By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer
If you ask Willie Wood, Jr. about what it was like growing up with a Pro Football Hall of Fame dad, he would often quip that it wasn’t any different from a child who had an influential father figure in his life.
“The only difference was that when he’d invite his friends over they were named Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke or Elijah Pitts,” he remembered fondly.
Wood, a D.C. sports legend who played for five NFL championship teams, including the first two Green Bay Packers Super Bowl victors, passed away Feb. 3 from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 83 years old.
The former Armstrong High School graduate was one of the early game changers in the National Football League as a safety with great speed. He was converted after making history as the first Black quarterback in what was then known as the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12).
Wood was one of the all-time great players in the storied college program at the University of Southern California. During the 1959 season he started at quarterback, was a place kicker, and played defensive back. He led the Trojans to an 8-2 record while starting under center, yet went undrafted by an NFL team.
Wood marketed himself by writing letters to NFL teams to gauge their interest. However, only three teams – the New York Giants, the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay – gave him a tryout. Vince Lombardi, the legendary Packers coach, who the Super Bowl winners trophy is named after, was the only one courageous enough to give Wood a chance. For the next 12 years he was the rock in the secondary for the team that became the standard by which all dynasties are judged.
In the first AFL/NFL Championship Game (known as Super Bowl I), Wood is remembered for making the play that swung the tide in the Packers direction. His third quarter interception with the Kansas City Chiefs driving off fellow Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson was returned to the five-yard line, which changed the momentum of the contest. Pitts scored on the next play and the Green Bay went on to win the game 35-10 during the inaugural postseason battle between the dueling professional leagues.
After retiring in 1971 he was an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers before making history four years later.
In 1975, Wood became pro football’s first Black head coach after leading the Philadelphia Bell of the fledgling World Football League. After that league went bankrupt, he went north of the border to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, it’s first African American head coach.
Once the NFL turned its back on giving Wood the chance to be a head coach or coordinator, he became a successful businessman in D.C. as the proprietor of a mechanical contracting company that he ran until 2001. By then, however, the wear of a grueling NFL career began showing its effects, as he started suffering the early onset of dementia, which has become the fate of many players from his era, leading to his death.