PITTSBURGH - Rod Woodson did everything an NFL player supposedly shouldn't do to begin his career.
The former Purdue star defensive back missed training camp his rookie season with Pittsburgh in 1987. He held out until midseason before signing. While away from the sport, he didn't train for football but instead ran European track as a hurdler.
A normal player's career might have been set back for several years by such an experience. Instead, the rest of the NFL spent many of the next 17 seasons trying to catch up to Woodson.
'Rod was probably the best athlete I've seen in the NFL,' said former Steelers teammate Tunch Ilkin, a longtime NFL radio and TV analyst. 'He could rush the passer as a blitzer and come up with multiple sacks, and he could make a pick and go coast to coast with it. He was just phenomenal, with a tremendous work ethic. He'd play a great game on Sunday, and he'd be running sprints on the treadmill on Monday.'
Woodson, a world-class athlete who played multiple sports and, once he got to the NFL, multiple positions, enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first season of eligibility as one of the best cornerbacks in league history.
One of the best safeties, too.
Woodson, best known for his 10 seasons with the Steelers from 1987-96, made the Pro Bowl 11 times - a record for a defensive back. The 1993 defensive player of the year owns NFL records with 12 interceptions returned for touchdowns and 1,483 yards on interception returns, even though his 71 career interceptions were only third-best. He also returned kicks early in his career.
His speed was exceptional - he was second to former sprinter Darrell Green in the 1998 NFL fastest-man competition - but it was his all-around ability and competitiveness that helped him to return to playing even after reconstructive knee surgery in 1995.
Injured while trying to tackle the Lions' Barry Sanders on artificial turf, Woodson was told he needed a year to recover. He insisted he could play again in months, even if no one in NFL history had returned from a torn ACL in the same season.
Woodson did, playing part-time in the Super Bowl against Dallas four months after getting hurt. He had no apparent problems a season later, making six interceptions and scoring twice on defense.
'All that credit for that goes to (coach) Bill Cowher,' said Woodson, who now works as an NFL Network analyst and leads a campaign to educate men about prostate cancer. 'I can't imagine a coach today doing that, having enough respect for a player to keep a roster spot open all season.'
Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount was so dominant on the Steelers' four Super Bowl-winning teams of the 1970s that he forced the NFL to rewrite its rulebook. The Steelers figured they'd never have a cornerback like him again, only to get one a few years later in the 6-foot Woodson, who played - by today's standards - at a slender 200 pounds.
'He was the modern-day evolution of Mel Blount,' former teammate Craig Wolfley said.