William Vernell “Willie” Wood Sr. played safety for the Green Bay Packers for 12 seasons, from 1960-1971.
If teams had known Wood would end up in the NFL Hall of Fame, doubtless all of them would have selected him at their earliest opportunity – in the first round of the draft. None did. In fact, none of them selected him at all.
In other words, every team was fooled. Who they thought Wood was was not who Wood was, or at least not who he turned out to be.
The fact that he played for the team that signed him for his entire stellar career was a bonus for the team that at least belatedly realized their error of omission.
The Green Bay Packers were the team to sign him. Getting such a player without having to even spend a draft pick on him was like stealing candy from a baby – or a whole roomful of big babies.
Meaning that the other teams ended up crying in their soiled diapers when they came to realize the opportunity they let slip through their fingers.
How good was Wood? He led the league in interceptions in 1962, was an All-Pro seven times, and played in the Pro Bowl eight times. Wood was also named to the virtual all-decade team of the 1960s, and was a five-time NFL champion: back-to-back in 1961 and 1962, and an unprecedented three-peat from 1965-1967, the latter two seasons of which culminated in Super Bowl 1 and 2 victories.
He ended his career with 48 interceptions, averaging four per season.
So why did Wood “fly under the radar”? Why was his potential not obvious? Well, his college experience didn’t really help matters much. He played one year at Coalinga, and then transferred to USC in 1957, where he became the first African-American quarterback in the Pacific Coast Conference his sophomore year. He spent much of his junior and senior years injured.
So what seemed like a glaring collective blind spot suffered by all NFL teams actually comes into focus: Wood’s body of college work was limited. He was often injured. Would Wood hold up in the NFL?
Finally, it must be admitted that – as strange as it may sound today – the NFL was probably not quite ready to accept a black quarterback at the crossroads of the 1950s and 1960s.
Nevertheless, Wood did not allow his going undrafted to prevent him from pursuing his NFL dream. Perhaps aware that Packers head coach Vince Lombardi was adamantly anti-racism, Wood sent Lombardi a letter, requesting a tryout.
The request was granted, and Wood impressed. After a short time as a quarterback, Wood requested a switch to defense, and before long became a starter at safety.
So perhaps it was not so much that the Packers selected Wood, but that Wood targeted Lombardi as someone who would give him a chance.
It was a match made in Packers News, and it would be an understatement to say that it worked out fine for both parties.
Besides his work at safety, Wood also added value as a punt returner. In fact, he returned five punts for 35 yards in Super Bowl 2, including a 31-yard return.
For his career, Wood compiled over 2,000 yards returning punts and interceptions. He averaged over seven yards per punt return, scored twice returning punts, and averaged almost 15 yards per interception return, two of which were pick-sixes.
Wood scored 25 points in his career – those four touchdowns just mentioned, and the only extra-point he attempted.
Wood still holds the NFL record for consecutive starts for a safety (154). He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1977, and the NFL Hall of Fame in 1989.
Wood currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he was born in 1936.