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Woodson, Packers grow on each other

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Nancy Gay

Nancy Gay is the Senior NFL Editor at FOXSports.com. She has been covering the NFL and other major sports for more than two decades. The first female member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, Nancy also is an Associated Press All-Pro selector. She has covered 20 Super Bowls. Follow her on Twitter @nancygay.

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IRVING, Texas

Charles Woodson didn’t want to love Green Bay. Quite the opposite; he wanted to stay as far away from it as possible.

Four seasons ago, as a 31-year-old black NFL free agent with an admittedly sketchy reputation from his days with the renegade Oakland Raiders, the last place Woodson wanted to entrust his professional football career was the league’s smallest market.

More specifically, a city with a black population of only 1.4 percent and where 85.9 percent of residents are white, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

“I’d never really been to Green Bay,” Woodson admits, “and all I ever heard from people who played there was, ‘You won’t want to play there.’ I just heard it was no place for a black man. No nightlife, nothing to do, and that’s what I kept thinking about.”

Now, as a 34-year-old respected veteran and a cornerstone of the NFC Champion Packers, Woodson clearly has done an about-face. He beams with pride when he talks about leading Green Bay into Super Bowl XLV on Sunday (FOX pregame at 2 p.m. ET, game time at 6 p.m. ET) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium.

The clubs, the cops, the petulance he often carried into work every day, it's all gone. He’s a husband and father of two.

Green Bay, a town he once scorned and feared, embraced Woodson, and he has returned the favor.

“I’m a family man now,” says Woodson, who has settled down with his wife, April, and two sons, Charles Jr., 2, and Chase, born last October. “I love my life. I love it there.

“Bet you never thought you’d hear me say that, huh?”

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Four years ago? No way. Eager to leave the Raiders after eight tumultuous seasons in anything-goes Oakland, Woodson yearned for the phone to ring from Jacksonville or Tampa Bay. He waited. Nothing.

Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, was one of the NFL’s best cover cornerbacks. But he also came with some dings.

“I had a bad rap. I was a little bit of a wild child. I enjoyed myself as a young man. I guess they were tired of that,” says Woodson, who enjoyed the clubs and the women, and was arrested and jailed briefly in 2004 after a rowdy night in downtown Oakland that ended with him drunk in the back of a woman’s car at 4:20 a.m. — one block from a police substation.

“Nobody wanted to take a shot at me,” he admits. “There was talk about my game declining and not being the player that I was and that I had lost a step. All of that came into play when it came to finding another team."

Only one team kept calling. And calling.

“We called a bunch of other teams and every team we tried to contact either wasn’t interested or said they didn’t need a corner,” Woodson recalls. “For some reason Green Bay kept calling (my agent). I kept trying to blow it off, blow it off. Finally, I took a visit.”

Over time, as he sought the friendship of veteran black Packers players such as Al Harris and as he took advantage of the Packers’ extensive community relations programs, Woodson found a comfort level in Wisconsin that he never would have imagined.

Wide receiver Greg Jennings experienced a similar surreal introduction to the city and franchise that drafted him in the second round out of Western Michigan in 2006.

“The day of the draft, the No. 1 thing I said to my friend — we were coming out the same year — and I told him, ‘The one place I DO not want to end up is Green Bay,'” Jennings, 27, remembers with a huge laugh. “But God had a different plan. And it’s been great. The fans have been outstanding.”

But that first day . . .

"When I first got off the plane, it was almost like getting off the plane in the middle of nowhere,” Jennings recalls. “I think I went to Wal-Mart and I interacted with someone. And it was evident to me right away that it was a genuine sense of feeling welcome. The social life there, they really adapt to their players, they love their players and it’s genuine.

“I mean, you do stick out like a sore thumb. But at the same time, they allow you to be comfortable. They don’t really harass you.”

Black players, coaches and team employees who have been involved with the Packers over the years have long spoken about the sense of feeling typecast as footballers in a town where fewer than 100 businesses are owned by black people, according to census figures.

These stories made Green Bay sound like a no man’s land to Woodson, which is why he ignored those phone calls from general manager Ted Thompson for so long.

“That’s what I had heard, you know, from other people, and a lot of times you believe what people say before ever investigating the situation itself,” Woodson says. “That was part of the reason I didn’t want to go there.

“But it took me going to Green Bay, playing there for a few years, to really appreciate the city of Green Bay, the state of Wisconsin and the Green Bay Packers.”

The team works hard to make all of its employees, particularly those of color, feel comfortable and at home, Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy says.

“We have a player development program, and that’s been helpful. But the area that probably where we do the most is family programs, for the players and their families to feel welcome in the community,” Murphy explains. “And it’s a very welcoming community in general, and I think players particularly with young children and families like the idea of being in a smaller town.

“I think a lot of players across the NFL are from smaller towns, a lot of time from the South. And they feel very comfortable in a small town like Green Bay.”

Can a Green Bay Packer shop at the local Woodman’s Food Market and not be hassled for autographs?

“For the most part, yeah,” Jennings says. “I think that comes over time. With a guy like Charles, with a guy like myself, especially offensive guys and defensive guys at the skill positions, you are kind of pulled at a little bit more. But that just comes with the territory. That would happen anywhere.”

For Woodson, the self-proclaimed wild child, it was the captivating charm of Green Bay — the NFL’s tiniest city glorified by the legends of Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field — that eventually won him over.

The bucolic streets, the friendly neighbors, the quiet nights, the structured and successful Packers football operation . . . all of it worked to calm his restless soul.

"Charles is a very respected player on this team,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers says. “Every time there has been a vote for captains or player council, he always wins. Anytime he speaks, I think he's starting to realize he has a lot of respect in the locker room and guys listen to him. They appreciate what he has to say."

It hasn’t always been easy, Woodson concedes.

“Both myself and the community were apprehensive at first. They didn't know what they were getting from Oakland. All they knew were the things they heard about me as a person and a player,” says Woodson, the 2009 NFL defensive player of the year who was just elected to his seventh Pro Bowl. “It took both parties some time to get used to each other.

"They watched the way I played, and they fell in love with me. And at that point, we both grew on each other.”

He’s glad he picked up that phone four years ago when Green Bay persisted. And so are the Packers.

Tagged: Packers, Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings

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