My father states his opinions like facts. When he told me about Charles Woodson, he didn't say that Woodson was a player he liked, but a GREAT player -- full stop. He threw his full weight into the word GREAT, too, and he didn't hedge by saying Woodson was GOING TO BE GREAT or that he was GREAT for a cornerback. I didn't even know what position Woodson played. I was 9 years old and Woodson had yet to begin his Heisman campaign. All I knew was that he was a superhuman who played for Michigan.
It isn't hyperbole to say that Woodson was one of the most influential people in my life. The best lessons I learned came from my grandfather, a history professor who taught me that everything can be questioned, and my father, a lawyer who taught me that everything should be questioned, and Woodson, who taught me that magic can exist in a skeptical world -- and even because of it.
My second-favorite Woodson magic trick took place on Nov. 22, 1997, when Woodson ran a punt back 77 yards for a touchdown against Ohio State. I was in the stands with my father, who took me for my 10th birthday. I had never seen a punt return for a score, and as a booming punt wobbled its way to Woodson the forthcoming miracle was still a presumed impossibility.
I knew Woodson was capital letters GREAT by then, and so was Michigan, an undefeated team on the verge of winning its first national championship in an impossibly long time. That fact and Woodson were the only things anybody talked about. Woodson had committed miracles before then, his interception against Michigan State being the best, but I didn't believe in him and sports until I saw him pierce the Buckeyes. It wasn't a serendipitous moment. There was still most of the game left and Michigan was already leading 7-0. The play stood perfectly on its own. It was all you needed to know about Woodson. Michigan won because he was there.
Sometime after that game I decided I would be a football coach, which changed to sportswriter because I was shy, good with words and too little to be near a football field. I liked learning about the game, but more importantly I liked having heroes. I began following recruiting because someone had to be the next Woodson. Whenever Michigan secured a commitment from someone I was excited about, my father made me run over to my grandfather's house to tell him.
Life doesn't necessarily get better because we get smarter. Sports almost always get worse once you realize how many fallible, awful people constitute something that seemed so holy and grand as a kid. Football, in particular, becomes inscrutable.
Football is especially muddy when it comes to heroes. Greatness is difficult to define because players are part of an apparatus. The star running back takes advantage of what his offensive line affords him. Great quarterbacks still need receivers to hold on to their passes and great receivers still need quarterbacks who can put the ball in their vicinity. For cornerbacks, a sign of greatness can be how little you actually notice them during a game.
Few people know what they're talking about when they talk about football because it's so easy to miss what's really going on. No one would dare question the greatness of Woodson's 1997 Heisman season -- and he started his NFL career well with the Oakland Raiders, too -- but while he was going to four straight Pro Bowls he was also wearing himself thin. He wasn't lifting weights, he was missing curfews and he was feuding with coaches. I remember reading a 2003 interview published in ESPN the Magazine in my high school library and thinking it was a bad joke as he said the cliché words of every stuck-up superstar ever caricatured.
My father liked to tell me about moving from Princeton to Ann Arbor when he was little, and the time my grandfather pulled him aside and promised "Now you're going to see real football" after years of watching Ivy League tussles. Michigan football became a monolith in all of our lives. In those days, we were tired of Lloyd Carr, four-loss seasons and statue quarterbacks. As Woodson disappeared -- disgruntled, injured and ineffective on the Raiders' roster -- so did the magic of his memory.
Woodson was old by 2005, 29 and out of good graces in Oakland. The Raiders made no attempt to negotiate a new contract, meaning that for the first time ever Woodson wasn't worth the hassle. He was a veteran corner who had missed more than a third of his possible regular season appearances in four seasons. The Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only two teams to show legitimate interest in him. He signed with the Packers in 2006 despite an opportunity to reunite with former Raiders head coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay.
I was in college at Wisconsin at that point, which put me in close proximity to Woodson once again. No one trumpeted his arrival. There were hopes he'd bolster the secondary, but not in a singular way. No one could have expected him to become the prototype for the hybrid corner-backer suited to dismantling modern offenses. His legacy was supposed to be that of a great player with an odd career trajectory, not a Hall of Famer.
Woodson went to Green Bay, a place where he knew there was almost nothing to do, and dedicated himself to the things he never did in Oakland. He lifted weights and molded himself to Dom Capers' defensive scheme. He held himself accountable, and more than that, brought everyone else up to his level. Every time he was on screen during that Super Bowl run he'd say something about how excited he was to see Barack Obama, which at the time I thought was adorable until recently I figured out he was actually shit-talking the president.
Woodson made himself into a legend because he questioned himself. He had coasted on gifts to that point -- his athleticism, his toughness, his brashness -- and, finally, at the first moment he had any reason to feel humility, he had the presence of mind to embrace it.
Woodson discovered what magic really is, the splendid outward face of mortal work. Magic exists, but not exactly like you want it to. Magic happens when you know something is real, and still can't believe it. That was Woodson, in so many moments and across the 21 years I followed his career.
My heart hasn't been in Michigan football for a long time. I still follow the team, because I like it and I like arguing about it with my father, but sometime after Carr left and the program began a near decade-long Chautauqua, I started doing other things and devoted less of my capacity to Michigan.
Then my grandfather got sick. As his health declined, he was moved into hospice. My family in Ann Arbor visited him daily as Michigan was courting and installing Jim Harbaugh as the new head coach following the cumbersome Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras. He was given a daily Harbaugh briefing though his ability to respond deteriorated. For a while he'd smile, chuckle and say "Oh good." Then it was usually a smile and chuckle. Finally just a smile, mostly, but never ever less than that.
I spoke to my grandfather for the last time when I visited home in July. I told him about this GREAT player named Jabrill Peppers, a big, fast, versatile defensive back too good not to play as much as humanly possible. I went through the roster, but put the emphasis on Peppers as the one who could make Harbaugh's first season great. He smiled at that and I told him "Go Blue." He said "Go Blue" back. It was the last thing I ever heard him say.
Peppers was brilliant this season, but raw, a still-constituting protostar projected to go supernova next season. My grandfather passed away Friday, Sept. 25, one day before the fourth game of the Jim Harbaugh era. He only stuck around for a few teasing moments and as-expected wins before Peppers became Harbaugh's trusty gadget knife and Michigan started looking like its old self again.
But truth be told, my grandfather, perhaps the smartest man I'll ever know, couldn't follow the team very well in his foundering days. Whatever information he was fed about the team was always positive, and maybe more nourishing than the food he sometimes refused to eat. He liked Michigan. That sustained him in some part, just the magic of football. There's more to it than that -- it's a barbaric sport and structure, to be sure -- but that's what remains when you distill football to someone who has ever loved it. Magic is one of the first and last things we ever believe because it is an outcome outside of any deduction -- the remainder after asking every question.
Charles Woodson was magic. My favorite trick wasn't exclusively his but he did it better than anyone I've ever known: He made skeptical men supremely happy.