Charles Woodson sailed into Oakland in 1998, a fascinating bundle of talent and energy, playing fast and living faster. He was famous, newly wealthy in the land of temptation. He partied hard, sometimes without regard for professional obligation.
Young Charles lived to dance along the edge of the cliff. Why not? It was fun. What could be better than inventing new angles from which to burn the proverbial candle?
All the while, C-Wood was a premier cornerback and the best pure football player on the most accomplished Raiders teams since the 1980s.
The Woodson that rejoined the Raiders on May 22, after seven seasons in Green Bay, is 36 years old and has moved to free safety. He brings instincts and ball skills, as well as grown-man wisdom and focus as sharp as an arrow's tip. He plays smart, lives smarter. His is among the most dramatic maturation processes in recent sports history.
And, still, at an age when most have faded, he's the best pure player on the roster.
"His quickness is still there, and I still see his love of the game," says Willie Brown, the Raiders Hall of Famer who has known Woodson since '98 and speaks with him often. "I wouldn't be surprised if Charles makes All-Pro this year at free safety. All we have to do is put a pretty good defense in front of him and let him go."
The root of Woodson's maturation is Charles himself. He was bright enough to acknowledge the cracks in his personal mirror and cast his eyes within -- and strong enough to respond in a way that has set an example for the jock living on the edge.
Woodson always has accepted responsibility, no matter how it reflected upon him. He had won the Heisman Trophy at Michigan -- the first primarily defensive player to do so -- and was drafted fourth overall by Oakland. He was an instant celebrity and embraced the life that came with it.
He was arrested in 2000 for DUI in Michigan. He was arrested in 2004 for refusing to get out of a woman's car at 4:20 a.m. He missed at least one curfew, resulting in suspension, and he was infamous for daydreaming or snoozing during meetings. Teammates were left to wonder if he was hung over or just indifferent to commitment.
Meanwhile, the Raiders reached the playoffs in three consecutive seasons (2000-02), and C-Wood went to four consecutive Pro Bowls (1998-01).
Such success only contributed to Woodson's belief that his active night life did not and would not impede his play. When so many talented athletes were falling over the cliff -- including former Raiders teammates Barret Robbins, Andre Rison and Darrell Russell -- Charles was having it both ways.
"I was kind of wild," says Woodson, whose primary road dogs were Charlie Garner and Rison. "I enjoyed myself as a young man. I was moving 100 miles per hour -- on and off the field. I was young, had plenty of money. I was here with a great group of guys, and a lot of us ran fast. We had fun, but we put it down when we got on the field.
"That part of it has slowed down a great deal."
The turnaround began in 2006, when the Raiders allowed him to test free agency and Woodson was greeted with funereal silence. With a history of injuries and a poor work ethic, Woodson at age 29 was perceived as damaged goods.
Pause. Reflect for a minute and consider how great Woodson was despite himself. How fantastic might he be if he truly applied himself?
Staring into the abyss and vowing rededication, Woodson finally received an offer. It came from the Packers. The Packers! Why on earth would Charles Woodson take his talents to the league's smallest and most isolated outpost?
After initial reluctance, Woodson signed with Green Bay not because he wanted to be there but because it was May and, frankly, there was no other reasonable option.
"I would say Green Bay was great for Charles," says Nnamdi Asomugha, who spent three seasons as Woodson's teammate in Oakland and still is a close friend.
Feeling dismissed and perhaps sensing he had cheated himself, Woodson eventually immersed himself in football. He studied film, listened to his coaches, made a concerted effort to tap every drop of his vast potential.
Raising his bar and that of those around him, Charles became a true leader. He also improved as a player, earning four more Pro Bowl selections and being honored in 2009 as the Defensive Player of the Year. Woodson the following season was the driving force behind Green Bay's Super Bowl championship.
"It worked out," Woodson says now. "I talk about how I slowed down, well, I moved to an environment that was that way. Green Bay is a blue-collar community, and it's all about the Packers. I was able to go there, slow down and focus on the game."
Woodson not only dived into football but also became a more responsible citizen. He made a $2 million donation to a Children and Women's hospital at his alma mater in 2009. Friends credit his joy to familial bonds; Charles and his wife, April, have two young sons, Charles Jr. and Chase.
"When you have a lot of money and you're single, you can do a lot of wild and crazy things -- which he did," Brown says of Woodson. "He had millions in his pocket, and he had a good time. Having two kids and a good wife will slow you down."
Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, who spent two years alongside Charles in Oakland, has seen the growth and offers his amateur analysis.
"He needed to kind of get through adolescence, so to speak, while was with the Raiders," Rod Woodson says. "After he got to Green Bay, he finally matured. He matured outside of football. Before players mature on the field, they have to mature outside the field and I think he did that first, and then his play level just increased and he even got better."
Charles had gone to the brink, almost as far as Ben Roethlisberger but not nearly as far as Michael Irvin or J.R. Rider or Mike Tyson. What's remarkable is that Charles stopped, spun and flourished in midcareer. He went to Wisconsin in '06 in danger of derailing his career and left in '13 with Hall of Fame credentials and attributes worthy of adulation.
"The beauty of who Charles has become as a person is that he's so positive and happy," Asomugha says. "I talk to him all the time, and he's so encouraging. That's what you want from a leader, from a guy you looked at as a mentor and a guy you have so much respect for a lot of things he has done."
Woodson's last few years in Oakland, with the team spiraling down after the Super Bowl loss in February 2003, were filled with frustration. His arrival this year is nothing less than refreshing. And very, very welcome.
"I just continue to fall in love with the game," Woodson says. "As a young player, I never looked this far ahead. I never thought about how long I was going to play."
Season No. 16 is on the horizon. Woodson has a $1.8 million one-year contract that, with incentives, could reach $4 million. He also has the respect and confidence of those around him, from general manager Reggie McKenzie (who was with the Packers when Woodson signed there) to coach Dennis Allen to his teammates.
"When he comes out here and practices, he gives his all," strong safety Tyvon Branch says. "For the young guys to see a guy like him, somebody who has played a trillion and eight years getting after it, it just rubs off on them."
Playmaking leadership is what the Raiders want and need -- and hope they get -- from Woodson. It's his specialty. He stood at the cliff and came back to tap himself and his teammates, to be there for those who need him and those who might themselves someday dance along the edge.
Chicago (1-1) at Raiders (1-1), 7 p.m. TV TBD
The Charles woodson file
Position: Free safety
Drafted: 1998, first round (fourth overall)
Teams: Raiders 1998-2005; Green Bay 2006-2012
Games started: 203
Int. return for TD: 11
1998 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year; 2009 AP Defensive Player of the Year.
Pro Bowls: 8 (1998-2001; 2008-11)
First-team All-Pro: 3 ('99, '09, '11)