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Woodyard defies the odds

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

He waited, and hoped, and was ultimately disappointed.

There were more than 250 players selected during the 2008 NFL draft, and LaGrange High graduate Wesley Woodyard was not one of them.

Despite starting for four seasons at the University of Kentucky where he was an all-SEC linebacker, the seven rounds of the 2008 draft came and went without Woodyard’s name being called.

Considering Woodyard has completed 12 seasons in the NFL and has outlasted nearly every one of the players who was selected in the 2008 draft, he has proven a lot of teams wrong.

Woodyard signed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2008, and he made the team and ended up playing in every game that season.

That was the start of an ultra-successful career that has brought Woodyard plenty of individual and team success, and he’s still going strong.

After completing his sixth season with the Tennessee Titans Woodyard became a free agent, and he’s exploring his options for the 2020 season.

Whatever happens this season and perhaps beyond, it has been a phenomenal career for Woodyard, who is a prime example of why draft position isn’t the ultimate arbiter of what a player will achieve in the NFL.

There were 34 linebackers selected in the 2008 draft, and none of them are still playing, and most of them had brief and below-average careers.

Woodyard, who wasn’t drafted, has nearly 1,000 career tackles and has played in at least 14 regular-season games in 11 of his 12 years in the league.

“The draft is just the starting point,” Woodyard said during an interview last week on the Jim Rome show. “Obviously your first, second, and third-rounders, they’re going to be slated in over other guys just because of where they were drafted at. That’s part of the business. Those guys that are part of those later rounds or weren’t drafted, remember that. Remember those guys who got drafted before you so you can use that as fuel, and go compete against those guys. At the end of the day, I wanted to outlast all those guys and continue to keep going.”

Woodyard’s journey to gridiron greatness began in Troup County, first on the recreation football fields, and later at LaGrange High where he developed into an all-state player who led the Grangers to a state championship in 2003.

Woodyard then headed to the Blue Grass State to play for the Kentucky Wildcats, and he helped transform that program from a doormat into one that could compete with the best teams in the SEC.

Despite the success he had at Kentucky, where he started 42 games, had nearly 400 career tackles and was a first-team all-SEC player, Woodyard wasn’t drafted.

That Woodyard didn’t let that derail him wasn’t the least bit surprising to his head coach at LaGrange High, Steve Pardue.

“All that’s just a credit to him, and the kind of person he is, and the perseverance he’s shown,” Pardue said. “He was obviously disappointed when he wasn’t drafted, but instead of pouting about it or sulking, he took at as a chip on his shoulder, used it as motivation to make it, and prove people wrong. I think he’s always played that way, his whole career. He’s kept that edge about him. That’s why he’s been such a phenomenal player.”

Donnie Branch, LaGrange High’s long-time defensive coordinator, believes one of Woodyard’s strength is his consistency, and his ability to elevate those around him.

“I always tell our players, baseball, football, whatever, a leader is somebody who does their job over and over, and they make everyone around them better, and that’s what he does,” Branch said. “He makes everybody around him better. He did it at LaGrange, he went to Kentucky and he did it. He’s just a winner. He’s a competitor, and he’s a team guy. He just makes everybody around him better, and I guarantee he does it with the Tennessee Titans.”

Woodyard wasn’t an overnight success at LaGrange High. It wasn’t until his senior season, in fact, that he developed into an elite, game-changing type player.

Woodyard was the Class AAAA defensive player of the year, and he led the Grangers to a 14-1 record and a state championship.

Pardue didn’t begin pushing Woodyard as a recruit until he was into his senior season.

“At the time, recruiting was really starting to change, and people were offering early, and I was scared to send out his junior film, because I was afraid people would turn him down and not look at him,” Pardue said. “I told somebody I know I’m going to wait until the first of the year after the first two or three games, and I’m going to send you film, and you make a decision whether you want to recruit him or not. I thought he was going to be a late bloomer. Sure enough, he started out that senior year on fire. I sent out that tape, and he started getting offers.”

One of those offers was from Kentucky, and after making an official visit, Woodyard decided to make a commitment.

“I said is there any place you would go over Kentucky if they were to offer you, and he said no sir,” Pardue recalls. “So I said if you feel that way, you need to go ahead and commit. It was the best thing he ever did.”

Woodyard made an instant impact at Kentucky and was a first-team member of the all-SEC freshman team.

Woodyard led the Wildcats in tackles the next three seasons, and he was a first-team all-SEC player as a junior and a senior while leading the team to back-to-back victories in the Music City Bowl.

Despite his impressive credentials, no NFL team felt he was worthy of a draft pick, so Woodyard’s NFL journey began when he signed his free-agent deal with the Broncos.

