With college football set to honor the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner this weekend, we take a look back 20 years ago, when the University of Michigan’s Charles Woodson became the only player to win the prestigious award while playing significant minutes on offense and defense since the early 1960’s, and the first primarily defensive player to ever do so.
Big Ten Icons: Charles Woodson 9
Charles Woodson is named winner of the Heisman Trophy.
Woodson was the state of Ohio’s 1997 Prep Player of the Year as a running back during his senior in 1995 at Ross High after rushing for a school-record 2,028 yards on 218 carries.
Two weeks into his freshman practices with the Wolverines in 1995, he won a starting cornerback job and led the team with five interceptions on his way to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and earning First-Team All Big Ten honors.
In addition to being one of the most exceptional defensive backs in America during his sophomore season in 1996, Michigan took advantage of his incredible skills by utilizing him on offense as a wide receiver and running back as well. He set a Wolverine record for pass breakups with 15, while on offense he caught 13 passes for 164 yards and rushed for 152 yards on six carries. For his efforts, he was named an AP First Team All-American and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as college football’s best defensive back.
Big Ten Icons: #20 – Charles Woodson
Big Ten Icons: #20 – Charles Woodson.
As a junior, he intercepted seven passes and made 43 tackles while catching 11 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown. He was also a major weapon as a punt returner. Michigan finished the regular season undefeated and with a shot at its first national title since 1949.
The Wolverines finished up with a 21-16 win over Washington State in the Rose Bowl as Michigan claimed a share of the national title.
Everyone and their mother swore that Tennessee’s Peyton Manning had the Heisman sewn up. But the optics of Woodson’s human-highlight-reel performances on both sides of the ball was too much to be ignored.
If you missed his one-handed interception in the 23-7 win over No. 15 Michigan State, go back and look at it now. The Spartans QB said he was simply trying to throw away after being pressured, but Woodson leaping interception on the sideline, one of his two picks that day, still gives one goosebumps.
Charles Woodson Interception vs Michigan State
Charles Woodson Interception vs Michigan State in 1997.
Then Michigan State and current Alabama head coach Nick Saban recently told ESPN, “I’ve been coaching for a long time in all the leagues — NFL, Big Ten and SEC — and he jumped up and made an interception that you never forget. It was one of those plays where you say, ‘How did he do that?’ He was a phenomenal player. They used him on offense, and he was phenomenal. There are only a handful of players that you play against that really make a difference in a game, and even fewer on defense, but he did. It’s harder to do on defense because you don’t have the ball in your hands, but that guy did it in a lot of different ways.”
The saying goes that big time players make big time plays in the biggest of games, and Woodson showed out when No. 4 Ohio State came to Ann Arbor to face No. 1 Michigan in one of the biggest installments of that epic rivalry series. In the Wolverines’ 20-14 win, he sizzled while setting up their only offensive touchdown with a 37-yard catch in the second quarter, scoring their second touchdown on a 78-yard punt return in the second quarter and, in the third quarter, intercepting an Ohio State pass in the end zone.
Charles Woodson vs Ohio State 1997
Michigan CB/WR/PR #2 Charles Woodson vs Ohio State in the 1987 version of The Game.
His astounding excellence on offense, defense and special teams could not be denied, and in one of the greatest class of Heisman finalists that also included Marshall’s majestic wide receiver Randy Moss, Woodson ultimately took home the hardware, making him the first two-way player in a generation to win the Heisman. And the folks in Tennessee are still mad!
Peyton Manning had the bigger name, but for a team that went undefeated and claimed a national championship, Charles Woodson had the flyest game.