Athlete Spotlight: Danny Woodhead

words, interview and image_Jordan Hagedorn

From North Platte High School and Chadron State College in Nebraska to the NFL’s New York Jets and now New England Patriots, running back Danny Woodhead has taken advantage of every opportunity he has been given on the football field.

As a senior at North Platte High, Woodhead rushed for 2,037 yards and scored 31 touchdowns, finishing his high school football career as Nebraska’s Class A all-time leading rusher with 4,891 yards. This was in addition to scoring 26 points a game in hoops and leading the soccer team in scoring. He is super-athletic, but he also works extremely hard. I talked to Danny at a football camp over the summer where he told me, “Working hard is something that you can decide to do. It’s not your choice to be 6 foot or 5 foot 8. That’s not up to you. With whatever talent you have, you always have the choice of working hard to make yourself a better player on your own. That’s definitely what I did. I worked hard and I never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do it. I still remember freshman year of high school people said I couldn’t play running back and then it worked out for me.”

After graduating high school, Woodhead didn’t receive any Division I scholarship offers, so he decided to attend Division II Chadron State in Chadron, Nebraska, where long-time NFL vet Don Beebe played college ball.

As a true freshman, Woodhead stepped right in for the Eagles and instantly made an impact, rushing 284 times for 1,840 yards and 25 touchdowns, also catching 16 passes for 162 yards and two scores.

As a sophomore, he had 278 carries for 1,769 yards and 21 touchdowns and had 30 catches for 367 yards. In both of his first two seasons, he was nominated for the Harlon Hill Trophy–the D2 equivalent of the Heisman.

As a junior, Woodhead was unbelievable. He rushed for a record 2,756 yards on 344 carries and 34 touchdowns, averaging a crazy eight yards per carry and 212 yards per game. He caught 45 balls for 403 yards and four touchdowns.
Woodhead won the Harlon Hill Trophy in 2006, while leading his team to a 12-1 record.

In his senior season, Danny had 250 carries for 1,597 yards and 21 TDs. He won the Harlon Hill Trophy for the second year in a row and once again led the Eagles to a 12-1 record. Some NFL scouts projected Woodhead to be a second-day pick in the 2008 draft, but he went undrafted.

After the draft, on the night of April 27, the Jets signed him to a rookie free agent deal. In July 2008, he was carried off the field with a left knee injury. He was placed on injured reserve and missed the entire season. After surgery and rehab, Woodhead returned to the field in 2009. In the Jets’ last 2009 preseason game against the Eagles, he ran the ball 18 times for 158 yards and two TDs, solidifying his roster spot for the regular season. Appearing in 10 games, he ran 36 times for 178 yards, scored two rushing TDs, and caught 8 balls for 87 yards.

This year, Woodhead gained notoriety by appearing on HBO’s Hard Knocks, where cameras followed the Jets throughout training camp. He was one of the last players to make the roster, but head coach Rex Ryan really seemed to like what he could do on the field. The Jets release Woodhead on Tuesday, September 14, a day after their 10-9 Monday Night loss to the Ravens in Week 1. Four days later, the New England Patriots signed him to a one-year deal.

Since then, Woodhead has stepped in for the injured Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk and is contributing nicely to the Tom Brady-led offense. In his first game for the Patriots on September 26, he ran the ball three times for 42 yards; including a 22-yard TD run in the second quarter to give New England a 14-13 lead. The Pats went on to a 38-30 victory over the Bills and were just discovering that they had found a nice replacement for the injured veteran running backs. In his second game with the Patriots—in front of a Monday Night Football crowd—Woodhead carried the ball eight times for 36 yards. The lone reception was an 11-yard touchdown from Brady in the 3rd quarter, helping his team pull away from the Dolphins. In a key AFC match-up with the Ravens on October 17, Woodhead had a career game. He carried the ball 11 times for a team-high 63 yards rushing and also caught five balls for 52 yards in a 23-20 overtime win. The following week, he contributed with multiple runs and catches in a 23-20 win over the Chargers. This past Sunday, he scored a TD in the second quarter against the Vikings on the Patriots’ way to a 28-18 win.

In just five games with New England, Woodhead has already racked up more rushes, catches, yards and touchdowns than he did in 10 games last year with the Jets. He is filling in nicely for a franchise that has a knack for finding talent to make them contenders year in and year out. The Patriots are 5-0 with Woodhead on the field this season.

I was able to chat with Danny Woodhead in Tony, WI where he was helping out his friend Jim Leonhard at his annual football camp on June 23. Here is what we talked about:

Jordan Hagedorn: Coming out of high school, you weren’t highly recruited, talk about playing at a D II school and that journey.
Danny Woodhead: Any journey like that is going to be a long journey. There were a lot of people that doubted me, but that’s just something that comes with being smaller and not the prototype, but it was a whirlwind, both high school and college. I was tremendously blessed with the people around me, whether it be the coaches or players that were there. I was given great opportunities and I just did what I could and I was very, very blessed to be able to set the record and go through all of the stuff that came along with that. Then obviously getting a chance in the NFL, it wasn’t the most ideal way to do it, but nonetheless I think it really helped me out doing it the way I did it. Now that I’m in the NFL, no matter where I’m at I will never get comfortable, I’ll always work hard.

Talk about the obstacles you overcame to get to the NFL.
I don’t think there were any obstacles physically, maybe the people doubting you can drain you mentally but that type of stuff doesn’t bother me. It’s just going out there to prove the important people wrong, but I never felt like I was at a disadvantage for being smaller.

Who were your biggest influences growing up?
I think it’d probably be my dad and my older brother. Those were two influences that were around me just because I was playing with my brother I always had to work harder. I’d play pick up games with my brother and his friends and my dad was a coach so I always wanted to impress him. Other than that, in the NFL, I was always a Barry Sanders guy. Barry Sanders was the guy that I looked up to. He wasn’t very big and he showed people what he could do.

Any advice for people looking to play sports at a high level?
Working hard is something that you can decide to do. It’s not your choice to be 6 foot or 5 foot 8. That’s not up to you. With whatever talent you have, you always have the choice of working hard to make yourself a better player on your own. That’s definitely what I did. I worked hard and I never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do it. I still remember freshman year of high school people said I couldn’t play running back and then it worked out for me.

What are you looking forward to this season?
I look forward to competing this year and getting better. I am just looking to help the team in any way I can.

What is your favorite food?
I’m a burger and fries guy.

What are some of your favorite movies?
All comedies. I’m a big Will Ferrell guy.

What kinds of music do you like?
I’m random. I list to a lot of country. I listen to Christian music, I listen to rap and rock. There’s not one, just depends on the mood I’m in.

What do you like to do when you’re not playing football?
Golf. I love golfing. Other than spending time with my wife, I love golfing. That’s my hobby.

After talking to Danny about his journey and life a little bit, he told me about how he grew up with Eastbay. He said he’d always grab his cleats and gear from us when he was younger. Being a fellow Midwestern kid, we could both relate, as we remember getting the Eastbay catalog and checking out the website. He also talked about helping out at Jim Leonhard’s football camp in Tony, WI. He looked at it as a way for the players to give back and help the younger kids. For three days, he, Leonhard and several other coaches taught fundamental football to give the kids a good base.

There’s no doubt that Woodhead will continue to work hard and take advantage of every opportunity he gets on the football field. He and the Patriots look to continue their winnings ways as they travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns this Sunday.

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