Woodhead gives heart, soul to dream

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- You're too small. You'll never make it in the NFL.

No one ever dared to say it exactly like that, directly to Danny Woodhead. Yet Woodhead has heard it all his life.

The generously listed 5-foot-9, 195-pound running back wasn't recruited by a Division I school. He set the NCAA rushing record at Chadron State. When the New York Jets gave him a shot, signing him as a free agent after the 2008 draft, Woodhead sustained a torn ACL early in training camp.

Thanks for trying, kid.

But Woodhead doesn't know how to abandon a dream he was so close to realizing. With the help of his wife, Stacia, he rehabbed from the injury and, unlike draft picks in his own class, hasn't ever been cut by the Jets.

"I think I was probably one of the only ones who thought I could," Woodhead said of playing in the NFL.

Woodhead may have been a long shot, but after three training camps, he has outlasted most of the UFAs from that class, and a draft pick or two.

"He's just got guts and heart," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He's short. It's funny, but literally if he were five inches taller, there's no telling what this guy would be. But he's not. He's still got God-given gifts and talents and he makes the most of them."

Ryan even moved Woodhead to receiver last season. Woodhead, now listed as a running back, pulled in five passes for 41 yards Monday night in the first preseason game against the New York Giants.

"The thing that's helped him, he knows this offense as good as anybody," said Jets tight end Dustin Keller, who came into the NFL with Woodhead. "He's been a receiver for us, running back, does a lot of special teams. All the coaches are confident they can put him anywhere on the field and know that he'll do a good job."

Ryan knows he will get every ounce of effort out of Woodhead, who serves as an example. How can a more physically gifted player slack on effort knowing how hard Woodhead has had to work to keep that No. 27 on his chest?

"It's just the fact that you know that everyone doesn't think you can do it," Woodhead said. "You think that bothers me? No. But do you think I'm still going to try to prove you wrong? Yeah."

Jets safety Jim Leonhard -- who at 5-foot-8 and 188 pounds is another player whose size has caused others to underestimate him -- has a lot of respect for Woodhead.

"He's a good football player," Leonhard said. "He doesn't necessarily look the part, but the biggest thing is he understands the game of football, he doesn't make mistakes and he makes plays."

Woodhead is also a golfer, and his competitiveness has made him one of the sharpest golfers on the team. Keller, who likes to play but doesn't consider it his forte, gives Woodhead his space on the course.

"I don't want to play with him because it makes you feel that much more terrible about your skills," Keller said.

Growing up in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, Woodhead learned to play on that unlikely and beautiful terrain. As much as he loves it, he is hoping to maintain his hold in the Northeast.

"You never know what to think as a player," Woodhead said. "I hope I'm doing things right at each of the spots. That's all I can control and hopefully that's enough."

Jane McManus is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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