pack defense for our first four games and we've been a top defense ever since. He's a big part of that."
Added Rodgers on Woodson: "I don't mean to offend anybody by saying this but he's the best football player I've ever seen in person. I've never seen anybody dominate a position the way he has."
Woodson also admitted that his maturation has plenty to do with how his life has evolved in Green Bay.
He spends more time there in the offseasons and head coach Mike McCarthy said: "Charles is now just one of the guys."
He's got a 10-month-old son (Charles Jr.) with his wife, April. He's also raised awareness for the Children's Hospital through his public speaking engagements.
Above all else, Woodson has learned Green Bay isn't such a bad place. He now appreciates the city because it reminds him of his small hometown of Fremont, Ohio. Those residents respect people who work hard and Woodson has felt a similar appreciation in Green Bay.
In fact, Koonce chides him occasionally by asking the question: "What about Wisconsin now?"
Woodson usually chuckles just as he did four years ago. Only this time he realizes that he's thankful for the path he was forced to take.
As Lombardi said, "You can see that he's matured a lot. He's decided that football means a lot to him."
"A friend once told me that you start figuring out what's important once you hit 30," he said.
"And you know what? He was right."
For more information on the Charles Woodson's fundraising efforts on behalf of the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, contact the Charles Woodson Foundation by clicking here or the Charles Woodson Fund by clicking here.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.