On or off the NFL field, Woodyard says Mom knows best
He was an all-stater in high school in Lagrange, Georgia, an All-Southeastern Conference performer at Kentucky and now, Wesley Woodyard is one of the top special teams linebackers in the National Football League.
And for that, we have Edna Sutton to thank.
She is the mother of Woodyard, who returned to his old Kentucky home over the weekend to hold a free camp for youngsters, looking to learn the game that has carried Woodyard to the top of his profession.
He could be spending his down time on a beach somewhere, sipping something with an umbrella floating in it, but instead, Woodyard is giving back. It’s a lesson he got from his mom.
“That’s something my mom always taught me,” he said. “Give back to people who need help and are willing to be helped.”
As soon as he made the Broncos, as an undrafted free agent, Woodyard set about making a difference in the Denver community. Because of his charity work, he was the Broncos’ nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the year each of the last two seasons. But actually becoming an NFL player was surprisingly difficult for a man who twice led the SEC in tackles.
On draft day, every team in the league passed on Woodyard, who signed with the Broncos in part because of encouragement from Denver’s assistant pro personnel director, Champ Kelly, a former Wildcat himself. He called it a gloomy time in his life, but his mother urged him never to give up.
Woodyard quickly established himself as a playmaker, and for three of the past four seasons he has been the Broncos special teams captain.
“ I started my career (at UK) on special teams,” he said, “the first Louisville game. Coach Ort (then special teams coach Steve Ortmayer) loved me to death. I’d go down the field and sacrifice my body.”
For so many players hoping to catch on in the NFL, special teams can be their ticket to the big league. Ex-UK tailback Alfonso Smith hooked on with the Arizona Cardinals via special teams, and former Wildcat linebacker Danny Travathan is hoping follow Woodyard’s path with the Broncos. “If you can’t play special teams, you can’t really do much,” Woodyard said. “It can increase your chances of playing 10-13 years. “
Woodyard is looking to serve as a mentor for Travathan, who will be competing with him for playing time, as well as a slot on the roster.
“You fight for your job every year,” Woodyard said. “It’s something I appreciate. I see new guys get drafted and come in every year. I thrive on competition. I love being a competitive guy. I love the game of football and make sure I put my all in it.”
Woodyard is confident Travathan will stick.
“Danny is a great athlete,” he said. “I respect him. I picked him up and took him out to eat. The first thing he said was, ‘I want to contribute to the team, no matter what it is. I want to help you guys win.’ A young guy who says that, the future is bright. That’s the attitude you want to have.
“He’s one of the best guys I’ve seen come in a as rookie.”
Travathan no doubt would remind Denver fans of the kid out of Kentucky who made the squad in 2008. Woodyard has led the team in special teams tackles in three of his four NFL seasons. Last year he started a career-high seven games, finishing second on the club with a personal-best 87 tackles (60 solo). And he did it using the skills that made him a fan-favorite in Lexington.
“The biggest thing, is whatever got you to the NFL as a linebacker, you never want to lose those instincts, the way you play the game,” he said. “You want to get better, year in and year out.”
And, he says, be coachable.
“A lot of guys get to the league and think, Well, I’m a professional, I don’t have to listen. But you learn something new every day in the NFL. Your learning curve has to increase.”
Woodyard was part of a defensive unit that found itself in the middle of a debate last season, once the Broncos began winning with Tim Tebow at quarterback. Tebow-backers pointed to the almost other-worldly type comebacks Denver put up; Tebow-bashers insisted it was the defense that was putting the team in a position to win that any NFL quarterback could exploit.
Woodyard said the Bronco defenders were fine with Tebow getting the credit. They appreciated the work ethic they saw in the former Florida Gator. “We’re like offensive linemen,” he said. “We don’t get much praise.
“Nobody in the locker room wanted any attention,” he said. “When they named him the starter, he took that team over. He was there, day in and day out, from six to six at night, sometimes 10 o’clock at night. Sometimes, he’d sleep there. He was just a guy who worked hard. He never wanted anybody to be let down. When it came fourth quarter time, it was ‘Tebow time.’ ”
Woodyard played on one of the best UK team in years, the 2007 squad that won eight games – but still couldn’t find a way to beat the Gators. “He rubbed his glory days in my face from time to time,” Woodyard said with a laugh, “but getting a chance to compete against him, I respect everything he did. And getting a chance to see finally why Florida was so successful, it was because of him. He never let anybody down. He found a way to push guys better than anybody I’ve seen.”
Woodyard says he wishes Tebow the best with the New York Jets, but he’s excited to have Peyton Manning at quarterback now. “He’s one of the best to play the game. He’s on point out there. He has the keys to the facility,” he said. “He’s one of the guys who sleeps over there some nights.”
And one of Manning’s favorite targets is another ex-Wildcat and former Woodyard teammate, tight end Jacob Tamme, a free agent Manning suggested to the Bronco brass.
“That says a lot about Tamme – one of the best quarterbacks who ever played the game recommends you,” Woodyard said. “It means a lot, and Tamme is out there. He’s been working his butt off. One thing about Tamme is, he comes to work every day and competes. You’re going to be better going up against those guys.”
Tamme and Woodyard helped lead the Wildcats to a pair of victories in the Music City Bowl. Now, Woodyard is dreaming of something bigger.
“It would be great to win one of those Super Bowl trophies,” he said, “and get the chance to get back in the locker room with Tamme and hold that trophy. It would be special.”
It would be that – and one more way to make his mother proud.
Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.