The Green Bay Packers’ agile, lissome safety, Willie Wood, snatched the wobbly pass thrown by the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback, Len Dawson, and zigzagged to the doorstep of the Chiefs’ end zone, setting up an easy Packers touchdown. Green Bay never looked back in a 25-point rout of Kansas City in the first Super Bowl.
Wood’s interception is one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history.
Fifty football seasons later, Dawson, who played 19 years of pro football, recalls it well.
“Maybe the No. 1 play I wish I could have back,” he said.
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Wood remembers nothing of the play.
He does not even recollect playing in the first Super Bowl, on Jan. 15, 1967, or ever being on an NFL roster.
Wood, who spends most of his time in a wheelchair, has been at an assisted living center in his hometown, Washington, for the last nine years, first for physical woes – debilitating neck, hip and knee operations – and later because dementia robbed him of many cognitive functions.
Nonetheless, Wood, 79, likes to wear a green Packers cap most days now as he sits in his sunny room listening to jazz and 1950s doo-wop. Wordlessly and impassively, he will point to the logo on the cap as if he knows it has some shadowy meaning in his life. But specifics elude him.
When asked about various photographs on the walls next to him – pictures of his wedding or the day in 1989 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Wood stares vacantly.
“Do you remember going into the Hall of Fame, Willie?” Dee Dee Daniels, an assistant living coordinator at the center where Wood lives, asked one morning last month.
Wood cast his eyes downward and shook his head side to side: no.
“You were the best of the best,” Daniels said.
Wood, who sometimes goes days without speaking, suddenly looked up, his eyes glistening as he raised an eyebrow as if to say, “I was?”
Dawson earned a spot in the Hall of Fame, too, and has spent much of the last five decades as an award-winning national and Kansas City-based television and radio broadcaster. At 80, he is a Midwest sports institution.
As fluent as he is, Dawson, who has not seen Wood since 1967, grew quiet when the conversation turned to the troubles of his football peers.
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“I’ve got teammates who have some problems like Willie Wood,” he said. “I think maybe from concussions and things like that. It’s, well, it’s a rough game.”
“They all have problems, particularly the offensive and defensive linemen,” Dawson said. “I’ve been lucky. The game has been good to me.”
Linked forever by a celebrated, pivotal play, Dawson and Wood are like parallel stories, a parable for what a half-century of the NFL has wrought, good and bad.
On the one hand, the game bestowed on Dawson celebrity and opportunities he fashioned into a prosperous second career. On the other hand, Wood, although he enjoyed a happy postfootball life as a middle-class small-business man, now appears to be permanently paying the consequences of a violent game.
“That was the steal of the game,” Vince Lombardi, the Packers’ coach, said later of Wood’s interception against Dawson. “Willie Wood at his finest.”
The Packers were nervous and jumpy to begin the first Super Bowl. That was Lombardi’s fault – he had made it plain that defeat would be an unfathomable blow to the NFL’s pride. The sure-handed Wood exemplified the tension of the first half when he dropped an easy potential interception.
Though barely 5 feet 10 inches, William Verneli Wood could easily dunk a basketball, and at a wiry 175 pounds, he excelled in football at Armstrong High, a historic school in northwest Washington whose graduates included Duke Ellington.
Raised by a single mother, Wood grew up in a dodgy neighborhood before he left for the University of Southern California, where in the mid-1950s he was the first African-American quarterback in the Pacific Coast Conference. He also played safety and was the kicker. Still, when he left USC, Wood went undrafted.
Undaunted, he wrote to NFL teams requesting a tryout. Only Lombardi answered, but he shifted Wood to free safety, a position that required the field awareness of a quarterback.
There were only a few African-Americans on the Packers, which made assimilating in nearly all-white Green Bay a discomforting challenge at times.
Wood’s older son, Andre, recalled last week that it was a running joke in the family that whenever he left the house, people in Green Bay would try to guess whose child he must be – since he had to be the offspring of a Packer.
