Charles Woodson was six when he first got burned on a crossing route, and the lesson he learned from that horrifying experience helped propel him to football stardom. On a hot Alabama morning in the summer of 1983, Charles and six of his relatives were crammed into a Buick LeSabre, on their way from Fremont, Ohio, to a vacation in southern Mississippi. While driving on a raised section of freeway in Birmingham, Charles's mother, Georgia, put on her left turn signal and tried to get out of her lane, which was about to end. A semi blocked her path. The man in the passenger seat of the truck sneered at Georgia, and the driver refused to let her merge. The Buick ran out of room, spun out and smacked into a guardrail before stopping in the middle of the road.
The damage was minimal—the windshield was cracked and a couple of passengers suffered bumps and bruises—but the terror was far from over. Charles looked back and saw another truck barreling toward the Buick. He looked to the side and saw a 30-foot drop onto another roadway. "The semi stopped on a dime," he recalls. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be sitting here telling you about it today" As the drama unfolded, Georgia, a devout member of her Pentecostal church, began to pray. "The Lord protected us," she says. "It was a busy time of morning, but He stopped the traffic."
Charles was struck by another force: his mother's poise under pressure. "That's the way she is, and that's how I turned out, too," the 6'1", 200-pound Woodson says. "All through my childhood my mother was under incredible strain—working 12-hour days, trying to support three kids by herself—but she never showed it."
Sixteen years later Woodson, the Oakland Raiders' sensational second-year cornerback, has mastered the art of performing at high speeds with a low pulse rate. As flamboyant as Woodson is on the field (and as saucy as he can be in interviews), the chill factor is what sets him apart. Even behind the wheel Woodson is shockingly laid-back. He reclines so far in the driver's seat that only the top of his head can be seen—if you happen to get a clear view of the backseat window. "Riding low is the only way I know," he says. "I had one cousin who lay back so far, it looked like the car was driving itself."
When things heat up on the field, Woodson is colder than frozen tundra. "He's fearless," says Tampa Bay quarterback Trent Dilfer. "There are certain guys you play against who act like they're the best guy on the field. He's one who went out and backed it up." For all the attention Minnesota wideout Randy Moss received during his rookie of the year rampage in 1998, Woodson made an equally forceful impact, helping transform the Raiders' defense from the league's worst to one of its best. "A lot of rookies come in scared to give up a big play, but this guy went right after the league's best," Oakland coach Jon Gruden says. "He wasn't on Monday Night Football last year, and I don't know how much people around the country saw him, but he played his ass off, and guys around the league know it."
If rival players knew the extent of Woodson's nonchalance, they'd be shocked. Take Baltimore wideout Patrick Johnson, who says Woodson "seems to be studying film like a veteran. When we played them last year, he knew where we were going and the exact routes." Apparently Woodson has ESP. "I'm not real big on watching film," he says. "You see the same stuff over and over, and it gets boring. I fall asleep in meetings so often that I think people have come to expect it. As soon as the lights go off, I'm out."
Woodson has long been sleeping his way to the top. During his freshman year at Michigan, a few minutes before the Wolverines ran out onto their home field to battle Ohio State, Woodson dressed, sat down in front of his locker and started snoozing. He awoke to hear teammate Marcus Ray yelling, "What the hell are you doing?" All Woodson did was produce what his coach, Lloyd Carr, called "the greatest performance by a Michigan freshman in the history of that series," holding All-America wideout Terry Glenn to four catches for 72 yards and intercepting two passes, including the one that clinched the Wolverines' 31-23 victory. "That's Charles," says Ray. "Once he sets his mind to something, you can pretty much consider it done."
Those closest to Woodson swear his bravado stems not from insecurity but from faith in his abilities. "If people think he's cocky, he got that from me," says Georgia, who supported her three children by operating a forklift for a northern Ohio canning company. "I always taught him not to shy away from anything if he can back it up."
At Michigan, where as a junior he became the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman and led the Wolverines to a share of the 1997 national championship, Woodson was the human sound bite. He started getting bad press, however, after he announced he was leaving early to enter the NFL draft. He was criticized for, among other things, flirting with the idea of choosing rap mogul Sean (Puffy) Combs as his agent—Woodson says he never harbored such an idea but would have listened had Combs pitched him—and blowing off the Wolverines' While House visit shortly before Oakland made him the draft's No. 4 pick. "I had a meeting scheduled with Al Davis, my future boss," Woodson says. "Hey, the President's a big deal, but I'm sure I can get to the White House another time."
Can he get there with the Raiders anytime soon? The notion that Oakland could reach the Super Bowl in the near future seemed preposterous before Woodson arrived, but last year its defense, under new coordinator Willie Shaw, made one of the more dramatic turnarounds in recent NFL history. The key to Shaw's aggressive scheme was the cornerback play of Woodson and veteran Eric Allen, who was Pro Bowl-bound until tearing a knee ligament in November. After Allen's injury opposing quarterbacks started avoiding Woodson's side of the field like the back of a crowded 747, and the Raiders, 7-3 when Allen went down, finished 8-8. Woodson intercepted five passes, forced two fumbles and scored a touchdown to earn NFL defensive rookie of the year honors and make the Pro Bowl as a replacement for injured New York Jets cornerback Aaron Glenn.