Rod Woodson reacted about 10 seconds too late: and his words lingered in the New Orleans humidity. "I wasn't finished," Woodson mumbled after an overzealous waitress had prematurely cleared his Cajun combination plate and disappeared from view. His chiseled body crammed between a table and a wall at an outdoor French Quarter restaurant one night last week, Woodson, a free-agent Pro Bowl cornerback, appeared more deflated than perturbed. When the waitress returned a few minutes later bearing a generous helping of bread pudding, he held his tongue, smiled faintly and dug in.
It would be silly to compare a few lost bites of jambalaya to a lost opportunity for one of the best defensive backs in NFL history, but let this much be said: Woodson doesn't get bogged down by unfinished business. He reacts to disappointment by shutting it out and moving ahead—the way any great cornerback responds to adversity. And that is how he's handling the end of his 10 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I had a good thing going in Pittsburgh, and I would have loved to have stayed, but leaving is not going to break me," Woodson said over dinner. "I want to be appreciated and treated with dignity. People don't realize that being in a place where the management and coaches think I can still play is a lot more important to me than being with the Steelers."
As willing as he is to expound on the events that led to one of the most significant NFL divorces since the dawn of unfettered free agency four years ago, the 32-year-old Woodson can't help but allow his mind to race ahead to the coming season. He spent part of May in New Orleans working with trainer Tom Shaw and said he is almost fully recovered from the arthroscopic procedure he underwent in February to clean out a bone chip and scar tissue from his right knee—aftereffects of the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered while attempting to tackle Barry Sanders in Pittsburgh's 1995 opener. On June 2 at Purdue, his alma mater, Woodson plans to work out for at least six teams: the Carolina Panthers, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Denver Broncos, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The most likely scenario has Woodson signing a long-term contract with the Niners and joining a secondary that includes perennial Pro Bowl safeties Tim McDonald and Merton Hanks. "We spent a week looking at game film from last year, and we are confident he can still play at a very high level," says Dwight Clark, San Francisco's vice president and director of football operations. "Unless something comes up that we don't foresee, I'm pretty sure we'll take a crack at signing him."
Woodson hopes to finish his career with a contender that plays its home games on grass. He wants a long-term deal but says he would consider retiring as early as next year if he were to earn a Super Bowl ring. He lists the Niners and the Broncos, in that order, as his top choices, although Denver coach Mike Shanahan says his team's signing of former San Diego Charger Darrien Gordon takes it out of the market for another high-priced cornerback. Woodson says he'll also look seriously at the Bucs because of his regard for Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy, the Steelers' defensive coordinator during Woodson's first two years in Pittsburgh. Woodson's agent, Eugene Parker, is high on the Panthers, who want the 6'2", 200-pound Woodson to become a safety. But Woodson says he prefers to remain a cornerback for at least one more season, "because I want to show people I can still play there."
Until blowing out his knee, Woodson was playing cornerback as well as anyone ever had. In 1994 he was one of five active players voted to the NFL's 48-man 75th anniversary team, joining Jerry Rice, Reggie White and two players who have since retired, Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana. Like Montana, Lott helped San Francisco win four Super Bowls in the '80s but went elsewhere after the organization deemed him expendable. Well aware of the plight of his friend Lott, Woodson hopes history repeats itself: In '91 Lott jumped to the Los Angeles Raiders after being left unprotected by the 49ers in Plan B free agency and had one of his best seasons, leading the league with eight interceptions and earning All-Pro honors.
"Ronnie had something to prove," said Woodson, who then retraced some painful personal history that helps explain why he has been able to avoid being openly bitter about his breakup with the Steelers. Yes, he was hurt by Pittsburgh's handling of his situation, but when you have turned your back on family members unwilling to accept mixed-race marriages, the parting of ways with a longtime employer over a contract squabble hardly seems epic.
Woodson, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., has put down strong roots in Pittsburgh. He owns a popular eatery there, Woodson's All-Star Grille, and hopes to open two more restaurants in the Pittsburgh area in 1998. He owns a house in suburban Wexford and intends to remain there once his career ends. He says he plans to leave his wife, Nickie, and their three children, ages six years to 11 months, in Pittsburgh next season "so I can concentrate 100 percent on football."
Despite having already lost free-agent cornerbacks Deon Figures (to Jacksonville) and Willie Williams (to the Seattle Seahawks), the Steelers effectively broke off negotiations with Woodson on April 19, when they selected Maryland cornerback Chad Scott in the first round of the draft and came to terms with former Chicago Bears corner Donnell Woolford, 31, on a four-year, $5.6 million contract. In the hours leading up to the draft, Woodson said, Pittsburgh made him a heavily hack-loaded offer that would have paid him about $7 million over four seasons. Last year the Steelers paid him $3.4 million. "I think they thought I would panic, which is ludicrous," he says. "I didn't get to this point by not being calm under pressure."