Willie Wood, the first African American quarterback to play in what is now considered the Pac-12, died on Monday.
A captain of USC’s 1959 football team and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Wood died in Washington, the city where he was born and first became a star athlete. He was 83. Wood had suffered from advanced stage dementia and been confined to assisted living facilities for the past 13 years.
Wood was one of the first college football players to break the color barrier at quarterback in 1957, splitting time at the position during a 1-9 season for USC. But his true calling came at safety, where Wood would go on to become one of the most dominant players the position had ever seen. As a senior, it wasn’t hard to see that potential, as he led the Trojans in interceptions (five) and pass deflections.
Wood ultimately went undrafted out of USC, but was scooped up as a free agent by the Green Bay Packers, where he would play for 12 years, earn eight Pro Bowl invites, and win both of the first two Super Bowls.
Before that massive success, Wood faced an uphill battle throughout a Hall of Fame career. He arrived in Los Angeles after playing quarterback for an all-black high school in Washington. He then played at Coalinga Junior College in the San Joaquin Valley, where he was named a Junior College All-American, before transferring to USC. There, he would have to face prejudice head on.
In a 2007 interview with The Times, fellow Trojans captain and Hall of Famer Ron Mix said that Wood dealt with racism on many fronts, including receiving racist literature in the mail and being excluded from certain alumni events.
Still, along with Mix, who is Jewish, the two standouts were named captains in 1959 despite the fact that “99% of the fraternities on campus would not allow either of us to become members,” Mix said in 2007.
When Wood left USC and was ignored in the draft, he wrote letters to head coaches, in hopes of earning a free-agent tryout. Only legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi answered.
Known for his hard-hitting style, Wood wound up starting a record 154 games at the position with Green Bay. His interception in the first-ever Super Bowl helped seal the victory for the Packers, while his 31-yard punt return in the following Super Bowl would stand as a record for 16 years.
He went on to coach in the World Football League and Canadian Football League, breaking racial barriers as a coach in both.
In 1989, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Soon after, he began to experience health issues stemming from the many hits delivered over a lengthy NFL career. Wood had several major back and neck surgeries, before being diagnosed with dementia in 2006.
He is survived by sons Willie Jr. and Andre, and daughter LaJuane. Services for Wood are pending.