Before Darren Woodson made his way to the NFL, he had a hard fought way to success before eventually becoming a three-time Super Bowl champion, a five-time Pro Bowl player and All-Pro for the Dallas Cowboys. There is one man Woodson credits for changing his life around throughout the entire process.
"Lovie Smith is a man who absolutely changed my life." Woodson said on a conference call last week.
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Woodson attended Maryvale High School and after graduating decided he would stay in his home state and attend Arizona State University, attempting to make the football team as a walk-on in 1987. Despite having the build and play of a defensive back, Woodson played outside linebacker for the Sun Devils, and earned three straight All-Conference honors while under the coaching of Lovie Smith. Smith coached the linebacker position group from 1988-91.
During one particular week at Arizona State, a teammate of Woodson was late to a class, which forced Woodson and his teammates to suffer punishment: the entire team was forced to wake up before sunrise at 4:30 the next morning and run stadiums (which is simply running north and south on the steps of a stadium).
A few days went by and the same student-athlete failed to show up for class on time again. Woodson and his teammates woke up and went to work at 4:30 a.m.
As most typical college athletes would be, Woodson and 12 teammates were fed up, so they broke out in one of the biggest fights during his time as a Sun Devil and scuffled with the player to get him to understand what he had been doing after the second strike.
The player was never late to class again that season.
"That's what he always told us - and that's the same thing he preaches now - accountability." Woodson said of Smith. "Making sure you're as one ... one guy makes a mistake, everybody pays for it. He's a coach that holds all the players accountable, but he's about discipline also, and making sure guys are on the same page. "
Before making his way to the NFL, college freshman Woodson was ruled academically ineligible in 1987 due to a combination of not meeting standardized test score requirements and poor high school grades (also referred to as Proposition 48). The next season, he played sparingly in three games, but made the team as a walk-on and earned a scholarship.
"Lovie Smith absolutely changed my mindset, changed who I was as a person, and got me to focus for the first time on my grades and my academics." Woodson said. "In my first year, everything changed as far as what was important to me, and what meant the most to me."
"He will always be a guy who I hold deep and near to my heart because he changed my life in a lot of different aspects."
In 1992, Woodson realized his life-long dream of playing in the NFL. In the second round of that year's draft, the Dallas Cowboys made him their fourth pick after previously selecting cornerback Kevin Smith, linebacker Robert Jones and wide receiver Jimmy Smith.
After Woodson had played outside linebacker for the majority of his college career, he made the switch to safety at the next level in Dallas and again credits Smith for helping make that transition a smooth one.
"He taught me one thing and it really carried on to my football career: he made me a much more versatile football player. He had me covering running backs, wide receivers, blitzing, he did a little bit of everything with me in the game plan. It really helped me transfer and make that jump to the NFL."
Woodson eventually outlasted all of his fellow 1992 draft picks on the Cowboys' roster, and was the lone player who transferred from the Jimmy Johnson era to the Bill Parcells era.
He credits a lot of that to the discipline and coaching he received from Lovie Smith, who was hired this year as Tampa Bay's head coach. And in Tampa, Woodson believes Smith's grit and toughness will help the Buccaneers improve as a team and franchise in 2014.
"I know they lost their first game, but I still think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ... I don't know how far they go this year, but I think they're on the right path as far as building that organization back up from where they were."
Before he began his NFL career, one of the first Cowboys players he met was legendary Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. At a picnic, Staubach approached Woodson and gave him a compliment by saying that one day Woodson would join the ranks of some of the greatest players to play in Dallas by joining the team's Ring of Honor.
Woodson had no idea what the Ring of Honor was.
On the first day Woodson walked into Texas Stadium, he looked up and admired the Ring of Honor first hand. Then, he finally realized it all.
After 12 seasons in the NFL, it would only be the icing on the cake for the franchises' all-time leader in tackles (1,350) to one day join that elite Ring of Honor group. It's something he still thinks about to this day.
"I think about it all the time." Woodson said.
"You talk about your proudest moments ... as far as sports are concerned, that would be my proudest moment."
If Jerry Jones decided to proceed and eventually do so, it would be well deserved.