The look of bemused surprise on Peyton Manning’s face is one of the enduring images of that December evening in 1997. Manning was an All-America quarterback at Tennessee, the fresh-faced, well-spoken son of an All-America quarterback at Mississippi, the older brother of a fresh-faced, well-spoken future All-America Ole Miss quarterback. Given that pedigree, and an undeniably impressive four-year body of work that attracted reams of national publicity, Manning’s coronation as the Heisman Trophy winner was almost a foregone conclusion as the finalists waited out the vote on that Saturday evening at New York’s posh Downtown Athletic Club.
Only this time the voters got it right. They didn’t automatically anoint the star quarterback or the top running back from one of a handful of glamour teams. They chose the best player, based on the irrefutable evidence junior Charles Woodson presented as a lockdown cornerback, big-play receiving threat and dangerous return man for the nation’s best team, the undefeated Michigan Wolverines.
Woodson became the third Heisman winner in Michigan history, joining Tom Harmon and Desmond Howard. Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green, who was second to South Carolina running back George Rogers in 1980, had the previous best finish by a defensive player.
Manning, the runner-up by 272 points, was characteristically gracious. So was Woodson, after the shock of being the first Heisman-winning defensive player subsided. “This has opened doors,” he said. “Defensive players can now got out and play their games.”
Woodson was the Ohio prep player of the year as a record-setting running back at Ross High School in Fremont, where he also played basketball and ran track. When he arrived at Michigan, the coaching staff resolved the offense-or-defense dilemma by using him on both sides of the ball. Woodson started at cornerback in his second game as a true freshman and made five interceptions during a 9-4 season in which the Wolverines went 5-3 in the Big Ten and beat Ohio State, but lost to Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl. Big Ten coaches voted him Freshman of the Year in the conference.
As a sophomore he attracted some All-America notice with another five interceptions and more frequent offensive contributions as a runner and pass receiver: six carries for 152 yards and a touchdown, 13 receptions for 164 yards and a touchdown. Michigan finished 8-4 after a loss to Alabama in the Outback Bowl. Another 5-3 Big Ten campaign included another victory over Ohio State.
Woodson’s junior season was one of the most memorable in Michigan’s storied history. With quarterback Brian Griese in command of a balanced offense and Woodson anchoring a defense that allowed just 9.5 points per game, the Wolverines capped an 11-0 season and an 8-0 Big Ten run with a 20-14 victory over Ohio State. When they beat Washington State and Heisman finalist Ryan Leaf 21-16 in the Rose Bowl, they laid claim to their first national championship since 1948.
Woodson, a consensus All-American, was voted Michigan’s MVP by his teammates. He repeated as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was second in the country with eight interceptions, two coming in the Michigan State game and one each against Ohio State and Washington State. Those weren’t his only Heisman credentials. He evoked Desmond Howard’s Heisman-clinching dash with a game-sealing, 78-yard TD punt return against the Buckeyes. He scored on a 33-yard run against Minnesota. He had two catches for 45 yards and a touchdown against Baylor and a 37-yard TD reception against Penn State.
For the season he had nine carries for 167 yards and two touchdowns and 11 receptions for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Simply put, Woodson was the best player on the field in any game he played in that season. Heisman voters weren’t the only ones who noticed. He also received the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s best defensive player and the Jim Thorpe Award as the top defensive back.
“He took his play to another level this year, just like he said he would,” teammate Marcus Ray said.
Woodson has sustained his excellence on the professional level, an All-Pro performer in six of his 12 seasons with the Oakland Raiders and the Green Bay Packers. He was the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, making nine interceptions for the Packers and returning three of them for touchdowns.
His off-the-field contributions are even more meaningful. In addition to funding a $150,000 Michigan scholarship for disadvantaged students from single-parent homes, Woodson donated $2 million to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Women’s Hospital, part of the University of Michigan Medical System.
“My reason for working so hard has always been to be a part of something great,” Woodson said. “My gift to Mott is to be a part of the great things that are happening there and to help aspiring young doctors do their own outstanding work to help children. I’ve had much to be thankful for in my life and this is an important way for me to show my gratitude. I want other children to have as many reasons as I’ve had to be thankful every day.”