Commentary

Welcome to Danny Woodhead's world

Updated: January 16, 2011, 1:12 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. -- The place where Danny Woodhead comes from is not for wusses. The temperature hovers around 15 degrees below zero at dawn Wednesday, causing a frozen fog to settle over the Platte River and prompting a news piece on how to keep the cows warm. Breakfasts at the local diner are served with a blob of gray gravy, a giant sausage and a stern cardiologist's warning.

They still buy the newspaper in North Platte. They still have flip phones, too, which are tucked away in heavy work overalls so as not to distract from the morning conversation. Most mornings, the talk starts with the weather -- wind chills are for suckers -- and ends with football.

This is Cornhuskers territory, which means Saturdays are for the Big Red and Sundays are for washing the car, doing chores and waiting another six days for a game. But not this season. Woodhead is playing in the NFL. And in this western Nebraska town of about 25,000, the New England Patriots have about 25,000 new fans.

"Danny has kind of picked up our spirits," Mark Jolliffe said as he waited at the counter for a hot plate at Roger's Fine Foods on Wednesday. "He took our minds off the Huskers' losses."

At first, it seemed like such an odd match. Tom Brady, superstar quarterback, husband to a supermodel, meets Danny Woodhead, son of North Platte. One man makes women swoon over his long tresses; the other comes from former fur-trading country.

[+] EnlargeNorth Platte Rail Yard
AP Photo/Nati HarnikDanny Woodhead grew up in North Platte, home to Union Pacific's massive Bailey Yard.

It's not so odd anymore. In the months since the Patriots picked Woodhead up in September, the 5-foot-7 running back has become a cult hero and an integral piece of Bill Belichick's offense, collecting nearly 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards and six touchdowns. New England is the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and faces the New York Jets -- the team that cut Woodhead this past fall -- on Sunday.

The people here have no doubt thought about it, how an overachieving football player embodies their community. There's a railyard that runs through town, and it's the largest in the country. At night, thousands of people drive past the Bailey Yard lights, whizzing along I-80 to somewhere bigger.

A man sitting at the end of the breakfast counter says western Nebraska is about hard work, about toiling away 60 hours a week just to survive. Just like Danny. The man won't give his name. He doesn't want to take away from Woodhead's spotlight.

But it's their spotlight, too.

"We're a long ways from nowhere," the man said.

"I think we're just glad he's getting a chance."

Visiting the Woodheads

The Woodhead home is 115 years old. It smells of cranberry potpourri and freshly baked cookies. There are no football photos or trophies to be found, no hints that Annette and Mark Woodhead's middle son plays in the NFL.

Danny Woodhead
Courtesy the Woodhead familyThe Patriots' Danny Woodhead, left, with brothers Joel and Ben and father Mark. Danny and his brothers used to have paper routes to pay for cable so they could watch sports.

"He's one of five [kids]," Annette said.

"Each one of them is special."

Her cell phone rings twice early Tuesday night, and when Mark calls from school -- he's an elementary school teacher and the girls' basketball coach at North Platte High -- her BlackBerry plays "Brown-Eyed Girl." That's their song. A little while later, the phone goes off again in another room.

Even though we ain't got money,

I'm so in love with ya honey …

That ringtone means a call is coming from New England. It's "Danny's Song."

The family is best-friend tight. Danny and his older brother Ben played football together at Chadron State and were roomies; at their weddings, they served as each other's best men, with their younger brother Joel standing right next to them.

They chased each other around the house as kids, roughhousing until a piece of furniture broke or a body part started to bleed. The joke, back then, was that it was no biggie if a chair or table was sacrificed in the melee.

"I got most of our furniture at garage sales," Annette said, "because we couldn't afford anything else."

Mark painted houses as a side job so Annette could stay home with the kids. She home-schooled them until they reached high school. "We were all close because we were always around each other," Joel says.

All of the Woodhead men are known as "Woody." Mark is "Big Woody." When the boys were old enough, they tagged along and helped their dad paint in the summer. And when work was done in the afternoon, they would all golf together. Danny is a scratch golfer, a fact he tries to keep quiet.

In North Platte, athletes rarely specialize. There aren't enough bodies. So Woodhead played football, basketball and soccer in high school. Before every game, Annette gave her kids Scriptures to read. Joel wrote his on his shoes; Danny kept his in a glove.

She texts Scriptures to Danny now. And before every Patriots game, the couple calls him and they all say a quick prayer together.

The play they remember here

There's a 10-year-old story just about everybody in North Platte remembers: The Bulldogs were playing in the state semifinals, tied with a few minutes to go. It was Danny's sophomore season. Millard North lined up to attempt a game-winning field goal from 35 yards out. Woodhead, who had done just about everything to will his team to victory, walked over to the special-teams coach.

"I can block this kick," Woodhead told him.

"Well," the assistant said, "get in there, then."

Woodhead came off the edge and blocked the kick, and the Bulldogs won the game and made a rare trip to the state finals. North Platte is one of the smallest schools in Class A, the biggest class in Nebraska. The Bulldogs are pitted against teams from Omaha and Lincoln and are almost always the underdogs. But the players always liked going up against the bigger schools, proving they weren't a bunch of country bumpkins from the west, showing that they weren't too small.

