Former DII star shines in NFL
All-time NCAA rushing leader gaining fans in professional game
CHADRON, Neb. -- It’s a safe bet to say Danny Woodhead is bigger now.
No, he hasn’t grown an inch to his well-debated height of 5-foot-9 or added any weight to his sturdy 195-pound frame. However, one thing is certain: he’s becoming an NFL star for the New England Patriots.
From appearances on HBO’s Hard Knocks in the preseason to nationally syndicated radio shows and even selling sporting goods in New England in between, Woodhead became a media darling in 2010. That doesn’t even include what he did on the field for the Patriots, who ended the season with an NFL best 14-2 record.
Woodhead, a two-time Harlon Hill Trophy winner at Division II Chadron State and owner of about as many school records as his current jersey number of 39, enjoyed his finest year as a professional athlete. The 26-year-old running back rushed for 547 yards, averaging 5.68 yards a carry to set a Patriots record.
He also had 379 receiving yards on 34 catches and scored six touchdowns while helping lead New England to the AFC East division title.
“When I look back at the season, the first word that comes to mind is whirlwind,” said Woodhead, who was signed by the Patriots on Sept. 18. “It was crazy how things were.
"I went from being with the Jets, to being cut and then signing with the Patriots in a few days. Everything about the year was crazy. It was an awesome opportunity but the whole thing happened so fast. To be able to get the chance was obviously awesome. I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
Making the best of his opportunity may be an understatement.
Woodhead was with the Jets for three seasons but played in only 13 games. He almost had as many special teams tackles (seven) as he did rushing attempts (15), and he didn't get to show off his skills until he joined the Patriots.
It didn’t take long for him to make an impression in New England.
He started his first career game for the Pats after having been with the team for just eight days. He made his presence known to the fans when he scored his first career touchdown on a 22-yard run in the second quarter.
Woodhead, who was recently named to the USA Today All-Joe team, found the end zone five more times on the season and set highs in every statistical category, yet the humble ball carrier from North Platte, Neb., was hard pressed to find a defining moment of 2010.
“There wasn’t one moment,” he said. “I just have the opportunity to play football for my job. To me, there are a lot of different things and moments that are great to be part of. It’s awesome to be able to do that and you just have to take advantage of that. I’m confident in what I can do, but I don’t think I’m arrogant. I have the abilities and anyone who plays in the NFL has to think that way.”
He’s also taking advantage of being a fixture on a team that includes the current NFL MVP Tom Brady and three-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Belichick.
To Woodhead, the two men who dominate headlines year round are simply his coach and his quarterback.
“I wasn’t star-struck,” he said. “But it is Tom Brady and he’s going to be a Hall of Famer, but you learn that everyone is there to go to work. I try to approach every day like that and just do my job. If you’re standing around looking, you’re not doing your job. The main thing for me to do there was play running back and special teams to the best of my abilities.
“It’s a great opportunity to play for a coach like (Belichick). He’s one of the best at what he does. I just try to learn as much as I can from both of them. There are a lot of other great players too. This team is great because no one is too cool for anyone. Hopefully, it’s fun for everyone and that continues.”
The Patriots wrapped up their fourth 14-win season in team history in 2010 and had eight players elected to the Pro Bowl. But success is nothing new at New England: the Patriots are the only team in the NFL to have recorded nine or more wins in each of the last 10 seasons.
That winning tradition could continue to grow since the Pats have nine selections in the upcoming draft, including four picks in the first two rounds.
Woodhead, who is signed with the team through 2012, is eager to see what’s in store.
“I’m excited for next season,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I just want to get better at everything I do. The season is a long process and everyone has a goal of winning the Super Bowl. I just want to help the team win as many games as we can. I do enjoy being with New England and I want to be there as long as I can. I just want to try to get better every single year and do the best I can with what I have.”
Although Woodhead seems to have found a home in New England, he’s quick to acknowledge where he came from. In large part due to his demeanor and never quit attitude, many people in the Husker state now follow the Patriots.
“It’s really neat how people have supported me. I haven’t seen it first-hand because I’m obviously in the northeast, but I’ve heard through my parents and my friends and family that there’s a lot of support,” he said. “I appreciate that more than anything. Nebraska will always be my home.”