Danny Woodhead looked up at the scoreboard on Oct. 25, 2009, and saw his New York Jets on top of the Oakland Raiders by a score of 38–0. It was the end of his first NFL regular-season game, during which he rushed the ball three times for 24 yards.
That game was just the beginning of what would become a successful NFL career for the 5-foot, 7-inch, 197-pound running back. But Woodhead’s football story really began several years earlier in Nebraska.
Deemed too small for collegiate football success, Woodhead did not have any Division I offers coming out of North Platte High School. Instead, he attended a football summer camp at Chadron State -- a Division II school in Chadron, Neb.
“That was when they offered me a full ride to go to school there,” Woodhead said. “I’d already known the coaches because my brother went to school there, and just the family history of being in Chadron, it was a place I felt comfortable. It was a place I knew I wanted to go.”
In its 96-year history, Chadron had never awarded a full athletics scholarship. But Woodhead soon proved that he deserved to be the first recipient.
As a true freshman in 2004, Woodhead led all Division II players in rushing yards (1,840 total; 184 per game), all-purpose yards (2,087 total; 208.7 per game), and points scored (27 touchdowns; 16.2 per game). He was also named the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s Offensive Freshman of the Year. And he only got more impressive.
In his sophomore season, Woodhead earned consensus All-America honors and was named the RMAC Running Back and Offensive Player of the Year. The following year, he set an all-divisions single-season rushing record with 2,756 yards. He also set Division II records with his 3,159 all-purpose yards, 228 points scored and 34 rushing touchdowns.
By the end of his senior season, Woodhead had scored in 37 consecutive games and rushed for more than 200 yards in 19 games, both of which are all-divisions records. He had also racked up 7,962 career rushing yards, which is the second-highest total in Division II history, and compiled a Division II-record 9,480 all-purpose yards. In addition, Woodhead became just the sixth Division II player to rush for at least 1,000 yards in four seasons and the second player in collegiate history to score more than 100 career touchdowns (109). His final scoring total tallied an impressive 654 points.Woodhead’s extraordinary on-the-field performances earned him Harlon Hill Trophy nominations in all four of his collegiate seasons.
“”I was very fortunate to win it twice, my junior and senior year,” Woodhead said. “That’s something that goes back to the team also. I would have never had those statistics if it weren’t for my team.”
His accomplishments also made him an obvious RMAC representative on the Division II 40th Anniversary Tribute Team being honored this year.
Woodhead graduated from Chadron in 2008 with a degree in math education. He did not receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine, so he had to rely on his pro day to impress NFL scouts. His 40-yard dash times of 4.33 and 4.38 seconds would have made him the second-fastest running back at the combine. In addition, he would have recorded the best 60-yard shuttle time, the best pro-agility time (4.03 seconds), and the second-best vertical jump height (38.5 inches).
Despite those results, Woodhead went undrafted. But just moments before the conclusion of the draft, he signed an undrafted rookie free agent contract with the New York Jets.
“When he got to camp with the Jets, I’m sure they were amazed at his desire and his intensity,” said Brad Smith, Woodhead’s former head football coach at Chadron. “Plus, he’s so extremely quick and fast and maneuverable, and extremely intelligent.”
After injuring his knee in a preseason practice, Woodhead spent his entire rookie year on injured reserve. He began the following season on the Jets’ practice squad, but he finally got his chance to play about halfway through the year. He was switched from running back to wide receiver and signed to the active roster after a couple of key injuries to starting receivers.
The Jets released Woodhead in 2010, but the New England Patriots immediately scooped him up. In his first career start and first appearance with the Patriots, Woodhead scored a 22-yard rushing touchdown -- his first touchdown in the NFL. That season, he went on to rush for 547 yards and averaged 5.68 yards per carry, which set a new Patriots record. He also scored six touchdowns and caught 34 passes for 379 yards, helping his team win the AFC East title.
The Patriots signed Woodhead to a two-year contract extension, during which time the team played its way to Super Bowl XLVI. In the championship game, Woodhead caught a pass for a touchdown to tie the game, but New England ultimately lost the game to the New York Giants.
After his contract with the Patriots expired, Woodhead signed a new deal with the San Diego Chargers.
“I’m extremely excited about the fact that he’s entered a new career with the San Diego Chargers,” Smith said. “He’ll be successful there.”
Ronnie Brown, a running back with the Chargers, agreed.
“Danny has a tremendous work ethic,” Brown said. “I think it says a lot about him the way that he’s been able to be successful in this league coming from Division II football. People are going to have a hard time keeping up with him and figuring out where he’s going to be and where he’s going to line up. I think he’s going to have a big impact on this football team.”
Woodhead may have new teammates these days, but the players he lined up with at Chadron are still on his side.
“As far as following Danny in the NFL, I follow him every week,” said Joe McClain, the quarterback who played with Woodhead at Chadron. “I try to keep up with him as much as possible. It’s really cool just seeing him out there, knowing that I was standing next to him.”
Smith elaborated on McClain’s sentiment and explained the Division II experience as a whole.
“Division II’s 40-year history is very special to all of us that have been involved in the division over time,” Smith said. “Division II offers kids the opportunity to not only be athletes but to be students. The student-athlete that Division II represents is something that we all are very proud of.”
Woodhead includes himself in that group.
“I’m so fortunate to be playing in the NFL,” Woodhead said. “But when my NFL days are over, I do have that degree to fall back on. I definitely say without Division II and Division II football, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at today. It’s an awesome thing to celebrate.”