“They’d ask: Willie Davis? Willie Wood?” Andre said.
With an easy smile and a harmonious disposition, Wood was popular with teammates, but he was also known as a fierce, devastating hitter who repeatedly flipped Cleveland’s powerful, 230-pound Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown with crushing tackles at the knees.
Wood never missed a game in 12 Packers seasons, made the Pro Bowl eight times, intercepted 48 passes and inspired his teammates with his tenacity and football acumen.
Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2008 that the team’s snarling, ferocious middle linebacker Ray Nitschke used to say he was not scared of Lombardi.
“He said he was scared of Willie,” Kramer said. “Nitschke said he hated to miss a tackle because Willie would give him this withering look.”
When Wood retired after the 1971 season as a five-time NFL champion, coaching seemed like a natural next step, and he went to work on the staff of the San Diego Chargers.
By 1975, he took a head coaching job with the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League, which was in its second season. He was considered the first African-American head coach in pro football’s modern era, but the WFL folded midway through that season.
Wood then ended up with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, first as an assistant and then as the head coach in 1980.
The first black coach in the history of the CFL, he quickly set about remaking the Argonauts’ roster, trading for a new quarterback, running back, linemen and defensive backs. But the Argonauts did not jell immediately. When the team was sold in 1981, the new owner looked at Wood’s 6-20 record and fired him.
Wood, who was then in his mid-40s, inquired about NFL jobs as a defensive coordinator. He was told he was too young. For lesser assistant coaching jobs, the message was that he was considered too old.
There were not many African-American assistant coaches in the league. It would be another seven years before the Oakland Raiders hired Art Shell to integrate the NFL head coach fraternity.
Wood told friends he was getting tired of being a football trailblazer. Besides, he had a family to support. In addition to his sons, Wood has a daughter, LaJuane.
So Wood instead went to school to study heating, air-conditioning and other construction-related skills. He got his contractor’s license in Washington and Maryland and opened his own business, Wood Mechanical Systems.
The Woods lived in a cheery house on a bluff in northwest Washington, where the only thing missing from the family’s homey living room was a bust from the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the mantel. Several of Wood’s teammates had been enshrined many years earlier.
Willie did not talk about it or lobby for it. But his wife, Sheila, did. She had lived in Green Bay in the 1960s, attending all the games, and knew how central her husband was to the team’s championships.
In 1988, Sheila Wood died unexpectedly of heart failure. The next year, Willie was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The timing was heartbreaking, but at least he felt connected to the game again. He was side-by-side with his contemporaries.
“The thing is, my dad never wanted to leave football,” Andre said. “He needed a stable way to make a living. But I know he would have stayed in the NFL coaching track had he been asked to. But he wasn’t.”
There were two busts made of his image in 1989. One is in Canton, Ohio, in the Hall of Fame.
The other now rests on a mantel in Willie Wood’s house, where his son Willie Jr. and his wife now reside.
Chiefs tight end Fred Arbanas was the intended target of the most famous pass in the first Super Bowl.
“I had beat Willie Wood with an inside head fake,” Arbanas said last week. “I turned to the outside and knew Lenny would get the ball there. Lenny is the most dependable person in the world.”
Arbanas turned his head quickly to receive the pass, but it was several feet behind him.
“The only thing I saw after that was the bottom of Willie’s cleats running away from me,” Arbanas said. “It’s kind of a recurring nightmare.”
It was nearly a miracle that Arbanas was playing football at all. He was left with limited vision in one eye from an attack on a Kansas City street two seasons before, but Dawson helped him retrain his brain to catch passes using his one fully working eye.
“It started with Lenny throwing passes to me from 5 feet away,” Arbanas said. “Day by day, I’d keep moving back a little bit. I had to learn certain things, like turning my head sooner to get my good eye facing the pass. But Lenny was there every day. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Raised in Alliance, Ohio, about 20 miles from Canton, Dawson was the seventh of 11 children. He was his parents’ seventh son, and his father was the seventh son of his own parents.
