The Dallas Cowboys’ hallowed Ring of Honor is where Darren Woodson belongs.
But the Pro Football Hall of Fame is his destiny. That should be his ultimate reward.
Keep that in mind amid the excitement, joy and happiness as Woodson is officially enshrined as the 21st member of the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor at halftime of Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Woodson is the first inductee since 2011, when Drew Pearson, Larry Allen and Charles Haley went in together.
“It’s an unbelievable honor,” Woodson said. “It’s the place I always wanted to be when I joined the Cowboys as a rookie.
“I remember looking up in that old stadium and looking at the rafters and seeing ... these big names. That’s greatness. That’s being special. That’s laying it on the line for the organization. I’ve always dreamt of this day. It’s been 20-something years, but it’s finally here.”
Woodson went from a largely unheralded second-round pick out of Arizona State in 1992 to become one of the greatest players and statesmen the franchise has ever seen.
Woodson played his entire career with the Cowboys from 1992-2003, finishing as the franchise’s all-time leading tackler with 1,350. He was a member of three Super Bowl teams in 1992, 1993 and 1995, earning five Pro Bowl selections and three All-Pro honors.
There was no better competitor and leader on the field, and no better role model off it.
“I just think he is one of the most well-respected players I’ve ever been around in my career — in this organization or any other organization,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who was Woodson’s teammate from 1993-99. “The respect he had from his coaches and from his teammates was as high as anybody I’ve seen. It had a lot to do with the kind of person he was.
“He’s a great example who didn’t say a whole hell of a lot, but his passion and enthusiasm for the game was overwhelming. Certainly one of the best players and probably the best safety of his generation in the National Football League.”
Roughly 12 years after his retirement, Woodson remains as gentlemanly as ever off the field. But there is still a fire that burns inside, one that yearns for the respect and appreciation that often missed him during his career.
Being inducted in the Ring of Honor is a start. But Woodson has a desire to reach the Hall of Fame.
That fire helped him overcome the struggles of being a Prop 48 qualifier out of high school when he signed with Arizona State and to become a starter with the Cowboys after being labeled as just a special teams player and nickel safety as a rookie by then-coach Jimmy Johnson.
“I think about it all the time when I see guys going in,” Woodson said. “When I look at my career and the guys I played with and played against, there ain’t a Hall of Famer I couldn’t have played with.
“But if you are asking me, it’s like me coming in my first year asking me if I should be starting? I say, ‘Hell, yeah!’ It’s like asking if I belong in the Ring of Honor? ‘Hell, yeah!’ So should I be in the Hall of Fame? ‘Hell, yeah!’ But that decision is not up to me. That’s every football player’s ultimate goal. It would be icing on the cake.”
Woodson was a first-time finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2015. He is again on the ballot in 2016 as a modern-era nominee.
The list will be trimmed to 25 semifinalists in November and to 15 finalists in January.
It’s tough for safeties to get into the Hall of Fame, as only seven pure safeties have ever been inducted.
He is also a victim of the attention given to the Cowboys’ offense throughout his career. The famed Triplets — quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin, all in the Hall of Fame — received most of the hype during those Super Bowl years.
And when people talked about the defense, it was usually about defensive end Charles Haley or cornerback Deion Sanders. Haley was inducted into the Hall in 2015. Sanders joined in 2011.
But the defense was just as responsible for those titles and the designation as team of the decade for the 1990s, finishing first, 10th and ninth in yards allowed during the three title seasons.
Nobody embodied that overlooked, overshadowed and underappreciated unit more than Woodson.
“You don’t win the whole thing without playoff defense,” said former Cowboys coach Dave Campo, who turned Woodson from a college linebacker into an NFL safety as defensive backs coach in 1992. “He probably epitomized that unit. He was not a guy that looked for a lot of publicity. But he was a great player and fierce competitor. He was every bit as important to the team of the 90s as anybody on the football team.”
Another aspect that caused Woodson to be overshadowed was his ability to cover receivers in the slot.
Teams yearn for that in today’s pass-happy league.
At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Woodson could hit and play the run as well as any safety in the league. But his 4.3 speed in the 40 coming out of college allowed the Cowboys to use him as a nickel cornerback to cover receivers on passing downs.
Unlike traditional safeties who stood in the middle of the field and piled up interceptions, Woodson found himself covering players such as Hall of Famer Jerry Rice man-to-man in the slot. For that reason, he has just 23 interceptions in his career, but 11 sacks.
He was also a full-time special teams player throughout his career with more than 100 tackles on punts and kickoffs.
Consider Super Bowl XXVIII in the 1993 season, when safety James Washington had a near-MVP performance with a 46-yard fumble return for a touchdown, an interception, a forced fumble and 11 tackles.
He was only in the game as the traditional strong safety because Woodson was playing the slot against the Buffalo Bills’ no-huddle attack. Most teams would have had an extra cornerback playing the slot and left Woodson at safety to make the hits.
But most teams didn’t have Woodson.
“He was the best safety in football,” said former Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith, who broke into the league with Woodson in 1992 and was his roommate on the road for nine years. “He was able to cover the slot. He played special teams. He didn’t have to come out of the game.
“You talk to coaches and the so-called offensive gurus or any of the guys we played against, they know what Darren Woodson meant to the Cowboys. You can’t get a guy like that.”
Now that he’s in the Ring of Honor, his next stop should be the Hall of Fame.
Cowboys vs. Seahawks
3:25 p.m. Sunday
TV/Radio: KDFW/4, KRLD/105.3 FM, KMVK/107.5 FM (Sp.)
Line: SEA by 4 1/2
Cowboys in the Ring of Honor
Darren Woodson will become the 21st member of the Dallas Cowboys’ Ring of Honor during halftime of Sunday’s game against Seattle at AT&T Stadium in Arlington:
Troy Aikman, QB, 2005
Larry Allen, OL, 2011
Tony Dorsett, RB, 1994
Charles Haley, DE, 2011
Cliff Harris, S, 2004
Bob Hayes, WR, 2001
Chuck Howley, LB, 1977
Michael Irvin, WR, 2005
Lee Roy Jordan, LB, 1989
Tom Landry, Coach, 1993
Bob Lilly, DT, 1975
Don Meredith, QB, 1976
Drew Pearson, WR, 2011
Don Perkins, RB, 1976
Mel Renfro, DB, 1981
Tex Schramm, Pres./GM, 2003
Emmitt Smith, RB, 2005
Roger Staubach, QB, 1983
Randy White, DT, 1994
Darren Woodson, S, 2015
Rayfield Wright, OT, 2004