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Woodson came to Michigan's offense in the most casual way. One evening early in 1996, Carr was walking out of a dinner for Wolverines recruits with Woodson, then a freshman. Spring practice was still several weeks off, but Carr had been left in a bind by the unexpected departure of tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka to the NFL after his junior season. Woodson had started 12 games and played brilliantly at cornerback in his first year at Michigan, but this came after an outstanding senior year at Ross High in Fremont, Ohio, in which he rushed for 2,028 yards as a tailback in addition to playing free safety.
Carr floated a suggestion. "Charles," he said, "how would you like to play some tailback?" Woodson recalled the pounding administered to running backs and offered a compromise. How about wide receiver? "The one thing I've never liked is sitting on the sideline," he would later say.
In the spring drills that followed, Woodson ran crackling routes and made an array of sensational catches. In the fall of 1996 Carr recalled the initial practice, guffawing as if he had found money in his pocket. "I mean, it was the first day, and we all just went, Wow," said Carr. "He is really some athlete."
WOODSON WAS FORCED INTO PRECOCIOUSNESS, growing up in the Delaware Acres apartment complex on the east side of Fremont, a town of 17,000 situated 25 miles southeast of Toledo. His half-brother, Terry Carter, who is four years his elder, dragged Charles into the brutal games the kids played on the field at the center of the complex. It turned out to be excellent preparation. In Woodson's freshman year at Ross, coach Rex Radeloff deemed him varsity material. "Usually we don't even move up sophomores," says Radeloff, "but Charles was clearly ready."
Woodson's mother, Georgia (who was divorced from Charles's father, a former amateur boxer named Solomon Woodson, when Charles was an infant), didn't agree and forbade Charles from playing on the varsity. A strong-willed woman who operates a forklift at American National Can in nearby Bellevue, Georgia was not to be challenged. So Charles played on the jayvee, then spent the following three years making up for his one lost season. In his three varsity years he led Ross to 23 victories and played with a Deion-like flair that rankled many in the working-class community. "He almost looked like he was too relaxed out there, to some people," says Radeloff. "He was cocky. He took shots from people in town."
Every major college in the country recruited Woodson, but his decision was easy. Carter, who had hoped to go to Michigan, had taught Charles to root for the Wolverines. "Terry wasn't that kind of quality player," says Radeloff. "Good, but not Michigan good." Woodson was. He quickly accepted Michigan's offer and was a starter in the first week of practice. "You heard all about this guy's rep," said former Wolverines defensive tackle William Carr. "I figured I'd wait and see. Then, the first day upperclassmen are there, he's out holding his own with Amani Toomer and Mercury Hayes [both '96 NFL draft picks at wideout]. I figured, O.K., I believe."
Confidence remained the spine of Woodson's game. Challenged by Michigan's departing seniors to hold Ohio State's Terry Glenn in check in the 1995 finale, the freshman did precisely that. "I just didn't want to get beat deep, that's all," says Woodson. Glenn caught four passes for 72 yards that day but never got loose. Woodson, on the other hand, intercepted two passes, including one that killed the Buckeyes' last, desperate drive. On the runback Woodson darted about the field, making tacklers miss, opening a window to the future. "That was an amazing game he had," says Coach Carr. "Being a freshman, playing in that rivalry for the first time...just amazing."
When the game was over and Michigan had ended Ohio State's undefeated season with a 31-23 upset, Bo Schembechler sat in the coaches' dressing room in the belly of Michigan Stadium and marveled at Woodson's performance. "What a game that kid played," the former coach said.
The best part of all was this: It was just the beginning. Two years later, to the surprise of no one who has watched him closely, that kid stood atop the college football world.