They’re lining up on his side
The body that made open-field tackles on legendary running back Jim Brown now struggles to get out of bed. The sure hands that snared 48 interceptions during a 12-year career fumble a Styrofoam cup. The sharp mind that got him into the NFL Hall of Fame now tricks him into believing that he is back in training camp for another season with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
Willie Wood, 70, is paying the steep price for being a football hero.
Two knees and one hip have been replaced. Doctors have performed four major surgeries on his back and fused two vertebrae in his neck. And last year he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“He used to go down low and really hit the big guys to take them down,” said Willie Davis, a defensive end from Grambling who played alongside Wood in the Packer heyday of the 1960s. “It was probably very tough on his body. He has almost every element you’d expect from football injuries.”
Yet Wood isn’t facing his uncertain future alone. A posse of aging NFL and college teammates is using its financial resources, business savvy and, when possible, their fading football celebrity to ensure that their friend, who came dangerously close to losing his longtime home, isn’t stripped of his dignity.
“You don’t plan these things,” Bob Schmidt said when asked why he signed on early this year as legal guardian for a guy he played football with at USC nearly 50 years ago. “You just do what you have to do.”
Schmidt, 68, already had plenty to do, what with starting up a new telecommunications company and his family obligations -- he has 11 children, four of them adopted, and eight grandchildren.
“The whole concept of team camaraderie is something that anyone who has been on a team treasures,” Schmidt explained. “And the issue is basically taking care of people, who, for whatever reasons, have not succeeded as they wanted after football.”
Wood’s band of brothers is typical of players from his generation, said Jennifer Smith, executive director of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which helps retired players cope with medical and financial crises.
“It’s a brotherhood in its simplest form,” Smith said. “It freaks you out at first to hear these big guys saying ‘I love you,’ and to see them hugging each other. But it’s just genuinely that simple. It speaks to a generation of players from a different era.”
The dominant free safety of his era, Wood is now recovering from a fall and subsequent surgery at an assisted living facility. He desperately wants to return to his home in the nation’s capital, but it is questionable whether his battered body and brain will grow strong enough to make that three-mile trip.
With frustrating frequency, Wood has begun to initiate conversations that lead nowhere. Schmidt tells of one recent episode: “He asked me, ‘Bob, where am I?’ He said that, for a minute, he thought he was at St. Norbert College, in northern Wisconsin, where the Packers practiced. I told him that we’re in Washington, D.C., on Thomas Circle. And, after a while, he said, ‘Oh, OK.’ ”
In the fall of 1957, William Vernell Wood became one of the first to break the color barrier at quarterback in what is now the Pacific 10 Conference. In 1959, Schmidt -- a transfer from Notre Dame who had become homesick for California -- was ready to wrest the job from Wood. It was no contest. Wood easily won the USC quarterback derby, but also won an enduring friendship.
Besides Schmidt, Wood’s posse now includes Brown and fellow football greats Calvin Hill, Sam Huff and Paul Hornung, all of whom attended a dinner last year that raised about $50,000 to help Wood pay down his considerable debt. One former teammate dashed off a $5,000 check. Another, Herb Adderley, Wood’s Packers roommate for nine years, got Wood to autograph some football memorabilia last month and then sold the items, raising $3,000 in what he called “pocket money” for his longtime friend.
A football charity founded by Mike Ditka -- the Chicago Bears’ great who squared off against Wood on the football field -- also has contributed financial support, and Gridiron Greats, which former Packers star Jerry Kramer founded, helped Wood to qualify for $50,000 a year from the 88 Fund, an NFL program that provides financial assistance for players who’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The issue of pro football old-timers who are struggling to survive has drawn significant attention over the past year, including several congressional hearings. This, in turn, led the National Football League and the NFL Players Assn. to establish a $7-million program to assist those who face medical and financial problems.
Yet some former players -- including members of Wood’s posse -- say it isn’t enough. Three times in the past year, irate NFL veterans have testified before Congress about alleged shortcomings in the league’s retirement and medical disability program. Adderley and other former players have sued their former union, alleging improper financial dealings. Kramer and Ditka have been vocal in their demands for a more-responsive medical disability plan.
