There are two sides to every contract dispute, and sentiment in Pittsburgh seems slanted toward the Steelers. Late last month, when Woodson appeared in a video during a Pittsburgh Penguins game at the Pittsburgh Civic Center, fans booed. "That didn't surprise me," Woodson says. "I'm very attuned to racial matters, and anytime a black athlete leaves Pittsburgh and comes back he gets booed. It happened to [former Pirates] Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. But when white players [like former Pirate Sid Bream] came back—players who left for better deals, just like everyone else—they were cheered. I just wish people would be consistent, but that's the way it is in Pittsburgh."
If Woodson seems particularly sensitive to questions of race, it is with good reason. The son of a white mother and a black father, Woodson says he was subjected to racism from both sides of the family—and from outsiders. In the late 1980s, when Rod began dating Nickie, who is white, he felt a similar chill from her family. "Her grandmother saw us walking together at a grocery store one day and walked right past us without speaking," says Rod. Nickie's grandmother has accepted the relationship, but, Rod adds, "Her father still won't speak to her."
Woodson hasn't forgotten the support he received from Lott, San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and other players after tearing his ACL. Woodson defied medical experts by returning to practice four months after the injury and appearing in the Steelers' Super Bowl loss to the Dallas Cowboys in January 1996. He played about a dozen snaps as a nickelback and broke up one sideline pass, to wideout Michael Irvin; otherwise, his impact was negligible. He pushed the knee through a rigorous off-season regimen and noticed the bone chip during the '96 preseason. As the year progressed, he was also plagued by a strained Achilles tendon, a sprained ankle and a bad back. Says Parker, "He wasn't the 75th anniversary-caliber player last year, and the Steelers knew the reasons why—because he came back too soon for the Super Bowl and had the chip floating around his knee."
In 1996 Woodson was beaten deep five times, with three plays going for touchdowns. His lowest moment came in Pittsburgh's 28-3 playoff loss to the New England Patriots. On New England's first play from scrimmage, rookie wide receiver Terry Glenn beat Woodson deep and caught a 53-yard pass from Drew Bledsoe, putting the Patriots in position for their first touchdown and setting the tone for the day.
Still, Woodson had his moments last season, intercepting six passes, scoring a pair of touchdowns and earning his seventh trip to the Pro Bowl. He figured that he would get the knee cleaned out and test the free-agent market, a combination as incompatible as PBS and World's Scariest Police Shootouts! After his surgery Woodson visited Chicago, Jacksonville and San Francisco but was unable to work out. During that same period Pittsburgh dangled a four-year, $7.2 million pact that included a $1 million signing bonus, but in their subsequent offer the Steelers cut the bonus in half. "Either they thought they could get me on the cheap," Woodson says, "or they just wanted to make an offer they knew I'd turn down because they didn't really want me."
"That's ridiculous," says Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' director of football operations. "We wouldn't have made him an offer if we didn't think he could still play. How can he be mad at us? There are 30 teams in this league, and we're the only one that attempted to sign him." (That's not quite true: The 49ers offered Woodson a one-year, $1.3 million deal in February.)
This divorce has been messy. One member of the Pittsburgh front office says that Woodson is a medical risk who overestimated his worth. Woodson questions the organization's philosophy of letting so many of its players depart through free agency. "It's ludicrous to believe you can restock in the draft every year," he says.
Woodson says he turned down a "decent" offer (three years, $9 million) from the Steelers last August because he wanted a four-or five-year deal. Last December he seemed sympathetic to the organization as he discussed the status of running back Jerome Bettis, a free-agent-to-be who ultimately re-signed with the Steelers for a package averaging $3.6 million a season. Citing former Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who in the previous off-season had taken $25 million over five years to jump to the New York Jets, Woodson said, "I hope guys like Jerome Bettis don't make the same mistake Neil O'Donnell made. Money isn't everything. You've got to realize when you're in a good situation."
The Cowboys' Deion Sanders and his astronomical 1995 contract aside, Woodson was the league's highest-paid cornerback in each of the last six seasons. But following the '96 season, Woodson came to believe his employers no longer regarded him as a valuable commodity. In March, frustrated by the lack of communication with team management, he arranged a meeting with coach Bill Cowher, Donahoe and owner Dan Rooney. He asked all three men to assess his value to the team. Woodson says that he never received a clear-cut evaluation.
"Tom's a good guy; they all are, really," Woodson says. "My thing is honesty, and I wish someone would have told me the truth. Then again, I'm not telling the whole truth about what they said about me, because if I reveal the whole truth, it's going to get people in trouble. Besides, most people wouldn't believe me. The best thing is just to let it go and move on."