While the odds of an undrafted free agent succeeding in the NFL are long, Branch didn’t question Woodyard’s chances.

“I knew he was going to make it,” Branch said. “I would have been shocked had he not made it. I knew when he got his chance he was going to do what he always does. He was going to do his job, and make everybody around him better.”

Woodyard made the Broncos’ 53-man roster, and he played in every game in 2008 and had 55 tackles and was a key special-teams player.

Woodyard remained with Denver for six seasons and developed into one of the team’s best defensive players, and he played in the Super Bowl in 2014.

Woodyard signed with Tennessee as a free agent in 2014, and he has been a consistent, reliable player for the Titans for six seasons. Woodyard led the Titans in tackles in 2017 and 2018, and he helped the team reach the AFC championship game last year.

“Honestly, I’ve had the craziest football career,” Woodyard said. “Every year it’s different challenges. I always tell people, on all my football teams, I’ve never been the most talented guy. I’ve never been the best athlete, but I’ve always been the hardest worker, one of the most dependable (players), and at the end of the day I was the best football player. You may have been a better athlete than me, but I always wanted to go out there and showcase those leadership skills. Every day you’ve got to come to work and be the same guy. I think the bigger thing about football is, it taught me the lesson that if you want to be successful in a game, you have to play a team sport, and you need your teammates beside you, and I need my teammates beside me to be great.”

Woodyard’s role changed last season.

A full-time starter since 2012, Woodyard came off the bench in 2019, but he was still a valuable player and finished with 42 tackles.

Woodyard also continued to be a team leader, and he showed that after an ugly 16-0 loss at Denver that dropped Tennessee to 2-4.

“I think that was the turning point in our season,” Woodyard said. “We got beat in Denver, and I challenged our coach and (general manager) to have a team meeting. Let’s watch the film and critique ourselves, and our coaches were all on board, and to me that was one of those slap in the face wake-up moments for our team, and from there, we didn’t look back.”

Tennessee earned a playoff spot with a 9-7 regular-season record, and it stunned New England and Baltimore in the playoffs to reach the AFC championship game before losing to Kansas City 35-24.

“We believed in each other, we kept fighting, we kept pushing,” Woodyard said. “We were 10 points away and a couple of yards away from making it to the Super Bowl, but it was an amazing, great season. Nobody really gave us a chance, but we knew were a pretty good team. We just had to go out there every week and show it. That’s the thing about the playoffs. All it takes is one week, one Sunday, or one Saturday. All you need is one shot, and we were able to get in there and almost go to the Super Bowl.”

While Woodyard doesn’t know what his immediate future holds, he’s working hard to make sure he’s ready.

Woodyard will be 34-years-old when a new season begins, but he feels better than ever from a physical standpoint.

“I’m training, and I’m trying to be in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” Woodyard said. “I’m going on 34, and feeling like I’m 24, and I really think that’s the mentality that everybody has to take. They say that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. I tell them, hey, look at me, I’m learning something new each year. That’s what it’s all about, getting better every year, and I think that’s the challenge that I take every year. Whenever I come into a new season, I don’t even remember the season before. I try to improve on the upcoming season. This year I’m challenging myself to get my core game stronger, to get those little muscles firing, to be in better shape than I’ve ever been in my career. It’s go time. Going into year 13, I’m super-pumped, ready to be excited, and I have a clean bill of health and I’m ready to go compete.”

For Woodyard, the impressive numbers are just part of the story.

Woodyard has been a team leader throughout his playing life, and he has elected as a team captain every season in the NFL.

Four times during his 12 seasons in the NFL, Woodyard has been his team’s nominee for the Walton Payton Man of the Year award, and he has also been heavily involved in charitable causes through his 16Ways Foundation.

“He’s a great player, and the biggest thing he does is, whatever room he walks in, he makes it better,” Donnie Branch said. “That’s the magic to Wesley. He has charisma like you wouldn’t believe. He could get elected to an office in Kentucky.”

Pardue has remained close with Woodyard over the years, and he’s gone to a handful of Tennessee games over the years.

“I think since his senior year of high school, he’s been a captain every year,” Pardue said. “He’s had a great run. I’ve been awful proud of him.”

Woodyard’s career has reached the home stretch, and whatever he chooses to do with the next stage of his life, Pardue has no doubt he’ll be successful.

“He’s going to be good at whatever he does, and he’ll be there early and stay there late and make folks better,” Pardue said.

Branch also knows that Woodyard, wherever life takes him, will always be there for his hometown.

“He’s never forgotten where he’s from,” Branch said. “He’s got his foundation, and he’s been generous with that. It’s hard to top him. He’s the total package as a player, and a person.”