Nov/Dec 2011 Measuring Up Clay Meyer
Danny Woodhead is content with his anonymity—for however long it lasts.
Elusive on the field and often overlooked off it, he’s shifted through, sneaked around and slipped past defenses, college coaches and pro scouts for years as each has missed the opportunity to snag him.
Still, the New England Patriots’ 5-foot-7 running back has never allowed himself to get discouraged by the detractors. Since a young age, he’s trusted the Lord to help him focus on the bigger, divine purpose—one that includes praising God for the opportunity to play on football’s biggest stage, regardless of whether or not he is one of its smallest cast mates.
As the bruising speedster reflects on his path to New England, he says with confidence, “God’s plan is always best. There have been so many times when He has shown me that my plan, or whatever I thought should’ve happened, wasn’t the best. I just have to trust Him.”
Woodhead figuratively and quite literally came out of nowhere last season—much like he has at every level of his football career—and developed into a lethal offensive weapon for the Patriots. But this season, even as his anonymity slowly slips away, his purpose remains the same: to give defenses the slip and bring glory to God in the process.
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Woodhead (far left) with his brothers, Joel and Ben, and their father, Mark
Annette Woodhead remembers the days when her three boys and one girl, whom she homeschooled until high school, played tackle football in the front yard of their North Platte, Neb., home. The games would typically go for hours until one of the boys came in screaming that their sister wouldn’t wake up, the boys having tackled her so hard that she’d pass out.
So were the tales of the Woodhead family from the tiny railroading town in western Nebraska—front-yard and living-room football games in which the goal wasn’t just to win, but to survive without major injuries.
Annette also remembers the character of her second-oldest, Danny, as being much the same back then as it is today.
“Danny was and still is easy going,” Annette said. “He’s always loved sports, and his brothers and his dad are his closest friends. That’s just the way it was when he grew up, and it’s stayed the same over the years.”
Through the teaching and encouragement of his parents, Woodhead, 26, learned early in life about Jesus and what it meant to follow Him. At the age of 4 he committed his life to Christ, a decision he attributes largely to his parents.
“They were a great example of what it meant to have a relationship with Christ,” he said. “I understood what Jesus was about and what He did for us. As I got older that understanding grew even more.”
Woodhead’s relationship with Christ developed simultaneously with his athletic ability while he was a student at North Platte High School. His parents helped sponsor the school’s newly established FCA Huddle, and Woodhead participated. With the help of a local pastor, the Woodheads had spearheaded the initiative of bringing Christ to the athletes and coaches at North Platte through FCA, and the Huddle remains active to this day.
“We reached a lot of different kids through FCA,” Annette said. “Many times, they were the ones who otherwise might not have known Christ or been in church.”
As one of the top athletes in the state, Woodhead excelled in a variety of sports, but he was unmatched on the gridiron. During his high school career, the North Platte Bulldogs advanced to the playoffs each season and were the 2001 Class-A State runners-up in his sophomore season. Individually, Woodhead finished his career as the Nebraska Class-A all-time rushing leader with 4,891 yards and was named the state’s Gatorade High School Football Player of the Year in 2003.
Despite Woodhead’s long list of accolades, his dream college, the University of Nebraska, didn’t recruit him as a running back. Instead, they offered him the opportunity to walk-on as a punt returner. While the idea of being a Cornhusker was tempting, Woodhead wanted to play on a team where he could make an immediate impact.
So, with North Platte in his rearview mirror, Woodhead selected Division II Chadron State University in Chadron, Neb., where his older brother, Ben, was already on the team.
Danny Woodhead - #39
|[ Team: ]|
New England Patriots
[ Position: ]
[ Born: ]
January 25, 1985
[ Hometown: ]
North Platte, Neb.
[ Height /Weight: ]
[ College: ]
Chadron State University
[ NFL Debut: ]
October 25, 2009 (NY Jets)
As he hoped, Woodhead made a contribution right away, rushing for nearly 2,000 yards as a freshman. That season set a precedent that would continue throughout his time with the Eagles as he unceremoniously rewrote the collegiate record books. He set an alltime NCAA single-season record for all divisions with 2,756 rushing yards in 2006 and finished his college career with 7,962 yards, the most in NCAA history at the time. His 9,749 all-purpose yards remains second all-time.
To outsiders, the records were the highlight of Woodhead’s college experience, but what he remembers most were the things that took place off the field, including his spiritual growth. It was there at his parents’ alma mater that the faith they’d instilled in him really took off.
