"If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere."
— Frank Sinatra, "New York, New York"
In a few short months, Danny Woodhead has gone from small-town celebrity to just another guy trying to making it in the city of dreams. The former star running back from Chadron State in Nebraska who just completed his second minicamp with the Jets is definitely out of the spotlight as he chases his pro dreams.
"People noticed who I was because Chadron wasn't that big [2,711 students] anyways. You are going to notice some things — not just me but the football team," Woodhead said last week following a team workout. "But I guess people noticed, but I'm fine in any circumstance. I'm not going to be a headline guy. I'm fine. I'm just coming out here and working hard."
On this day, there is one reporter with Woodhead. Only steps away, there are 15-20 members of the media surrounding TE Chris Baker as he expresses displeasure in his contract situation. The contrast is stark.
Woodhead, listed at just 5'7" and 195 pounds, hasn't been overburdened by his media schedule. Many times he isn't noticed off the field, and the man known for his speed can disappear rather quickly. And if you don't have your eyes open, a big lineman's shadow might push Woodhead further into obscurity.
"I'm feeling pretty good. Everything's fast, that's the thing," he said with a laugh. "The linebackers are fast — everyone. You just have to go out there and do your best and that's what I'm trying to do."
It's simple, straight talk from a Midwesterner. Woodhead, a North Platte, Neb., native, is anything but pretentious. When asked if he had any expectations prior to coming to the Jets, he offers a clear response.
"It's not something I compared at all," he said. "It's new to me — everything's new."
After rushing for more yards than any other player in NCAA history, Woodhead was not drafted. The quick-footed back, who totaled 7,962 yards on the ground at Division II Chadron, had ESPN cameras at his house on day two of April's draft.
"I Just Wanted to Get a Chance"
Woodhead was not among the 252 selections, although the sports network did catch a glimpse of Woodhead on his cellphone in the waning moments of its draft coverage.
Nobody at home knew it at the time but Woodhead was speaking to Jets head coach Eric Mangini. Woodhead reached agreement with the Green & White that evening and became a member of their 10-person rookie free agent class.
"It was pretty crazy to have the cameras and stuff but it wasn't something that bothered me. Honestly it didn't bother me not getting drafted," Woodhead said. "I just wanted to get a chance and I'm getting that chance now, and that's all I could ask for on that day."
During practice, Woodhead's offensive participation has been limited. The names ahead of him on the depth chart include Jones, Washington, Chatman and Smith.
"You have to watch them, especially when you're a rookie coming in, because you're not going to get a lot of reps. Anything I can do to learn from those guys is going to help me," he said. "All the running backs have really helped out us young guys."
In drills, Woodhead displays the swiftness and elusiveness that brought him to New York. When training camp commences late next month, you'll be able to see more when the team practices with pads and the punishment of two-a-days challenges the body.
To make a run at a roster spot, Woodhead will have to make a dent on special teams. He received a decent amount of work as a punt returner in the spring.
"I'm just trying to get involved in everything and trying to learn everything instead of just one thing," he said.
As if he weren't busy enough, Woodhead is set to marry his childhood sweetheart, Stacia, in July. They've been together for eight years and they'll exchange vows back in North Platte. Stacia is taking care of most of the details back home while Woodhead, who doesn't yet know how many will be attending the wedding, gives the NFL a try.
"She is a good girl," he said. "She is keeping that in line, so I don't have to do much."
Woodhead Fans Keep in Touch
Beyond Stacia and his family, Woodhead has a large following. For the past couple of weeks he has been the most searched name on newyorkjets.com, and the emails inquiring about the small-school phenomenon have poured in from all over. But he is most beloved in his native state.
"There have been people trying to find out and it's cool that the home state is still trying to keep in touch," he said. "Nebraska has been my home for the first 23 years of my life, so it's definitely still close to me."
Woodhead, though, doesn't trace back to his collegiate accomplishments. Despite averaging 180.9 yards per college contest and owning 13 school and nine NCAA records, he is taking a professional approach to his Broadway audition.
"Some of the guys razz me about it but that's not something I look at too much," he said. "I'm not concerned with what I did in college because honestly, now when you look at it, college doesn't really mean anything. It's a new league."
One of the most ironic things about Woodhead is his voice actually sounds a touch like Wayne Chrebet's familiar ring. Fans loved Chrebet, an undrafted free agent from Hofstra who went on to become one of the greatest receivers in team history, for his resolve and courage. They clung to him because he was theirs and a No. 80 jersey represented something more than a player — it became a symbol of an "I can do it" movement.
Woodhead is still moving around rather freely in New York. You wouldn't recognize him on the street even though there are many people throughout the nation who know of him and root for him.
"They definitely feel that maybe I'm the underdog, but I'm just another football player. I don't see myself as an underdog — I see myself as one of these 84-some guys or whatever," he said. "There is nothing, I don't think, that makes me the underdog. I'm just going to come out here and work hard. Some people might think it, but I'm just another guy."