When Pittsburgh steeler cornerback Rod Woodson defines his ethnic background on questionnaires, he checks the boxes next to BLACK, WHITE and OTHER. The youngest of three brothers who had a black father and a white mother, the 27-year-old Woodson never has fit neatly into some of life's tidy little categories—whether they refer to something as sensitive as race or as trivial as football. While growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., he was the target of cruel taunts about his parentage, and as a young football player he was so versatile that his coaches couldn't settle on one position for him.
But today he is a proud husband and father in his own mixed family, and he's the rare cornerback who can stand up to the wave of outstanding receivers in the NFL. In fact, on most Sundays he outplays the receivers who come his way.
"I was taught to never back down," Woodson says. "When you're mixed, you have three options: stay in the middle, pick a side or stand on your own. My parents let me know I didn't have to pick a side, because I always had a friend in my family. I learned to stand up for myself and to never be afraid."
James Woodson, a black laborer from Tennessee, came north looking for work in Fort Wayne in the late 1950s and befriended Linda Jo Doerflein, a white woman with a middle-class upbringing who was working with the handicapped. They married in 1960, moved into a two-bedroom house in a predominantly black neighborhood near the projects and went about raising a family that would grow to include three sons, Joe, Jamie and Rod.
But the Woodsons did not enjoy a normal middle-America existence. There were times when Linda Jo was chased by Black Muslims while walking in her neighborhood, and once she was pushed down and knocked out. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and a local group called the Black Jesses made harassing phone calls to the Woodson house, but James downplayed the threats by encouraging his sons to make fun of the callers before hanging up. One of the racist groups went so far as to mail a package that contained a lock of blonde hair, an earring and a letter threatening Linda Jo with physical harm if she didn't leave her husband.
"The whites would call me mulatto, nigger, zebra and half-breed," Woodson says. "The blacks would call me yellow boy, white boy or mixed breed. I dated both black and white girls, and when I was with the white girls, I'd hear, 'Can you believe she's with that nigger?' I never knew who my true friends were, so I had to stick with my own. The only people I knew who were mixed, like me, were my brothers, and that made us a very close and protective family. No threats could intimidate our family."
Woodson's sense of his own individuality and his lack of fear have helped make him one of the premier defensive players in the NFL, as well as a superb kickoff and punt returner. He has been named to the last two Pro Bowls as a cornerback for the AFC, after having been selected to the 1989 squad as the return specialist for his NFL-best 27.3-yard kickoff-return average.
How tough is Woodson? During a game the only protection he wears, other than a helmet, are shoulder pads—nothing on his knees, thighs, hips, elbows, ribs or neck, not even a jockstrap or a cup. "To play cornerback you have to be the best athlete on the field," Woodson says. "You're all by yourself against a wide receiver. You have to run backward, which isn't natural, then turn and sprint as soon as the receiver makes his break, matching him stride for stride at top speed.
"If you want to be the best cornerback, you have to play like a linebacker, too. You have to take on pulling guards and tackles, and you must hit tight ends and running backs. Most cornerbacks, if they're honest, will say, 'I'm a cover guy. I don't want to get involved in contact.' You can't be passive. If you don't sell out on every play, you'll come up a play or two short."
Woodson, at six feet and 202 pounds, is built more like a running back than a defensive back. He has terrific speed—4.29 in the 40—with great explosiveness and balance, all of which he developed in training as a hurdler and sprinter. While at Purdue from 1983 to '87, Woodson was a four-time Big Ten indoor champion in the 55-meter hurdles and twice won the 60-meter-dash title. In the summer of '87, after only two weeks of training for the European track circuit, Woodson ran the 110 hurdles in 13.29, which tied the fourth-best time in the world that year.