“In college I was able to see my relationship with Christ as my own,” he said. “I wasn’t going to church or reading my Bible because of my parents. It was my relationship and my responsibility.”
One of the primary influences in Woodhead’s life at college was his local pastor, who, according to Woodhead provided an environment in which he felt safe being honest and transparent with his emotions.
The pastor was Randy Dockweiler, who served as the lead pastor at Chadron’s Ridgeview Bible Church. The two met during Woodhead’s freshman year and, after establishing a friendship, began meeting regularly both in one-on-one and Bible study settings.
“Danny definitely made a turning point in his faith in college,” said Dockweiler, who also officiated Woodhead’s wedding to his high school sweetheart, Stacia, in 2008. “We were always open with each other, willing to talk about our difficulties and struggles, so it made it easy to build into him as much as I could. He’s a great athlete and an even better person. His humility shines through his hard work, and the determination he has is incredible.”
While college was an unforgettable experience for Woodhead, one challenge still remained. With a glimmering college résumé in hand, he had his sights set on the NFL. But, much like his senior year of high school, the scouts at the next level remained skeptical.
In April 2008, the NFL Draft came and went without any takers, but an outside opportunity surfaced with the New York Jets, who offered him a contract as an undrafted
rookie free agent and invited him to training camp.
Woodhead knew the situation: He would have to prove himself one more time. But before the season even began, he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the year.
“I was obviously pretty down after the injury,” he said. “It was almost like this was just one more thing to overcome. But even if it wasn’t to my liking, I had to trust God’s plan and let things play out.”
Woodhead endured the grueling rehab and was back in Jets camp at full health in 2009. His hard work soon paid off as he was promoted from the practice squad during the season and saw action in several games. But, in 2010, he was released by the Jets and once again found himself looking for a job, or simply a place to prove himself on the field.
After being cut, Woodhead turned to Dockweiler, but instead of expressing despair, he surprised his former pastor with the nature of his attitude.
“I was thinking it would be a chance to speak into his life, but I didn’t even need to,” Dockweiler said. “I told him how sorry I was, but he kept telling me that he knew God had a plan and that he wasn’t worried. But that’s so typical. Even when I think I need to help him out, he’s got such a firm faith that he ends up ministering to me.”
Just four days after being released by the Jets, God revealed the next step in His plan by opening an opportunity for Woodhead with the New England Patriots. Inactive in his first game, Woodhead watched from the sidelines as running back Kevin Faulk went down with a season-ending knee injury. In order to fill the role, the coaches inserted Woodhead into the next game.
But he would do more than just fill the role, starting what would become a season-long highlight reel that included a 22-yard touchdown run against the Buffalo Bills in his first game. It was a breakout season for Woodhead in which he set a new Patriots record for average yards per carry, scored six touchdowns and helped the Pats earn the league’s top regular season record (14-2). The smalltown Nebraska boy also developed a following in the New England area that rivaled that of superstar teammate Tom Brady.
Seeing the value they had in Woodhead, the Patriots offered him a two-year contract extension, ensuring his place in Foxborough through 2012.
“I wanted to come here and do everything I could to help the team,” Woodhead said. “I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to play for the Patriots. I try not to look too far ahead but just focus on my job each day to help the team. Everything that happens as a result is just a blessing.”
Also excited that Woodhead was set to be a Patriot for several more seasons was chaplain Don Davis, a former Patriot himself who currently works for the NFL Players Association. Through his interaction with Woodhead, Davis has seen how the running back’s faith and resulting level-headed approach to the game has served as a benefit to his teammates.
“If you met him, you’d never know that he is this stud running back who came out of nowhere last season,” Davis said. “He’s down-to-earth; his demeanor is Christ-like. I’ve been blessed to be able to know him and see his impact in the locker room. He’s going to continue to do great things.”
“I’ve learned to never let someone say I can’t do something. I was told that a lot, but I had to trust God through it all.”
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All 5-foot-7-inches of Danny Woodhead stand in the middle of another tremendous season, only now it isn’t so out of nowhere. Last season, he made his presence known, and teams league-wide have made note of what he adds to New England’s offensive attack.
This thought alone is a stretch for everyone who doubted the kid from rural Nebraska. But for the man himself, he’s learned to not let their opinions slow him down. He simply trusts in God’s ultimate plan and lets it go.
“I’ve learned to never let someone say I can’t do something,” he said. “I was told that a lot, but I had to trust God through it all. No matter what, He has control. He gave me the gift of playing football, and I just pray that I can influence others through it.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy of the New England Patriots/Keith Nordstrom; Annette Woodhead; David Silverman