- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

Willie Wood limps to the door of his home in Northwest Washington. He asks a visitor to carry his cup of coffee into the living room while he negotiates the journey on crutches. It is an effort for him to settle into or struggle out of the recliner in front of the TV.

At 64, this Pro Football Hall of Famer who played a ferocious free safety on Vince Lombardi's memorable Packers teams of the '60s appears to be there's no other way to put it a physical mess.

"Well, that might be a little strong," he said with a chuckle. "But I've felt a lot better, that's for certain."

In a day when we are becoming more and more aware of football's long-range effects on the body, Wood could serve as a poster child for the sport's innate brutality. Football can be intricate, graceful, even lovely in its execution. Yet on every play, for nearly every player, there is one of two bottom lines: hit or be hit, with astounding force and potentially frightening results.

From 1960 through 1971, Wood dealt most of the hits as the marvelous defensive backfield leader of Green Bay teams that won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. Inexplicably, he wasn't admitted to Canton until 1989, more than a decade after the doors should have opened. In his living room, amid dozens of pictures and awards, sits a replica of his Hall of Fame bust. Seeing him in his current state, you wonder whether the career and honors were worth it.

Willie himself has no doubts.

"If I had it to do over, I'd do everything the same way," he said. "There's no way to get around the injuries in football you're gonna get beat up. But nobody made me play football. I chose to do it."

Wood, a widower, has four grandsons. One of them, Terry, is a cornerback at the University of Colorado. When he told his grandfather some years ago that he wanted to play football, Willie's response was immediate: "I said, 'Fine.' "

Although Wood describes himself as "very sensitive" about his condition, he recites his medical laundry list unemotionally upon request. In 1998, there was the cervical surgery to reduce inflammation in his lower neck and upper spinal cord. In '99 and '00, respectively, his right knee and right hip were replaced. This year he underwent a procedure to "clean out" his lower back and reduce pressure on the nerves. He is still recovering from that one.

Four years, four operations, much too much frustration. Nor, perhaps, is the medical record complete. Eventually, he may need to have his left knee replaced. All he can do now is limp about his house and wait.

"I won't have the other knee done unless the pain gets too severe," he said. "Right now, it's sore periodically, and no wonder. It's carrying all my weight."

Like most former athletes, Wood led an active lifestyle until recently. "But now [the injuries] have robbed me of all my activities. I haven't played golf for three years. I have trouble walking. I have no strength. But I regard this as a temporary condition. I'm going to get better. I hope to throw away my crutches in four or five months."

Or whenever.

Wood, a three-sport star at the District's old Armstrong High School in the mid-'50s, headed west to play quarterback at Southern California. He made the Packers as a rookie free agent in the 1960s imagine the odds against that nowadays and spent better than a decade being lionized in Green Bay as one of "Vince's boys." In the '70s, he tried coaching for a while as an assistant in San Diego and head man in the World Football League. In '77, he came home to D.C. and started a general contracting firm that since has closed. Now he might retrace his steps. He says he has been thinking about returning to what used to be called Titletown USA.

"I've lost my wife and my mother there's nothing really to keep me in D.C.," he said. "Besides, I still own a restaurant in Green Bay, and there are always ways to make money there. In Washington, unless you played for the Redskins, nobody cares about you."

That's not strictly true. There are people around who still remember when Wood starred for Ted McIntyre's football team and Charlie Baltimore's basketball team about the time that the D.C. public schools were integrated in the mid-'50s. And all of us should cherish a guy who refuses to complain about physical problems that would reduce many others to self-pity or worse.

"No, I'm not bitter," Willie Wood said. "It's just that I'm beginning to feel old."

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