The baby laughed and splashed as he always did. Charles Woodson was 6 months old and loved his bath. His mother smiled. Then, for the first time, she noticed his arches.
“They just didn’t look the way they should,” Georgia Woodson recalls.
Charles was diagnosed as having clubbed feet.
For the better part of the next year, Charles Woodson wore leg braces. They secured his legs to each other, preventing him from walking.
“We had to carry him because he had to wear leg braces all day,” his mother says. “He basically couldn’t walk at all.”
Until he was 4, he had to wear corrective shoes. Kids being kids, he was teased.
“He didn’t want to wear them,” Georgia says. “He fought it.”
Woodson has been fighting--and winning--ever since. He went on to become Ohio’s best high school football player, then an All-American at Michigan. Now he has won the Heisman Trophy.
He already had earned the Walter Camp award, also honoring the nation’s top college football player. Only five times since the award was first given in 1967 has the Camp award gone to someone who didn’t win the Heisman.
Still, the odds were against Woodson. A defensive player had never won the Heisman.
“If the Heisman doesn’t come around, it doesn’t,” Woodson said prior to the announcement. “I’ll still be happy.”
That is exactly what his mother would expect him to say. She says her son was always “laid-back and quiet, so much so you never knew he was in the room.”
The child from a devoutly Pentecostal house never caused trouble. And he honored his mother’s directives to do his homework before play.
“He was never a ‘Me, me, me’ person,”’ his mother says. “It was always ‘What can we do as a team.”’
Woodson has little recollection of the braces and shoes of his toddler years.
“I just found out about it a couple of years ago,” he says. “But I’m glad that my mother and father caught it early.”
His legs were fine by the time Rex Radeloff, the biology teacher and retired football coach at Ross High School in Fremont, Ohio, first saw Woodson in seventh grade.
“He made things happen,” Radeloff says. “He’s one player I’ll never forget.”
When he arrived in Ann Arbor, the coaches assumed Woodson would want to play offense.
“I told them defense was my first choice,” Woodson says. “In 10th grade, I started playing defense. Mainly because we already had a great tailback. Once I started playing it, it just started growing on me. I liked it a lot.
“I think it’s a lot more aggressive. You have 11 people running to the football, trying to get there at the same time. There’s a big celebration after the hit. It’s kind of hard to describe.”
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr decided to use Woodson in as many ways as possible--defense, offense, special teams.
“After Charles comes off the field with the defensive unit, it’s his job to tell the coaches when he’s rested enough to go in and play on offense,” Carr says. “As the season wore on, and every game got bigger and bigger, Charles was up on that sideline just about all the time saying, ‘I’m ready to go. Put me in.”’
The No. 1 Wolverines went 11-0, won the Big Ten championship and can wrap up their first national championship since 1948 with a victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Woodson had seven interceptions this season, second-best in the nation.
“You hear about these so-called All-Americans, but this guy is the real deal,” Minnesota Coach Glen Mason says. “If there’s a better player in the country, I don’t know who he is.”
He has averaged 21 yards on 11 pass receptions, 8.6 yards on 33 punt returns and five yards on three runs. Woodson also completed a pass and scored four touchdowns.
“He’s the best player I have ever played with, and the best in the nation,” Michigan strong safety Marcus Ray says. “I’m not sure he needs any added pressure, but we all know it.”
In the Wolverines’ 20-14 victory over Ohio State, Woodson caught a 37-yard pass to set up Michigan’s first touchdown, returned a punt 78 yards for another score and thwarted a Buckeyes rally with an interception in the end zone.
“He took over the game,” says Ohio State wide receiver David Boston, who had taunted Woodson in the days before the showdown. “Big players show up in big games.”
But it was his interception at Michigan State that might be remembered most. Spartans quarterback Todd Schultz tried to throw out of bounds but Woodson made a tremendous leap. He snatched the ball with one hand, then managed to keep one foot in bounds as he tumbled to the turf.
“I always knew he would excel,” says his mother, a forklift operator at an Ohio bottle factory. “He always wanted to be the best at whatever he was doing.”
Even though he’s only a junior, majoring in sports management and communications, many think he is ready for the NFL and would be a top-five draft pick. If he does leave school, it would be with Carr’s blessing.
Woodson is less certain how his mother might feel about that. All his big decisions have gone through Georgia Woodson, from the days of leg braces and cumbersome shoes. This one is no different. They will discuss it after the Rose Bowl.
“We’ll just talk everything out and go from there,” he says.