TAMPA, Fla. -- The start of Rod Woodson's NFL career was delayed by more than three months. Yesterday, his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame came on his first try.
Woodson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining the 2009 class of six that will be inducted at Canton, Ohio, Aug. 8.
"I don't think any of us started playing football to be in the Hall of Fame," the former cornerback and safety said. "I'm still pinching myself a little bit. It's so surreal."
Woodson's play could be described in the same manner. He played 10 seasons for the Steelers, beginning with that stutter-step as a rookie in 1987. He was a long contract holdout, partly due to money and partly because his advisors were smart enough to have him wait until after the NFL players strike that year ended so he would not be forced to choose between the striking veterans and the replacement players.
Once he signed in early November, he was greeted at the Steelers' front door by another Hall of Famer.
"The first day I came in there, Art Rooney was there, and the first thing he said to me is 'Welcome to our family.' It's one thing I love about the Steelers. It is the Steelers Nation, it is the Steelers family. That's one thing that's very important to the team and to the players."
Woodson played his first game as a substitute Nov. 8, 1987 at Kansas City, a 17-16 Steelers victory. He went on to have one of the greatest careers of any defensive back in NFL history -- Hall of Famer Mel Blount often says that Woodson was better than him.
He played 17 seasons -- his first 10 in Pittsburgh -- and made 11 Pro Bowls, becoming the only player in history to make one as a kick returner, a cornerback and a safety. Along the way, he was NFL defensive player of the year in 1992 and was among only five active players to land on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994 -- and he would play nine more seasons afterward! His 72 interceptions are third most in league history.
Joining Woodson in the Class of 2009 was Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith, also in his first year of eligibility, Bills 90-year-old owner Ralph Wilson, guard Randall McDaniel of Minnesota and Tampa Bay, and two deceased players, linebacker Derrick Thomas of Kansas City and wide receiver Bob Hayes of Dallas.
Among the finalists not elected were former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson and Washington Redskins guard Russ Grimm, a Scottdale, Pa., native who played at Pitt and was on the Steelers' coaching staff from 2001 to 2006.
Smith called it "a special class" and talked about Woodson as "phenomenal, ball-hawk, student of the game."
"It showed in his level of play and ability to make big plays when it counted," Smith said.
Woodson faltered a bit emotionally during a news conference when he talked about how his wife stuck by him. But it was NFL Network host Rich Eisen who nearly broke down crying when he introduced Woodson, his television colleague.
"Rich is like my mom," Woodson cracked. "Choking up."
Woodson, who turns 44 years old March 10, was the Steelers' first-round draft choice in '87. He dominated at cornerback before his ACL tore in the first game of the '95 season while he was trying to tackle another Hall of Famer, Detroit's Barry Sanders.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher showed the kind of respect he and the organization had in Woodson by keeping him on the active roster all season rather than placing him on injured reserve. He returned to play in Super Bowl XXX.
Woodson became the first Steelers player coached by Cowher to make the Hall of Fame. Cowher also coached Thomas when he was defensive coordinator in Kansas City.
Woodson is the first Baltimore Ravens player to go into the Hall of Fame.
He played 10 seasons with the Steelers, then left as a free agent when the sides could not come to a contract agreement. He played one season in San Francisco and four in Baltimore before finishing his career in Oakland for two seasons, retiring after 2003.
He played safety in Baltimore and was part of the Ravens' great 2000 defense that won the Super Bowl.
Woodson noted that he had some of the game's great coaches with the Steelers -- Chuck Noll, Tony Dungy, Dick LeBeau, John Fox and another of his mentors, Rod Rust.
"I remember Chuck Noll would always be in the meeting room with us," he said of his rookie season, when there were so many young defensive backs on the team. "Every day, he was there, which had us on edge. Chuck left one day, and Tony got up and put the light on and said, 'Don't worry about Chuck, I'll take care of him. You play for me.
"That's when I said, 'I like this guy, man, I can play for him.' "
Play he did, all the way to the Hall of Fame.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published February 1, 2009 5:00 AM