Feb 4, 2020
The Chiefs were on the move, and Super Bowl I was very much anyone’s ballgame. Until Willie Wood decided it was his ball – and the game was essentially over after that.
The Packers were holding a slim 14-10 lead, but the Chiefs were driving. Facing third and 5 from his 49-yard line and under heavy pressure, quarterback Len Dawson threw a wobbly pass toward tight end Fred Arbanas. Wood, the Packers All-Pro safety, leaped in front of Arbanas and intercepted the pass, returning it 50 yards to the Kansas City 5-yard line.
“I didn’t use very good running technique or I would have scored,” Wood self-deprecatingly said after the game. Then, speaking of his stern head coach Vince Lombardi, Wood added, “If I were a running back, Vince probably would take a look at that run and cut me.”
Hardly. Halfback Elijah Pitts scored on the very next play – the first of three second-half touchdowns in the Packers’ 35-10 victory. While quarterback Bart Starr would be named MVP of the game, the game had unquestionably turned on Wood’s interception.
“The interception changed the personality of the game,” Chiefs coach Hank Stram said afterward. ” You don’t like to say that one play did that much, but it seemed to.”
Said Lombardi, whose team won its fourth title in six years and would add a fifth by winning Super Bowl II a year later: “That was the steal of the game. Willie Wood at his finest.”
On Monday, Wood, the Packers legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer, died at an assisted living facility in his hometown of Washington, D.C. He was 83.
The team announced Wood’s passing, with team president/CEO Mark Murphy calling him an “inspiration” for the remarkable career he forged despite having to send postcards to NFL teams after going undrafted out of the University of Southern California in 1960.
“The Green Bay Packers Family lost a legend today with the passing of Willie Wood,” Murphy said in a statement released Monday night. “Willie’s success story, rising from an undrafted rookie free agent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is an inspiration to generations of football fans. While his health challenges kept him from returning to Lambeau Field in recent years, his alumni weekend visits were cherished by both Willie and our fans. We extend our deepest condolences to Willie’s family and friends.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker echoed those sentiments, saying in a statement, “The game has lost a true legend with the passing of Willie Wood. He had an unbelievable football career which helped transform Green Bay, Wisconsin, into Titletown, U.S.A. Willie was a rare player who always fought to be a great teammate and achieve success. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent and became one of the greatest to ever play the game. The Hall of Fame will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration to future generations.”
Wood had been suffering from advanced stage dementia for roughly a decade and, as detailed in a 2016 piece by Bill Pennington in The New York Times, had no recollection of his game-changing play in the Super Bowl. Dawson, meanwhile, called it “Maybe the No. 1 play I wish I could have back.”
A lot of quarterbacks felt that way thanks to Wood, who spent his entire NFL career with the Packers (1960-71) and finished second in franchise history with 48 career interceptions. He also was a terrific tackler, leader and even contributed on special teams. In 1961, Wood led the NFL as a punt returner (16.1 avg.) and returned two for touchdowns that season.
Fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer wrote in his book “Instant Replay” that Wood commanded respect from the entire roster.
“Next to Lombardi, Wood scares his own teammates more than anybody else does,” Kramer wrote. “Wood even scares Ray Nitschke. ‘I hate to miss a tackle,’ Ray says, ‘‘cause if I do, I know I’m gonna get a dirty look from Willie. He’ll kill you with that look.’”
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Wood was USC’s starting safety but played quarterback and kicker as well. The Packers’ interest in him was piqued after Bill Butler, the athletic instructor at the Metropolitan Police Boys Club in Washington, D.C., wrote Lombardi a letter on Wood’s behalf.
Despite being impressed early in training camp by Wood’s quarterbacking potential, Lombardi moved him to safety full-time that summer. There, Wood never missed a game in 12 seasons, was named to The Associated Press All-Pro team five times and was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times.
A member of the NFL’s 1960s all-decade team, Wood was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Although six other defensive players from his unit would eventually end up in Canton, Wood was considered the group’s leader.
“The hardest hit I took wasn’t from Ray Nitschke, it was from Willie Wood,” former Bears tight end and Hall of Famer Mike Ditka once said. “I caught a hook pass, and he drilled me. I thought I broke my spleen. I had to leave the game.
“When you’re talking about Willie Wood, you’re talking about an outstanding athlete and a great football player.”
But Wood struggled early in his career. As a rookie in 1960, he played so poorly in a game against the Colts that he was benched, and before the team flew back to Wisconsin, several of his teammates criticized him.
But Lombardi biographer David Maraniss wrote in his book, “When Pride Still Mattered,” that Lombardi stood up for his rookie defensive back, telling him, “Don’t you believe anything those fellows say. You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right with me. Every one of those guys making fun of you has had the same things happen to them. You’re going to be here as long as I’m here.”
Wood, in turn, told Maraniss that the exchange – the longest conversation Wood ever had with Lombardi – gave him confidence.
“I said, ‘What I’m doing has got to be right because the man believes in me,’ ” Wood said. “I think it made a hell of a better ballplayer out of me.”
After retiring in 1972, Wood became the defensive backs coach for the Chargers and in 1975 was the first black head coach of the modern era when hired by the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League. After the WFL folded, Wood was head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts in 1980 and ’81. In 2012, a section of N Street NW in Washington, D.C., was named “Willie Wood Way” in his honor.
According to the Packers, Wood is survived by a daughter and two sons.