Folklore holds that the seventh son of a seventh son will be imbued with special, if undefined, mystical powers. Dawson has never bought it.
“I think hard work is the only way you get things accomplished,” he said.
Dawson went to Purdue, where he led the Big Ten Conference in passing for three years. He was also a free safety and kicker. He was a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers and was later traded to Cleveland, but he started only two games in five seasons. Released in 1962, he signed with the Dallas Texans of the American Football League and led them to the league championship. The next year, they relocated to Kansas City and became the Chiefs.
Known for his accuracy, he led the AFL in completion percentage in three of the next four seasons, with the franchise winning its second league championship in 1966, which earned the Chiefs a berth in the inaugural Super Bowl.
Composed under pressure, he picked up his nickname, Lenny the Cool, but it belied a dogged competitiveness.
“If you miss a block,” Chiefs guard Ed Budde said in the mid-1960s, “Len will give you a look that has a very clear message. It’s a killer look.”
In the 1966 season, the good-looking, amiable Dawson began an uncommon second job. In what was partly a publicity stunt, he started delivering the sports report on a local network television affiliate. At the end of Chiefs practices, Dawson, in uniform, would interview his teammates on camera.
“Some people thought it was unusual that I was asking my teammates questions,” Dawson said last week. “But beforehand I would also give them the answers.”
He changed in the locker room, dashed to the TV studio for the 6 o’clock news and then went home to have dinner with his wife, son and daughter. He headed back to the studio for the 10 o’clock sports report.
When Kansas City was the upset winner in the fourth Super Bowl and the Chiefs were feted as kings, Dawson’s teammates also started getting their own broadcasting gigs – radio shows and TV appearances.
“Lenny’s success opened the door for a bunch of guys,” Chiefs coach Hank Stram said.
Dawson retired from football in 1975 and stayed on the nightly news, where he was welcomed in homes throughout the handful of Midwestern states where the Chiefs are the home team. People felt he was one of them.
“Lenny took the TV cameras to high school games and other community gatherings,” said Arbanas, who served 42 years as a county legislator and still lives in the area. “He wasn’t a star sitting in a studio. He lived in a neighborhood with the firemen, police, plumbers and electricians. That’s how he became an institution.”
Dawson said, “I was just having fun.”
But there was hardship and loss.
Dawson had met his wife, Jackie, in high school, and the couple married when Len was at Purdue. In early December 1978, Len found Jackie on the floor of the shower at home. A year earlier, Jackie had a stroke, but she had been recovering well. She died at 42.
In 1977, Dawson received a call from a New York television producer who said HBO was going to start a weekly show with pro football highlights and analysis and wanted Dawson as a co-host.
“I said to the guy, ‘What’s HBO?’” Dawson said.
Dawson became a cable TV pioneer, hosting “Inside the NFL” with the former Miami linebacker Nick Buoniconti for 24 years.
Dawson continued as a local sports anchor until 2009. He remains the game-day analyst on the Chiefs’ radio network.
He remarried and has survived prostate cancer and heart bypass surgery.
A few years ago, a bridge in the Kansas City area was named after Dawson. At the unveiling ceremony, Dawson had tears in his eyes as he addressed the crowd.
“I have been called Lenny the Cool, but I am anything but cool today,” he said. “I come from a small town in Ohio, and I don’t even think we have a bridge. If we do, it’s not named after anyone. I can promise you the first time I drive over this bridge, I’m going to bring a photographer to prove to all my friends back home that this really happened.”
Willie Wood retired from his contracting job around 2001. There was now a booming memorabilia and card show market to help him supplement his income with his autograph. He also appeared at golf tournaments, which let him pal around with his former teammates, with whom he had stayed in constant contact.
