The words tore at a father’s already fragile heart.
I don’t know if I can do this again.
Dominic Woods Jr. read the text message from his son and felt a surge of uneasiness. Josh Woods had already endured two season-ending injuries, the UCLA linebacker’s career continually interrupted. A pulled hamstring finished his freshman season after just 1½ quarters of play. A damaged shoulder required surgery midway through his junior season.
Now Josh might have to miss what was supposed to be his breakout senior season because of a gruesome knee injury suffered in training camp?
That worry percolated in Dominic’s mind in August 2018 as he made the drive from San Bernardino to Westwood. He tried to hide his devastation, though that became impossible once the doctor confirmed the worst-case scenario: torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.
“He was just in shock,” Josh remembered. “I could see it on his face and in his demeanor, like he couldn’t even believe it. It was really sad for both of us.”
Like a coach and player facing fourth and long while trailing in the final minute of a taut game, father and son hatched a plan. Josh would come back. Again.
“My wife and I felt like he was born to play the game,” Dominic said, “so I knew in my heart I did not want him to quit.”
Josh delivered the news to Chip Kelly the next day, asking his coach for time to rehabilitate so that he could be prepare for one more college season. Since his return in August, he’s been more than ready.
He was ready when Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon tried to complete a short pass over the middle, curling in front of the ball for an interception.
He was ready when Stanford quarterback Jack West dropped back to pass, leveling him for a sack.
He plans to be ready for Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels on Saturday afternoon when UCLA (2-5 overall, 2-2 Pac-12 Conference) faces the No. 24 Sun Devils (5-2, 2-2) at the Rose Bowl.
“There’s not a harder working kid here,” Kelly said of Woods, “and I’m really happy with where he is and excited about where he can continue to go.”
Even though Bruins are in the midst of another disappointing season, Woods has cherished every moment after spending almost as much of his college career in the training room as on the field. He cheered wildly last week when walk-on running back Cole Kinder got a few carries in the final minutes of a rare victory over Stanford. He savored the feeling later that night when a group of children recognized him near the team buses.
“Having little kids greeting me and being like, ‘That’s No. 2, that’s Josh Woods,’ ” he said, “that’s what it’s all about, just being able to inspire others and just keep having fun out there.”
“People were crying so hard because it was like, this is his time and all of a sudden this comes up.”
There wouldn’t have been the fun without the depression. Woods had already endured a lengthy rehabilitation from his shoulder injury as he prepared for training camp in July 2018, acknowledging “some dark times” as he spoke with reporters at Pac-12 media day.
“Coach is not talking to you,” Woods said that day. “They don’t care where you’re at, what you’re doing. Even when you’re on the sideline, you don’t feel like you’re part of the team.”
Woods’ despair was compounded that year by the suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, his former teammate at Upland High, and the recent death of Woods’ grandmother. His mood lifted upon returning to training camp but he had completed a few weeks’ worth of practices when he tried to scoop a fumble and a teammate collided with his knee, sending him to the turf in agony.
He tried to hop back onto his feet but collapsed immediately, feeling no support on the inside part of his knee. His hopes for a triumphant return were crushed in an improbable instant.
“For it to just end like this,” Woods said, snapping his fingers, “on a freak accident … it hurt a lot.”
He knew the months of thankless toil that lie ahead, having just undergone a similar process. His father, a pastor at New Life Christian Fellowship in Ontario, brought his congregation to tears when he relayed his son’s story.
“People were crying so hard,” Dominic said, his voice catching at the memory, “because it was like, this is his time and all of a sudden this comes up.”
Fortunately, Josh had a little help from his friends and family. His mother, Jennifer, stayed at his apartment for more than a week to cook and care for him. Fellow linebacker Krys Barnes drove him around. Chrissy Baird and Anika Rodriguez, other UCLA athletes who had undergone knee recoveries, offered support.
Josh also drew strength from his father, his No. 1 fan and critic. A former high school running back and cornerback who was once recruited by UCLA but didn’t have sufficient grades, Dominic liked to pose one question to his five children after their games: Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?
“If they say ‘Great,’ ” Dominic said, “I say, ‘OK, well, I’m going to tell you what’s up.’ ” It’s only then that the father launches into a string of suggestions about what they need to improve on in their respective sports.
Josh began to inspire his teammates even before his return with his relentless work in the weight room.
“A lot of guys would go, ‘Oh, two season-ending injuries, I’m just going to medically retire,’ ” defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa said. “He said, ‘No,’ he is going to stay the course and stick with it. That is something that encourages me and inspires me to give it my all every day because if he can make it through all that, then why can’t I give it my all?”
When Dominic and Jennifer traveled to Cincinnati in August to watch their son trot onto the field with a knee brace in his first game back, Dominic had to bring sunglasses for the nighttime kickoff just in case he got emotional.
The parents were also there in Pullman, Wash., last month when Woods made an interception and recovered two fumbles, his three takeaways the perfect tribute to Hilinski, the late teammate who wore No. 3.
“It was crazy to see I had the ball in my hands three times,” Josh said, “and I don’t think that was a coincidence at all.”
His recent success has colored his struggles in a new light, giving them a maybe-this-was-supposed-to-happen feel as part of a journey that he hopes will end in the NFL. Either way, it seems like he’s just getting started.
“It’s that much sweeter now to see him,” Dominic said, “after all that.”