It was a year ago, hours before the final game of the 2018 preseason, when Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Antwaun Woods could finally exhale, if only briefly.
Sitting at the hotel bar in Houston taking shots with defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and linebacker Jaylon Smith was certain evidence that the former undrafted, thrice-cut, undersized and overlooked nose tackle had finally made it.
Woods was told by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli that he didn’t have to play in preseason finale. He would be preserved for the season opener like the rest of the starters.
It was a surreal moment for Woods even though he had started the entire preseason and all of training, he has been disappointed before.
“I had been through that and was still cut,” Woods recalled. “The fact that he told me that, it was like damn, I really made it this time. I still couldn’t believe it. It’s crazy how much has changed in a year.”
Woods, heading to his second season as a starter, spent much of Thursday on social media giving away tickets to fans for the preseason finale against against Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium, a game he will be sitting out again.
Woods finally feels somewhat secure in his place as an NFL player but the spirit of his journey will never leave him and he will never rest.
“Personally I will never be comfortable because I understand how this business works,” Woods said. “I have been on the bad side of things as well. I experienced the good side of things this past year. I will never be comfortable. I know what can happen in this business. I am trying to stay humble and remain level headed. I am confident in myself as far as my abilities.I will never be comfortable.”
Woods’ history says it all.
After an All-America career in high school at Los Angeles Taft, Woods got a scholarship to hometown-dream school USC and became a four-year starter, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors as a senior.
Yet, on draft day in 2016, he wasn’t selected.
At 6-foot, 318 pounds, he was considered too short by NFL standards. He lacked the ideal measurables.
He signed with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent, bounced off and on their practice squad for the next two seasons, playing in just one game.
“It started off when I was undrafted coming out of college,” Woods said. “That did something to me. To this day, that still bothers me. I keep that in the back of mind. I wasn’t drafted and didn’t get the chance everybody got, then being on the practice squad for two years. I feel like I shouldn’t have been. It really bothered. It had me questioning myself. Was it really for me?
I knew if I had another set of eyes another opportunity I would make it work. I am happy it worked out here, sooner than later.”
Woods admittedly thought about quitting the game, even telling his wife that this business might not be for him.
“I play football because you able to compete and outwork somebody,” Woods said. “I am always going to be real confident because I feel I can outwork anybody. But when I was doing that and I wasn’t able to get the reward for it, getting cut and being on practice squad, it was doing something to me mentally. I ended up getting a great opportunity running into Rod Marinelli.”
Marinelli knew Woods through former USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, the current head coach at LSU. Orgeron recruited Woods and coached him his first two years at USC.
When Woods was finally released in May of 2018 by the Titans, largely because of a poor scheme fit in the 3-4, he was scooped up by Marinelli and the Cowboys.
Woods opened training camp on the fourth string, made his presence known with a fight against Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick early on and was sitting with Lawrence and Smith as a rested starter by the final preseason game.
Woods lost weight as Marinelli told him not to eat his way out of the league.
But working hard and being committed was never an issue.
“The difference were a front office and a coaching staff believing in me, starting with Marinelli,” Woods said. “He saw how I worked, he didn’t care how short I was. He saw me play good and make plays. And I’m one of the smartest in the room. I play a certain way, I play hard and that’s all that matters.”
Said Marinelli: “He has been really good. He has got talent. Sometimes the talent gets overlooked cause he is 5-11, 6 foot or whatever. It just doesn’t matter to me. He has got great feet and great bend. He is tenacious and smart and disciplined.”
Players across the league are heading into the final preseason game and dreading the cuts to come over the next few days, possibly questioning themselves and their futures in the NFL.
Marinelli and coach Jason Garrett said Woods is a perfect example of not letting it be the end of the story.
“Absolutely anytime you have guys on your football team who have taken a circuitous route and they’ve earned their spot and role because of what they’ve done, by merit,” Garrett said. “It’s a meritocracy. That’s a good thing for your team and he’s a great example of that. A little bit undersized, a little bit overlooked but if you watch him in practice last year and you say, ‘Wow let’s give him a chance.’ We gave him a chance and he took advantage of it. That’s a great example to show the rest of your team that it doesn’t matter where you come from. We’re going to evaluate what you do now and he’s done a really good job since he’s been here.”
From taking shots with Lawrence and Smith to passing out tickets to fans, Woods hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
He plans on doing everything he can to stay here.
Or as he likes to say, ‘don’t blink.’