Rod Woodson was no different from every football player who excels in high school and college. He expected success once he reached the NFL.

Woodson soon discovered that his idea of success didn't quite mesh with Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Rod Rust's definition.

So it was that in 1989, Rust pulled aside Woodson after a walk-through practice and lit into him about the way he approached the game.

"He was the one guy that really chastised me as a young player to play beyond my potential," Woodson said in a recent interview. "He wanted me to get in and study, so he took me in the classroom. ... He showed me how simplified offenses really are, that green light clicked on, and about two months later I went, 'Oh, my God. This is easy.'"‰"

Woodson parlayed Rust's not-so-subtle prodding into a 17-year NFL career that culminated with his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in January.

Bay Area fans will remember Woodson as a cornerback for the 49ers in 1997 and free safety for the Raiders in 2002 and '03, but Woodson's national profile emerged during his 10-year run with the Steelers.

Woodson, who lives in Pleasanton, will be inducted to the Hall in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 8. Rust said he will be watching, either in person or from his New Jersey home.

"He was willing to use his intellect along with his superb physical talents," Rust said by phone. "That's unusual. When you do that as a player, you aren't guessing as often, and that's when you can make great plays."

Few defensive backs made as many great plays as Woodson did during his career.

His 71 interceptions are third all-time in NFL history. He holds league records for most interception returns for touchdown (12) and interception return yardage (1,483), was selected to the Pro Bowl 11 times, was named All-Pro six times and played on three Super Bowl teams.

Woodson was known as a coach on the field for his ability to recognize what was coming based upon the offensive formation and players' body language.

That's a trait Woodson learned from a long list of coaches considered among the best from the past 25 years, if not ever: Steelers head coaches Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, as well as defensive coaches Tony Dungy, Dick LeBeau, John Fox, Dom Capers and Rust. And that was just with the Steelers.

"I had so much knowledge in one place in 10 years, it's ridiculous," Woodson said. "I had all that knowledge at my disposal as a player. Guys might get one guy like that in their lifetime, and I had (seven)."

Woodson, 44, grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., and soon developed into a local legend, both as a football player and track and field sensation.

He won state championships in the high and low hurdles at Snider High and played on football teams that lost only three games in his three years. He earned All-Big Ten and All-America honors as a hurdler at Purdue, where he was the only four-time Big Ten champion in the 55-meter hurdles. He also was invited to the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.

In football, Woodson was All-Big Ten as a sophomore, junior and senior, as well as a consensus All-American as a senior.

"He had such tremendous athletic ability," said Mike Hawley, Woodson's coach at Snider. "When you take that kind of athletic ability and put it with his superior intellect, look out. He was one of a kind."

Woodson, 6-foot and 205 pounds, was that rare player who could beat you in just about every way imaginable.

He was so versatile that he also returned punts and kicks for the Steelers during his first eight seasons. That's something Woodson became accustomed to in his formative years.

"He didn't leave the field," Hawley said. "We took him out only on extra points."

Woodson's ability to change the complexion of a game was uncanny.

One such instance no doubt remains indelibly etched in the minds of Raiders fans.

The Raiders began the 2002 season with four straight victories, but four straight losses followed.

The Raiders rolled into Denver for a Monday night game against the AFC West-leading Broncos.

Late in the first quarter the Raiders led 3-0, but the Broncos were on the verge of scoring a touchdown.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Woodson stepped in front of a Brian Griese pass and raced 98 yards for a momentum-changing touchdown. The Raiders won 34-10, lost only one regular-season game the rest of the way and made it to their first Super Bowl since the 1983 season.

"It possibly could have been one of the bigger plays in my career," Woodson said, in typically understated fashion.

Then again, when you have so many huge plays to choose from, it's difficult singling out just one.

"He might be the greatest athlete that Chuck Noll ever drafted," said Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Blount, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "And that's saying a lot when you think of all the Hall of Famers. This guy was special."

Along the way, Woodson endured microfracture knee surgery in 1990, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 1995 and a position switch from cornerback to safety.

Nothing slowed him down.

"I've never seen anybody in my career go through what he goes through to play the game," former Raiders coach Bill Callahan said during Woodson's last season with the team in 2003. "I haven't seen a guy shoot up every week, who doesn't practice during the week, and go on the field and perform the way he does."

These days, Woodson is coaching football at Valley Christian High in Dublin, where his son is a budding star, and working as an analyst for NFL Network. He's also acclimating to the crowning achievement of his football career.

"I just wanted to play," Woodson said, when asked if he envisioned making the Hall of Fame. "Even when I look at myself in the mirror today, I don't see a Hall of Famer ... Rod Woodson? A little country kid from Indiana who played football for Fort Wayne Snider and went to Purdue, that's what I see. It's still so surreal."

Rod Woodson file
  • Position: Cornerback/free safety
  • Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers (1987-96), 49ers (1997), Baltimore Ravens (1998-2001), Raiders (2002-03)
  • Drafted: 10th overall by Pittsburgh, 1987
  • College: Purdue
  • Height/weight: 6-foot and 205 pounds
  • Age: 44
  • Accomplishments: 71 interceptions; 32 fumble recoveries; 2,362 punt return yards; 15 touchdowns, including an NFL-record 12 on interception returns and NFL-record 1,483 interception return yards; 11-time Pro Bowl selections; six-time All-Pro; three-time Super Bowl participant with Steelers, Ravens and Raiders; only NFL player to make Pro Bowl as cornerback, safety and kick returner; voted into Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • What he's doing: Working as an assistant football coach at Valley Christian High in Dublin and as an analyst for the NFL Network; owns three car dealerships in Pittsburgh and a motorcycle dealership in Fort Wayne, Ind.; studying for the ministry at The Well Church in Dublin.