When one looks back on the defensive backfield for the Green Bay Packers for a number of years in the 1960s, they would have seen three players who were primarily offensive players in college.
Cornerbacks Herb Adderley and Bob Jeter were running backs at Michigan State and Iowa respectively, while safety Willie Wood was a quarterback at USC.
It was truly amazing that the coaching staff was able to see that their talents would help the Packers a lot more on the defensive side of the ball.
When it was all said and done, the three defensive backs combined for 115 interceptions with the Packers, with 11 of them run back for touchdowns.
Between Adderley, Jeter and Wood, the three were named first team All-Pro 10 times and went to 15 Pro Bowls.
Not bad for a couple of running backs and a quarterback in college.
At least Adderley and Jeter were drafted, as both were high draft picks for the Packers.
Wood was not drafted at all in 1960 and he sent out postcards to teams asking for a tryout. Luckily the Packers brought him in and No. 24 made the team.
Willie learned the craft of safety from a future Hall of Famer named Emlen Tunnell.
One of the first trades that Vince Lombardi made in 1959 was to bring Tunnell over to the Packers from the New York Giants, where Lombardi had been an assistant coach from 1954 though 1958.
Wood sat on the bench in 1960, but by 1961 was a starter. Wood had five interceptions that season for the Packers, plus led the NFL in punt returns with a 16.1 average and two touchdowns.
It was the start of a great career for Wood with the Packers, as he ended up with 48 career interceptions (two for touchdowns), plus was the primary punt returner for the team as well.
Wood was named first-team All-Pro five times and was also named to eight Pro Bowls. No. 24 was also named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1960s.
Wood was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989, after being a finalist nine times prior to that.
Sounds a lot like Jerry Kramer, who was also a finalist nine times from 1974 through 1987. Like Wood, Kramer certainly has earned a bust in Canton with his play on the football field. Unlike Wood, Kramer has not yet been enshrined for some puzzling reason.
Speaking of Kramer, I had an opportunity to talk to No. 64 recently about Mr. Wood.
Kramer talked about the meetings that the offensive and defensive units would have.
In one room, Lombardi would run the offensive meeting and he would do his fair share of yelling and screaming as he kept running the film over and over again pointing out the flaws of a given play.
While this was going on, Kramer would often hear laughter coming from the room where the defense was meeting with assistant coach Phil Bengtson.
Kramer talked about a conversation he had with linebacker Ray Nitschke about the differences between the two meetings.
“I told Ray that I wish you guys could change rooms with us one day and let Lombardi chew your ass,” Kramer said. “Ray said, ‘We don’t have anything like that, but I hate the look I get from Wood after I miss a tackle on film. Willie has mean eyes. If you miss a tackle, Willie will look at you with really mean eyes.’
Kramer continued to talk about No. 24 and what he meant to the Packers.
“Willie was a tremendous competitor,” Kramer said. “Wood was a real knowledgeable ball player. Because he was a quarterback at USC, he was much more aware of the offensive patterns that would be coming at him as a safety.
“I think it’s a similar situation with Randall Cobb today. Randall is a sensational receiver and I think a large part of that was because he was a quarterback at Kentucky for awhile. He understands the mind of a quarterback. So did Willie.
“So Willie was very knowledgeable player, plus he hit you with every ounce of energy he had. He could really bring it. Willie was known for really whaling guys. And because he was such a good athlete, he was always in the proper position at the proper speed to really deliver a blow.
“Willie was just a wonderful ball player. He would surprise some people because he wasn’t that big (5’10”, 190 pounds). But he had great physical ability, as he could dunk a football over the crossbar of the goal post.”
Kramer then talked about the throwing contests that Wood and Nitschke would have, as they both had played quarterback at some point in their football careers.
“Willie and Ray would get in a passing contest,” Kramer said. “They would both throw the ball in the 80-yard neighborhood. Wood would throw it maybe 80 and Nitschke would throw it around 85 yards. Both had incredible arms.”
Wood played on five NFL title teams with the Packers, including the first two Super Bowl winners. It was Wood who made the game-changing play in Super Bowl I, when the Packers were clinging to a 14-10 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs early in the third quarter.
Wood picked off an errant Len Dawson pass and went 50 yards downfield to set up a five-yard touchdown run by Elijah Pitts, as the Packers went on to win by a very comfortable 35-10 margin to win the very first Super Bowl.
No. 24 played a key role in that victory.