However, he approached hurdling with a football player's mentality, running through the hurdles instead of clearing them cleanly. "In practice, blood was always streaming down his legs," says Purdue track coach Mike Poehlein. "He had scars all over his knees. Most hurdlers would call for medical attention, but Rod wouldn't stop until practice was over. If you could strap a heart monitor on him before an athletic performance, you'd find that his pulse doesn't go up."
But Woodson's heart did race early in his pro career, when he was still learning to perfect his play at cornerback. Accustomed to being the best athlete on his team at every level of football from the Police Athletic League through college, Woodson was never fazed by his coaches' penchant for shifting him from position to position as needed. Consequently he didn't master any one position. Even in his final game with the Boilermakers he played tailback and cornerback, returned kickoffs and punts and was on the special teams coverage units. He rushed for 93 yards, caught three passes for 67 yards, made 10 tackles, forced a fumble and returned two kickoffs for 46 yards and three punts for 30 yards in Purdue's 17-15 victory over Indiana.
But that iron-man feat didn't count for much in the summer of 1987, after Woodson had been drafted in the first round by the Steelers and it came time to line up at right cornerback, the position manned so brilliantly by Steeler Hall of Famer Mel Blount from 1970 to '83. "I was a nervous wreck," Woodson says. "I'd relied too long on my speed and physical talents, and I didn't understand the game."
Tutored by two Steeler coaches—Tony Dungy, now the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, and Rod Rust, now Dungy's counterpart on the New York Giants—Woodson learned how to dissect a receiver's game: How wide docs he line up? How does he come off the line of scrimmage? What are his downfield moves? Then he memorized the responsibilities at each of the other positions in the Pittsburgh defense and eventually picked up the nuances of opposing offenses.
"You've got to resign yourself to the fact that you can't stop the perfect pass," Woodson says. "Let the receiver catch the ball but then tell him, 'I'll be here all day. I'm not going anywhere. Next time you're going to have to pay.' You've got to respect wide receivers but never fear them. If you fear them, you'll lose."
Here's Woodson's take on some of the NFL's best receivers:
•Jerry Rice, San Francisco 49ers: "It has been said Rice can't be covered man-to-man, but I say, Why not try? Why be afraid of a receiver? The best way to play Rice is to be physical, to run with him and make him work. Push him down the field. Jam him in the face. Let him know you're there. And tire him out."
•Art Monk, Washington Redskins: "It's hard to play Monk physical because he loves to push you. He understands the little things you can do that are illegal, and he gets away with them. He loves to throw an elbow to the chest, which throws off your leverage, and he has an excellent swim move, grabbing your jersey and throwing you back to get around you."
•James Lofton, Buffalo Bills: "You've got to respect his speed. I've watched film and said, 'He can't be that fast.' Then last year he burned me for a touchdown on a takeoff. First and foremost, play the deep ball with Lofton, then try to jar it loose. He's getting up in age, maybe his body can't take the pounding."
•Michael Irvin, Dallas Cowboys: "Michael's the hardest receiver to tackle because he's so big [6'2", 199 pounds]. Most smaller receivers, like Ernest Givins of Houston, aren't strong; you can manhandle them. But Michael can manhandle DBs. He has slapped me back two or three times."