- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

A half-century or so ago, D.C. native Willie Wood beat out Bob Schmidt for the starting quarterback job at Southern Cal and went on to become a Pro Football Hall of Fame free safety for Vince Lombardi’s fabled Green Bay Packers.

“But I got even with him,” Schmidt was saying the other day. “I became his lawyer.”

And his friend. At 70, Wood is enduring precarious medical and financial times these days, but Schmidt remains at his side to ease Willie’s path any way he can.

On Friday night, Wood will emerge after four months in a Maryland nursing facility to be hailed and roasted by many admirers at the Agraria Restaurant in Northwest. Said Schmidt, one of the event’s organizers: “I’m sort of being Willie’s Lombardi now — I’m pushing him to stand up and make a speech.”

Wood isn’t sure he can handle the standing part. But, he said, “if I’m sitting down and they hand me a microphone, I’ll be prepared.”

Every time you see one of those crunching hits in a football game, you should think of Willie Wood. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, he was relatively small for a safety, but for 12 seasons (1960-71) he hurled his body fearlessly at much larger men. Once, recalled former Packers teammate Tom Brown, “I even saw him flip Jim Brown [who was 6-2 and 230].”

Now, in what should be his golden years, Wood is in a wheelchair and will have his left knee replaced next week. His right knee and right hip already have gone the way of nearly all football flesh. He suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes, gout and heaven knows what else.

What price glory? Maybe we should ask him — or just about any other former football player.

Yet Willie has said he if he had to do it all over again, he would. After all, he was a Packer in the days when team pride was more than a cliche and especially on that team.

“It’s exciting, and I’m sure it will be emotional to see old friends and teammates this week,” Wood said. Yet if any of them offer sympathy, they are likely to see Willie’s smile vanish faster than a speedy receiver. He doesn’t deserve compassion. What he deserves is respect.

Younger fans surely don’t know how good Willie was. Said Brown, who patrolled the Packers’ secondary with him: “He could do it all. He was a ferocious tackler, and he could defend against the pass.”

Wood played in six NFL Championship games and eight Pro Bowls, had 48 career interceptions and returned another swipe 50 yards to set up a second-half touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I (although it wasn’t officially called that). Certainly he was a star of the first rank on those star-studded Green Bay teams that live on in memory.

Quite a few others are expected to show up here Friday night: Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Willie Davis, Dave Robinson, Jerry Kramer, Bill Curry and Boyd Dowler. Some notable ex-Redskins are expected, too: Sam Huff, Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor.

And, oh yes, Jim Brown has accepted an invitation. I doubt Willie will be able to flip the legendary Cleveland Browns running back this time — but you never know.

The matter of increased pensions for old players continues to be a hot issue for the NFL and its players association. Said Schmidt: “Willie gave his all to the NFL, and his pension is grossly inadequate [particularly considering those staggering medical expenses].”

But that’s a story and an issue for another day. On Friday evening, Willie Wood will be surrounded by friends, and all will seem right with his world. For a while anyway.

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