But Wood’s body soon began to break down. There was cervical surgery to reduce inflammation in his neck and spinal cord. In the next two years, his right knee and right hip were replaced. Then there was another operation, to alleviate pressure on lower back nerves.
Wood believed the deterioration was most likely related to football. He had played in 176 NFL games and made thousands of tackles since high school. Wood also tended to blame the high-speed collisions he had endured as a kick returner – he returned 209 punts and kickoffs in the NFL, and more in college.
“He started to become too unhealthy to rehab from the surgeries, and as he did recover from one, there would be another one,” Willie Wood Jr. said. “And he wasn’t physically healthy enough to fly anywhere, so there went his appearances.”
Perhaps more unnerving, there were now bouts of forgetfulness – checks unmailed, appointments missed and conversations forgotten. One day, the Washington police showed up at the family’s front door. While driving in the city, Wood had become disoriented.
“We told no one about that incident; Dad didn’t want pity,” Willie Jr. said.
And he did not want anyone telling him it was all football’s fault.
“He loved what he did on the football field,” Andre said. “I never heard him say, ‘I wish I never played.’”
Doctors are unsure if his mental failings are from aging, football or both. Many former players have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease whose symptoms include dementia and erratic behavior attributed to repeated head blows, but it can be diagnosed only posthumously.
In 2007, Wood left his home to enter assisted living. In a newspaper interview shortly after the move, he said the highlight of his day was waking up in the morning. But the worst moment of his day always quickly followed.
“When I realize I'll be sitting around here the rest of the day,” Wood said.
”My dad was so proud of his Super Bowl moment, but I used to tease him about being tackled from behind on the play,” Willie Wood Jr. said.
“And his response would be, ‘Yes, but I was there.’”
Staff members at Sunrise on Connecticut Avenue, the well-appointed center where Wood now lives, said last month that there were days when he would sing along to the music playing in his room and have lengthy conversations. Many other days, he does not talk at all.
For housing expenses, his sons said, he receives about $120,000 annually from the 88 Plan, a fund for former players with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It is jointly run by the NFL and the players’ union.
“It’s difficult to not be able to talk to him,” Willie Wood Jr. said. “He was a great father. As good an athlete as he was, he was 10 times that as a father.”
Willie Jr. was asked if he had ever considered the divergent paths taken by his father and Len Dawson since they intersected for one famed football moment nearly 50 years ago.
“Is that a cultural question?” Willie Jr. said with a laugh. “The white quarterback and the black defensive back?”
He continued: “The folks that knew Dad knew he wasn’t going that route, whether culturally it was available to him or not. He wasn’t going to be a talking head on TV. Not that there’s anything wrong with what Len Dawson did. That just wasn’t my dad. He wanted to coach behind the scenes.”
Dawson, meanwhile, marvels at his postfootball life and almost apologetically wonders how he escaped serious, long-term harm.
“The fact is that whoever has the ball in football gets hit, and I had the ball on almost every play,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe that seventh son of a seventh son thing is good luck.”
At Sunday’s Super Bowl, Dawson, the star of the fourth Super Bowl, will be saluted on the field in a ceremony recognizing all most valuable players of previous Super Bowls.
Last month, Willie Wood was asked if he ever watched football on the small television in the corner of his room.
Wood stared out the large window over his bed without answering. There was a Packers calendar on the wall just beyond his gaze. From speakers connected to an iPod, a saxophone solo faintly broke the silence.
“If you had the chance to play football again, would you do it?” he was asked.
Without waiting even a beat, Wood firmly nodded.
“You liked it that much?”
He nodded again.
The conversation turned to the coming Super Bowl.
“Will you watch the Super Bowl on television, Willie?”
Willie Wood pulled his Packer cap tightly across his brow. He put both hands on the cap, shaping it dutifully.
“What do you think?” he was asked. “It’s the 50th Super Bowl – will you watch?”
The man who made the biggest play of the first Super Bowl looked up blankly and shook his head side to side: no.