As Ring of Honor comes, Darren Woodson still wonders what if

IRVING, Texas -- When he played, Darren Woodson would sneak a peek on the names along the facade at Texas Stadium -- Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach, Mel Renfro, Lee Roy Jordan -- and wonder what it would be like to see his name next to those.

Texas Stadium is long gone, but on Sunday at AT&T Stadium, Woodson's name will be added to the Dallas Cowboys' Ring of Honor.

"I'd see those guys around town and I knew they were some of the Cowboys greats," Woodson said. "To be up there and have my name next to those guys is huge. I played the game for a couple of reasons: The passion and love I had for the game but it was also wanting to represent the star in a certain way. I came into the league and got spoiled. In 1992 and '93, Super Bowl champs. I took a lot of pride in that organization through the good times and the bad times."

Through all of the good times with three Super Bowl wins, five Pro Bowl picks, four All-Pro selections and becoming the franchise's all-time leading tackler, Woodson can't help but look back and wonder if there could have been more.

He last played in 2003 but his career came to an official end in 2004.

After a long flight back from broadcasting a game in NFL Europe, Woodson went from the airport to the Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility for a workout.

"It was a light workout," Woodson said, remembering it like yesterday. "Some snatch and cleans and leg presses. And then I felt it. I felt a twinge in my back and over the entire offseason it progressively worse. I remember we were doing the conditioning test, myself and 10 other guys. It was the week before training camp and we run 22 110s and it felt like someone shot me."

He had surgery and was supposed to miss six to eight weeks but he never fully recovered.

"I think it was November or December and I just knew that mentally I was checked out," Woodson said. "I wasn't going to play that year and emotionally I felt like, ‘Well, this was my 13th year,' and I just made the decision to walk away from the game."

It wasn't about making more tackles, earning another All-Pro honor or going to another Pro Bowl. It was about winning. And it was about winning with Bill Parcells as coach.

After three straight 5-11 seasons, Woodson was tired of everything. But Parcells changed it all. Woodson could see it changing.

"He was starting to get the personnel he wanted and I wanted to be a part of it," Woodson said. "I was part of three Super Bowls but I wanted four, five and six. I was greedy. I knew Parcells could possibly take me to the promise land."

Parcells first saw Woodson in 1992 when he was working for NBC. He was at Valley Ranch watching a practice with Jimmy Johnson before they played the Seattle Seahawks.

"So I'm watching practice and I see Emmitt [Smith] and Michael Irvin and [Jay] Novacek but there's this guy over there on the side, kind of a good looking kid, running around, doing a lot," Parcells remembered. "I said, ‘Jimmy, who's that?' He said, ‘Oh, that's a kid from Arizona State. He's a linebacker we're trying to make a safety.' That's when I first got interested."

When Parcells returned to coaching the following year, he kept Woodson in his mind never knowing he would ever get to coach him. In 2003 he came out of retirement again, this time to coach the Cowboys and they surprised everybody by making the playoffs that year.

"You know how the Packers are moving this Clay Matthews around because he's like Mr. Fix-It?" Parcells said. "He can do a lot of things. Well, on the perimeter of the defense, that's what Darren was like. He could do pretty much everything."

In 2006 Parcells attempted to coax Woodson out of retirement.

"I told him I was all the way checked out, I'm done," Woodson said. "I was at a different time in my life. I had 10 or 12 surgeries over my career and I just got to the point, man, enough is enough."

Perhaps it's fitting Woodson will be honored when the Cowboys play against the Seahawks Sunday. That was the first game Parcells saw him play in person in 1992. Ten years later against the Seahawks, on the same day Emmitt Smith became the NFL's all-time leading rusher, Woodson became the Cowboys' all-time leading tackler.

"I just had him for a short time with him but I'm certainly grateful for that," Parcells said. "I really liked the guy. It was easy to have a vision for the player because he was so versatile. I'm happy for him. He deserves to be where he's going. You know, he never got an overly amount of publicity but for defensive coaches, who have a trained eye -- and there's a few of them around -- guys like this are very special."