Players association Executive Director Gene Upshaw last month countered the criticism with a website that bills itself as a “truth squad” that will “do its best to debunk” what the union characterized as “serious misstatements of fact” by many of those former players.
Schmidt said that the relatively small percentage of aging former players who are receiving medical disability benefits “screams that something is wrong. I think we’re going to see this issue getting to a lot better focus during the coming months.”
Meanwhile, he is trying to ensure that Wood gets what he needs.
“Willie is still the most gentle, wonderful human being you’d ever want to meet,” Schmidt said. “Willie is [still] the fun-loving guy. . . Everyone loves Willie.”
That wasn’t always the case when Wood was helping break the color barrier.
After playing quarterback for an all-black high school in Washington, he came to California in 1956, having been recruited by Coalinga Junior College (now West Hills Community College) in the San Joaquin Valley. He led them to a 7-2-1 record.
The youngest of Wood’s three children, Willie Wood Jr., 39, remembers what his father said of his Coalinga reception: “As a black man, he was told that he wasn’t allowed to eat in restaurants or even go to stores on their Main Street.”
Yet, after that successful season, the junior college “held a parade for him down that same street,” the younger Wood said.
A year later, Wood transferred to USC and began taking snaps, a development that upset some students and alumni, according to Ron Mix, who played on the Trojans’ offensive line.
Wood and Mix were elected co-captains during their senior year, an unlikely development at a time when “99% of the fraternities on campus would not allow either of us to become members,” said Mix, who is a Jew.
Trojan teammates “judged us only as individuals,” Mix said, but the response elsewhere occasionally was chilling -- such as the time a mailman delivered a hefty parcel filled with anti-Semitic and anti-black brochures. “The material contained cartoons depicting stereotypes of Jews and blacks going after white women, Jews counting money, blacks stealing,” Mix said. “I never showed it to Willie.”
On another occasion, Wood was excluded when a prominent USC alumnus invited several Trojans to dinner.
The alumnus “said that Willie had not been invited because the club did not allow blacks as members or guests,” said Mix, who went on to play for the San Diego Chargers and, like Wood, is in the Hall of Fame. “I told the man that I would not go. Sadly, our teammates went anyway. I called Willie and we had dinner together at the hotel.”
Former Packer teammate Davis said that Wood’s reaction to the racism mirrored his own response.
“You realize that football is your first reason for being there,” Davis said. “And you considered everything else a bit secondary. Did I have a few situations that upset me? Yes. But that’s when you have to say to yourself ‘Why am I here?’ ”
Schmidt said he has “never heard Willie utter sour grapes about anything. Even now, with all that has happened, Willie never utters a cross word.”
Wood also played defense at USC. During his senior year, in addition to running the offense, Wood intercepted five passes, made four unassisted tackles, assisted in eight others and fielded three punts.
Yet Wood was ignored by every pro team in the 1960 player draft. Undeterred, he wrote letters to head coaches seeking permission to try out as a free agent.
“Vince Lombardi was about the only one who gave him a shot,” said Adderley. Wood’s pro football debut came in Baltimore during the Packers’ first exhibition game of the 1960 season. Lombardi played him at right cornerback and Colts receiver Raymond Berry “took him to school all night,” Adderley said. So much so that Wood feared Lombardi would cut him right there in Baltimore in order to save the airfare back to Green Bay, Adderley said with a laugh.
Instead, Lombardi put Wood at free safety. Wood thrived at the new position, often altering the flow of a game simply by appearing in the right place at exactly the right time -- he had an interception in Super Bowl I against the Kansas City Chiefs that he returned 50 yards to the five-yard line.
“Willie didn’t have a lot of speed, but he had the intuition,” Adderley said. “He knew to get to a certain spot on the field because he had studied what to do.”
Wood’s fierce competitive nature on the field extended to his teammates. Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke, no shrinking violet, once sheepishly admitted that, “next to Lombardi, Wood scares his own teammates more than anybody else does.”
