•Webster Slaughter, Cleveland Browns: "He doesn't respect defensive backs. He rolls the ball back in your face after a catch. He'll spike the ball after a 10-yard out. He loves to talk trash. Get him frustrated before he gets you frustrated."
Woodson comes by his elevated, but healthy, self-esteem from his parents, who gave him plenty of love, attention and positive reinforcement. A factory worker at International Harvester by day, James took his sons along when he moonlighted as the cleanup man at four theaters in Fort Wayne. Linda Jo hop-scotched from one low-paying job to another, adjusting her work schedule to meet the children's needs. At various times she was a teacher's aide at her sons' elementary school and a volunteer homeroom mother. Linda Jo even served as a Boy Scout troop leader. "People always told me, 'You must have 16 children, of all different races," Linda Jo says, "and I'd say, 'No, I only have three.' "
The Woodson family suffered a traumatic loss in May, when James, 64, apparently recovering from brain surgery necessitated by an aneurysm, died several days after the procedure. He had developed a bacterial infection in his urinary tract, and it spread to his brain. James went into a coma and was declared brain dead.
While the Woodsons were waiting for a second and third opinion before deciding to have James disconnected from life-support equipment, Rod's middle brother, Jamie, 28, an aspiring actor who lives in Chicago, buckled under the emotional strain and got into a heated exchange with Rod at the hospital. Later Jamie marched into his parents' home, right past two police officers who had been called to help control the situation, and took two swings at his younger brother. Rod says he didn't retaliate, but as the police tried to calm Jamie, there was pushing and shoving, and Jamie and Rod were arrested for allegedly assaulting one of the officers. A trial is set for Nov. 18.
Afterward Jamie admitted to Rod that the helplessness and frustration over the sudden deterioration of his father's condition had overwhelmed him. From Jamie's point of view, when Rod, the NFL star, was present at the hospital, the doctors seemed more forthright and attentive to their father. "If Rod had been there the whole time," Jamie still says, "maybe my father wouldn't have died."
"It was the first time Jamie ever told me how he felt about others treating me different from him," says Rod, who, when his father's prognosis had looked good after the initial surgery, had returned to his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wexford. "All my life I've known what it's like to be accepted not for what I am inside, but for what I look like or, later in life, for being a successful athlete. I told Jamie that I'm still the same person I was in diapers, and that I'd be his brother when football's over. Nothing can ever come between us."
Because of the love his parents shared in their 32 years of marriage and the strong family bonds that developed in the Woodson household, Rod was undeterred in 1989 when he fell in love with Nickie Theede, who is white. Now married, Rod and Nickie are the parents of two-year-old Marikah, with another child due in December.
"Any mixed relationship goes through more strain and, ultimately, more growth," Woodson says. "One day, Marikah got away from me at a playground in Pittsburgh, and I chased after her. Somebody yelled, 'Whose child is that?' She's so fair-skinned that when I said that she belonged to me, I got some funny looks, as if they didn't believe me. Society considers me to be black. That leaves out half my heritage, and that's not fair.
"I'll let Marikah know that there are choices you make in life, with friends and in dating, and I'll tell her that when people find out she's one-quarter black, they'll probably still consider her to be black. She too will find out who her true friends are, but that's a valuable lesson to learn. My parents never allowed me to get to that stage every kid of any color goes through: Who am I? Where do I fit in? Marikah will always know she's special and that she's an important person."