Woodson reflects about entering HOF

As Rod Woodson goes down the list of those joining him in this year's Pro Football Hall of Fame class of inductees, the former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back stops to reflect when he reaches one name.

"Derrick Thomas and the tragedy that happened to him," said Woodson, referring to the former Kansas City Chiefs' pass-rushing linebacker whose career was cut short in February 2000, when he died following a car accident. "I wish he was still here to go in with."

It would've been something to see. For as fiercely as Thomas played the game, registering the most sacks of any player in the 1990s, he also was known for his outgoing personality off the field, and for being one of the most charismatic athletes of his generation.

And his trademark grin -- the one that could light up a place as big as Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio -- will be fondly remembered Saturday, when Thomas is inducted along with Woodson, defensive end Bruce Smith, offensive tackle Randall McDaniel, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and receiver Bob Hayes, who also will be enshrined posthumously after he died in 2002 at age 59.

It's the type of setting Thomas would've truly enjoyed.

"You're watching him and, all of a sudden, this big, broad smile breaks out," former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "Derrick would have this grin come across his face. He looked like the cat that ate the canary."

That consumed canary was usually an opposing quarterback.

Selected by Kansas City with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1989 draft out of Alabama, Thomas accomplished plenty during an 11-year career. In becoming a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, Thomas still holds the NFL record for most sacks in a game, seven, and his 126½ sacks rank fourth among linebackers.

"He was like a running back rushing the passer, but he also had enough power to overpower you," said Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who coached Thomas in Kansas City. "That combination is hard to find."

Thomas is part of a Hall of Fame class that's brimming with defensive stalwarts who dominated their respective positions during the 1990s.

There's Smith, who in 19 seasons with Buffalo and Washington, registered a league-record 200 sacks and played a pivotal role in helping the Bills make a still-unmatched four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s.

And then there's Woodson, who like Smith, enters the Hall in his first year of eligibility.

Woodson was a triple-threat during a 17-year career, in which he excelled at cornerback, safety and returning kickoffs.

"The old saying in work and sports: The more you can do, the longer they will keep you around," Woodson said. "I took the challenge, and most people who take the challenge can be versatile in their field."

But this good?

The NFL's defensive player of the year in 1993, Woodson was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection and, at the time of his retirement in 2003, held the career record for most interception return yards (1,483), most interceptions returned for touchdowns (12) and tied for first for most fumbles recovered in a game (three). He led the NFL in interceptions in 1999 and 2002 and kickoff return yards in 1989.

Woodson appeared in three Super Bowls with three different teams -- Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Oakland -- and won one with the Ravens in 2001.

"He was the modern-day evolution of Mel Blount," former teammate Craig Wolfley said, comparing Woodson to Blount, another Hall-of-Fame Steelers defensive back. "He was like what Mel would have been like in a more modern era -- big, physical, playing with a linebacker's attitude, but he was playing corner."

Hayes, who earned the nickname "The Bullet," helped revolutionize the receiver position during an 11-year career -- the first 10 in Dallas, and one in San Francisco -- that ended in 1975. A star track athlete who won two gold medals at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Hayes used his speed to his advantage on the football field.

His 71 career touchdown catches remain a Cowboys' record.

McDaniel was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection during a 14-year career, most of it spent with Minnesota, where he used an unorthodox stance to anchor an offensive line that surrendered one sack for every 22.7 pass attempts in 1994.

Wilson is being inducted for his influence in helping build the NFL. One of the old American Football League's original owners, he established the Bills in 1959 and was a driving force in the AFL-NFL merger.

It will be a Bills bash of a weekend in Canton, with Smith and Wilson being inducted, and Buffalo playing Tennessee in the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday.

Chicken wings and Terrell Owens' debut in a Bills uniform aside, the weekend's most poignant moment is expected to come when Thomas is inducted.

Cunningham will have difficulty holding back his emotions. His son, Adam, was so close to Thomas that he had the player's number, 58, tattooed on his shoulder.

"That relationship was personal and it was deep. He was that way with my family. When he passed away, for two years I broke down every time I thought about it, about how unfair it was," Cunningham said.

And yet, there are also fond memories, which showed Thomas' playful side.

"Sometimes during the season, it would be very, very late, and I'd be in my office and the phone would ring," Cunningham said. "It would be Derrick. He'd say, 'Gun, go home and get some sleep. Don't worry. We'll win.'"