“There was never a tree too big for Willie to chop down,” Davis said. “Some of the duels between him and Mike Ditka. . . I still recall the animosity that sometimes arose between the two of them.”
Said Adderley: “He had to scuffle all of his life. That neighborhood he came from in D.C., he had to struggle to get out of high school and get to USC.”
After his playing career ended in 1971, Wood became a regular at charitable events in Washington and also started his own mechanical services business. In 1980 Wood became the first black coach in the Canadian Football League and later led the WFL’s Philadelphia Bell. He yearned for an NFL coaching job but he never made it back to the league he helped to make great.
Meanwhile, his first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife died in the late 1980s. A while later, Wood’s business began to slump; then his body began to pay the price for his hard-hitting style.
“He decided he wasn’t going to work anymore, but at that point, his health concerns started to happen,” the younger Wood said. “He was going to shove off into his golden years, and play golf, but he couldn’t play anymore.”
Wood never stopped doing what he could do for others, his son said: “People never got the feeling that they were imposing on him. At the same time, he wasn’t the kind of guy you would try to take advantage of. He was very secure in his own skin. He had a ‘submarine’ type of presence, if that makes sense, in that he commanded respect without having to say or do anything.”
All of which makes it hard for friends and family to watch Wood’s current struggle.
During the September autograph session, Adderley said, “There were times that he forgot how to spell his name, and had to be told. . . after signing about 10 items, he had to take a break, and he would fall asleep in between signing.”
Adderley returned the next weekend, when Wood was able to sign about 75 items, but said “it was more of a struggle before he had to stop.”
Wood’s large circle of friends includes USC Coach Pete Carroll, who heard about Wood’s defensive prowess and athleticism from former Minnesota Vikings head coach Jerry Burns, who was the secondary coach for the Packers when Wood played.
“Burnsie told me Willie Wood had the best hands he ever saw, so good, he could catch kickoffs like this,” Carroll said, extending one arm to simulate catching a ball with one hand. “So I used to practice doing it so I could do it like Willie Wood.”
When USC traveled to Landover, Md., to play Virginia Tech three years ago, Carroll made time just before the kickoff to chat with Wood, who was attending the game with Schmidt and other USC alumni. Burns “always talked about what a great guy he was and how cool he was and a great player and a great kid,” Carroll said. “So when I had a chance to meet him I went out of my way to.”
Wood’s posse has been able to keep financial problems at bay.
“A lot of people have rallied around Willie,” Schmidt said. “Unless we’re [hit] with some extremely difficult circumstances, Willie is going to be OK financially.”
Yet former Packer Davis, another member of the Hall of Fame, knows Wood’s struggle is now more than financial.
“Almost everything about Willie’s situation today is difficult for me,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. . . Willie, to this day, is a very independent guy. He would probably be the last one to ask for something. And yet he would give you anything that he could afford to give.
“To see him suffer is very devastating to me.”
Kramer knows the Willie Wood he hung out with all these years is slowly disappearing. Kramer won’t let go of the memories of Wood, who enjoyed returning to Green Bay long after his playing days, and in particular, hanging out at former Packer Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston’s downtown watering hole.
Wood’s habit, Kramer said, was to commandeer a table and share a bottle of his favorite California chardonnay with friends. And, if the mood hit, he’d sing along with Ella Fitzgerald on the juke box.
“Willie is a soft, gentle, polite, nice, caring person to be around,” said Kramer, who enjoyed his share of such mellow nights at Fuzzy’s No. 63 Bar & Grill.
A few months ago, Kramer and Smith, the Gridiron Greats executive, visited Wood at the assisted living facility. Smith smuggled in a bottle of Wood’s favorite wine, a CD player and a few jazz discs.
“The wine brought a smile to Willie’s face,” Smith said. “Jerry and I opened the bottle, popped in the jazz CD and sat by his bedside drinking wine with Willie. Jerry tried to jar Willie’s memory about some old times.”
Wood struggled to track the conversation and needed help to get out of bed but made one thing clear.
Said Smith, “He wanted so desperately to go home.”
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.