"It definitely gave us a little extra motivation to be better and to succeed against those teams," Joel said. "We wanted to prove everybody wrong."

Finding a way

The Woodheads always had this saying: When one door closes, go to the open one. And Danny has seen his share of slammed doors. In high school, he was one of the most electrifying players in the state, yet he didn't get a scholarship offer to play for the Cornhuskers. In college, he won the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy -- twice -- but didn't get drafted.

The first snub was probably more painful to North Platte than it was to Woodhead.

"Nebraska had every game film of every football game he ever played in; we sent all that stuff every week," said former North Platte coach Bob Zohner. "So they knew very well what he could do.

Danny Woodhead
Dee Welsch/Getty ImagesWoodhead was a star at Chadron State, twice winning the Harlon Hill Trophy -- the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

"He went down and met with [former NU coach] Frank Solich. I talked to Danny that next Monday, and the first thing he said to me was, 'Coach, why would I want to go someplace where all they tell me is things I can't do?' They told him he was too small for a running back, which is kind of ironic. … He was talking to Frank and looking at him eye to eye."

Solich -- a 5-foot-7 former Cornhuskers fullback and current coach at Ohio University -- did not return a message ESPN placed with the Bobcats' media relations department. Bill Callahan, his successor at Nebraska, didn't see enough in Woodhead to offer a scholarship, either. Callahan ran into Woodhead a few years later, when both men were with the Jets.

From the beginning, Woodhead just wanted to play football. He didn't want to walk on and play special teams in Lincoln, which was the offer back then. So he went to Chadron State, a Division II school in the northern Nebraska panhandle. The town has one stoplight, and the school is so remote that deer will occasionally walk out onto the field during football practice. But Woodhead shook things up in the tiny town. He ran for 7,962 career yards, which was an NCAA all-division record at the time. He scored in 37 straight games.

"Have you ever looked at his legs?" Chadron State coach Bill O'Boyle said. "His calves belong on a guy about 6-foot-4. His lower body is unbelievable. He's just one of those guys who can go from 0 to 60 in about two steps.

"He's used to working for everything he gets. A lot of guys get handed stuff because of their talent. People are going to shrug him off because he's short and he played at a lower-level school, but his work ethic, I'm sure, is second to none on that team."

Woodhead got his work ethic from his dad. His humility is something that is just expected in North Platte. One day, Woodhead was playing Nintendo with his brother and needed a chair to sit on. He grabbed one of his Harlon Hill trophies, which are as big as a small child, screwed the football off of it and sat on the base of the trophy.

A Patriot in Osborne country

The Touchdown Club is an homage to all things Husker. There are 650 pieces of sports memorabilia on the walls of the bar/restaurant/bowling alley, and they're divided by eras and superlatives. On one wall is an old T-shirt hyping Bob Devaney for president. Near the bowling alley is a smiling picture of a young Tom Osborne, before the national championships, the stress and the wrinkles.

"I'm going to show you some stuff," Butch Rasmussen said as he started a tour around the joint that he built and later sold to his son. He walked over to a display case and unlocked the glass. It's the Woodhead display. Inside are plaques and snapshots of Danny's glory days in North Platte and Chadron.

Butch says he'll expand on the display case someday, when Danny sends him some Patriots gear. He doesn't suspect that will be any time soon; he figures Woodhead will be busy.

And so will North Platte. The Touchdown Club bought the NFL Sunday Ticket a few years ago, then pulled the plug. It wasn't worth the $1,800 or so to carry the games. Not enough people were coming in on Sundays to watch the NFL.

But now, all that has changed. Tables are full, and Sunday routines are scrapped for three hours.

"He could've been a whiz kid at Nebraska," Rasmussen said.

His sigh is a little shorter these days. Everyone has moved on.

He doesn't see the fuss

Who could have foreseen this? The knee injury to Patriots veteran Kevin Faulk, the late-September elevation, the 22-yard touchdown run against the Bills in his New England debut? When Belichick added Woodhead to the roster, some people suspected that he did it to pump the youngster for information on the Patriots' AFC East rivals.

[+] EnlargeDanny Woodhead
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireDanny Woodhead has become a go-to option for the Patriots and Tom Brady.

But now, it seems clear. Belichick, who is considered one of the NFL's sharpest minds, was just calculating another perfect fit. Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis were undrafted unknowns, but they have helped the Patriots rank in the top 10 in rushing offense.

And Woodhead has become sort of a media darling. He jokes that their fascination must be rooted in the fact that he's short. He's never really been a sound-bite type of guy, which makes him perfect for the buttoned-up Patriots Way. He doesn't really see what the fuss is.

"I felt like I could play at the next level," Woodhead said in an ESPN interview. "I really did."

The family came up in November to watch him play and stayed at his apartment. Danny was Danny, Mark and Annette say. Maybe he was a bit more intense. More focused. Because they live off a teacher's salary, and because Mark has a basketball season going on, they can't make it to every one of his games, and it's hard.

Mark says he'll take time off if the Patriots make it to Arlington, Texas. He'll have to. It's the Super Bowl. When he arrived home Tuesday night, he was wearing a blue Patriots hoodie.

In North Platte, it's the latest fashion trend.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. ESPN reporter Greg Garber contributed to this report.