Willie Wood, a Hall of Fame safety and member of all five of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams with the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, died Monday at the age of 83.
Sadly, Wood spent the last decade of his life in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. In a 2016 article in the New York Times, Wood was described as having no recollection of playing for the Packers despite spending 12 seasons with the team.
Wood joined the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 1960 and remained with the team until 1971. He played quarterback at USC, the first African American to start at quarterback in what is now the Pac-12 Conference.
Despite his success in college, Wood went undrafted in 1960 and had to write letters to NFL teams asking for a tryout. The Packers and Vince Lombardi were one of the few teams to make an offer and the Washington, DC, native made the team although he was moved to safety.
Wood was named to eight Pro Bowls including seven in a row between 1964 and 1970. He was a First Team All-Pro five times and a Second Team All-Pro four times before being named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s. Wood was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
Wood was fast, had great agility and he was smart. “Many times, a defense would be called in the huddle, and when we’d line up, Willie would be way out of position,” recalled fellow Packers defensive back Tom Brown in the 1969 Packers Yearbook. “I’d start to holler at him, and then I’d realize that he was in the wrong position on purpose—just to fool the quarterback. When the ball was snapped, Willie was right where he was supposed to be.”
In addition to playing safety, Wood returned punts for the Packers including two returns for touchdowns in 1961. He led the league in 1964 with a 13.3-yard average.
In 1962, Wood led the NFL with nine interceptions and helped the Packers finish with a 13-1 record en route to the team’s second straight NFL title under Lombardi.
Wood was excellent in pass coverage and was also earned a reputation as a hitter. “Pound for pound, Willie was the best tackler in the game,” Lombardi once said of Wood.
Wood’s most memorable play came in Super Bowl I. With the Packers clinging to a 14-10 lead in the third quarter, the Kansas City Chiefs were moving the ball and were near midfield. Lombardi called for a rare blitz which led to an underthrow by quarterback Len Dawson. Wood stepped in front of receiver Fred Arbanas, made the interception and ran it back 50 yards to the Kansas City five. Elijah Pitts scored one play later and the Packers never looked back as they won 35-10. Chiefs head coach Hank Stram called Wood’s interception the turning point of the game.
In 1972, Wood retired and became a coach. He joined the San Diego Chargers staff as a defensive backs coach for three seasons under Harlan Svare. Then, in 1975, he became the head coach of the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League. That made Wood the first African American to become head coach of a major league professional football team. The Bell and the WFL folded in midseason.
Wood later coached the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, making him the first African American coach in Canada. He had stated he wanted to be a head coach in the NFL, but he was never able to obtain a position. When he searched for coaching jobs in the NFL, he was told he was “too young” to be a coordinator or head coach and too old to be a lower-level assistant. The NFL still hadn’t had an African American head coach at that point.
“The game has lost a true legend with the passing of Willie Wood,” Hall of Fame president/CEO David Baker said in a statement. “He had an unbelievable football career which helped transform Green Bay, Wisconsin into Titletown U.S.A. Willie was a rare player who always fought to be a great teammate and achieve success. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent and became one of the greatest to ever play the game. The Hall of Fame will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as an inspiration to future generations.”
Wood is still second on the Packers all-time interceptions list with 48 behind only Bobby Dillon.
When asked to describe himself, Wood told the 1989 Packers Yearbook, “Determination was my trademark. I was talented, but so were a lot of people.”
Wood had a reputation as in intense competitor. In his book, “Instant Replay,” teammate Jerry Kramer said this of Wood. “What Lombardi liked most about Wood was his leadership. Next to Lombardi, Wood scares his own teammates more than anybody else does. Wood even scares Ray Nitschke. ‘I hate to miss a tackle,’ Ray says,’ ‘cause if I do, I know I’m gonna get a dirty look from Willie. He’ll kill you with that look.’”
Former Packers safety Jim Hill remembered Wood by telling the Associated Press, “Willie was Mr. Packer on defense along with Ray Nitschke. Willie set the tone and the pace for people who played safety — very smart, very articulate, a good tackler. Anything that was good about sports and football was Willie Wood.”
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