There's a very real sense of fear in the room. San Francisco
49ers linebacker Lee Woodall, who is a dead ringer for former
heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, has just finished
giving an extremely detailed description of the knockout punch
he dreams of landing on a poor, unsuspecting running back one
day. The running back, Woodall has said, won't just be forced to
leave the game for one or two plays; he'll be knocked out. Cold.
What with with the eerie resemblance to the ex-champ and the
vivid image of this hit, it's a really bad time to discover that
your tape recorder isn't working.
Uh, excuse me, but, Lee, Mr. Woodall, sir? Any chance we could
go over that again? What part? Um, well, how about...all of it?
Woodall blinks. He breathes. He blinks. Finally, he smiles.
"OK., O.K.," he says easily. "We'll do it again." The 6-foot,
220-pound Woodall is menacing, but only when it comes to
football. And if there's one attribute he thoroughly
appreciates, it's perseverance in the face of long odds.
The 49ers selected the little-known Woodall in the sixth round
of the 1994 draft, the 182nd player taken overall. San Francisco
had him pegged as a special teams player, maybe a nickelback. At
best, a long shot; at worst, a throwaway. But as far as Woodall
was concerned, he was a lock. "Every day for five years, I told
myself I would make it," he says. "All I needed was a chance, no
matter how small. Being in the NFL was my destiny." Though they
didn't know it when they drafted him, the Niners had caught a
July 31, 1996
"When he came off the practice field after the first minicamp,
you could just see," recalls coach George Seifert. "He was so
focused, it was like he had blinders on. 'Holy mackerel, this
guy is good,' we said. 'Screw it, he's our starting outside
linebacker.' That's what we did, and look how everything has
worked." As a rookie, Woodall started 15 games and finished
sixth on the team in tackles, with 64. Last year he finished
fourth in tackles (77) and was voted to the Pro Bowl.
Whatever you call it, perseverance or focus, San Francisco had
discovered Woodall's defining quality, the trait that signaled
that the NFL was his destiny, the characteristic that propelled
him from Division II West Chester to the 49ers' starting lineup
to the Pro Bowl in a span of two years. It's a feature of his
personality that his family knows all too well.
"When Lee was little, about 13 years old, he had to lose weight
to be able to play pony league," recalls his father, the
Reverend Robert Woodall. "So one day he says he's not going to
eat. Nothing. Well--and I don't like to think about it now,
because his daddy wasn't exactly encouraging him in his
efforts--I decided to tempt Lee. We were out as a family, Lee's
three older brothers, his older sister and his mother. I must
have stopped at every food place I could find. 'Lee, would you
like something to eat?' 'Nah, nothin' for me,' he'd say. 'Mmm,
this sure is good. Lee, you want some?' I kept at it, but he
didn't eat, and he made weight. Even as a boy, Lee had focus."
That focus sustained Woodall in high school in Carlisle, Pa.,
after both Penn State and Syracuse decided they weren't
interested in recruiting him, concerned that, at 185 pounds, he
wasn't big enough to play linebacker at a major college. There
was also some question as to whether Woodall could cut it
academically at a big school. Whatever the case, it didn't
matter to him. "It didn't really bother me all that much when
they backed off," Woodall says. "I probably would have just
gotten lost in the shuffle at those schools." Instead, in 1989
he enrolled at West Chester, a school 15 miles outside
Philadelphia, about 90 minutes from his home.
In retrospect, what took place that year away from home was the
best thing that could have happened to Woodall. As a freshman,
he saw action in 11 games, making 39 tackles for the Golden
Rams. But because he thought school was "a joke," he says, he
stopped going to class. He flunked out of school in May 1990.
For Woodall, this turn of events provided some much-needed
clarity. "I spent part of the next year packing boxes in the IBM
warehouse in Mechanicsburg [Pa.]," he says. "That was a reality
check for me. I realized I needed to rededicate myself." In the
summer of 1991 that message was underscored by Washington
All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green, who occasionally attended the
elder Woodall's church when the Redskins came to training camp
in Carlisle. "I told Lee that he hadn't given himself a chance,
that he needed to take the roads made available to him, like
school," says Green. Woodall took Green's advice to heart. He
decided to reapply to school and returned to West Chester in
the fall of 1991.
In each of the next three seasons he led the Rams in tackles and
each year was named team MVP. As a junior, in 1992, he was named
a Division II All-America. "I listened to Darrell," he says. "It
turned me around, and it happened for me."
Despite his college accomplishments, in the months before the
1994 draft Woodall once again heard complaints about his size.
Teams also wondered how he would fare against major-college
competition. Although he worked out for more than 10 teams,
Woodall knew he might not be drafted. Then, in early January, a
49ers scout shared a flight with a fellow bird dog who had just
attended the Snow Bowl, the annual Division II All-Star Game in
Fargo, N.Dak. When the San Francisco scout asked whether any
player had stood out on the field, his aisle mate tabbed
Woodall. Destiny, indeed.
At the age of 26, Woodall has made good on his promise to
himself. A less-focused person might now survey his achievements
and relax a bit. Not Woodall. Last April he signed up for
classes at Cal State-Hayward to continue working toward his
degree in physical therapy (he's six classes short). Now that he
has made the Pro Bowl, he has the defensive player of the year
award in his sights. And he's still looking to unload that big,
crushing hit. One way or another, he's destined to have impact.