INDIANAPOLIS — Undersized and undrafted, Danny Woodhead had two things against him when he set out on his pro career. In less than four years, the diminutive star from Division II Chadron State has made it to the pinnacle of the NFL.
The 5-foot-8, 195-pound running back has been a steady contributor to New England’s Super Bowl season. Woodhead has become an inspiration for other undersized players — proof that a small guy from a small school can make it in the NFL.
To him, it’s not all that impressive.
“I’m not too concerned with the past,” he said. “I think every day is the drive, not necessarily something in my past. I just want to get better every single day.”
Woodhead was a star running back at North Platte (Neb.) High School, where he was the Omaha World-Herald’s male Athlete of the Year in 2004. Like most youngsters in his state, he wanted to play college football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nebraska and the other big schools weren’t interested, so he stayed in state and went to Chadron State.
He won the Harlon Hill award in 2006 and 2007 as the nation’s top Division II player and finished his career with a then-NCAA record 7,962 yards rushing.
Those numbers weren’t enough to impress pro scouts, and he went undrafted. The New York Jets signed him as a free agent in 2008, but he missed the season with a knee injury. He played sparingly for the Jets in 2009, then they cut him at the start of the 2010 season. The Patriots signed him four days after the Jets cut him, and he has been a solid contributor since.
The Giants respect his tenacity.
“Woodhead’s a good football player,” Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. “I love his story. I love where he’s come from to be what he is now.”
Woodhead always thought he’d make it in the league, even after the Jets cut him.
“I felt like I’d get another chance,” he said. “I don’t know if there was something that made me believe that. I guess I just didn’t think it was over. I felt like I had a lot of football left in me.”
His first year with the Patriots, he ran for 547 yards, averaged a team-record 5.6 yards per carry and caught 34 passes for 379 yards. This season, he ran for 351 yards, caught 18 passes for 157 yards and returned 20 kickoffs for a 21.9-yard average.
Woodhead is humbled, but not surprised about his success because he never saw his size as a negative.
“To me, it is not an issue,” he said. “I don’t think it is something that I have to fight at all, because it is not something I have had to worry about ever. I don’t think being 5-8 has ever hurt me. Maybe in the eyes of some, but it is not something that I worry about at all.”
His toughness makes him a favorite of his teammates.
“Woody’s a great player, man,” Patriots receiver Deion Branch said. “The coaches truly enjoy him. The players — we love him. He’s another small guy that has done a lot for this league and changed the naysayers minds. He’s one of my guys.”
Woodhead knew he’d get a chance to show what he could do when the Patriots picked him up.
“I think they just try to get the guys that they think will work in their system the best, and we go out there and try to do our job every single play,” he said. “They are going to do their job trying to find the best players for them and we are going to go out there and work as hard as we can.”
His approach to the game has earned respect from his peers.
“Woody comes to practice, he works hard,” BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the team’s leading rusher, said. “He’s extremely fast, quick. He does good things as a running back.”
The Patriots don’t see Woodhead as a novelty — they need him.
“The things that this guy brings to the team are truly unbelievable,” Branch said. “We truly appreciate this guy being here, and he has a big role this game this week.”
Kevin Faulk, another undersized back on the team, paid him perhaps the best compliment: “He’s everything you want in a small guy.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap