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Small victory for Woodhead

Diminutive back hits the big time

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 17, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — New England’s fascination with undersized, overachieving athletes is well-documented. Doug Flutie, Dustin Pedroia, and Wes Welker have been embraced in these parts for their fierce competitiveness.

Anyone who told Flutie he was not capable of being a Division 1A quarterback had to be stunned when he won the 1984 Heisman Trophy at Boston College. Anyone who sold Pedroia short as a major league prospect had to be taken aback when the Red Sox second baseman was named American League MVP in 2008.

And who could ever doubt Welker, the Patriots’ dynamic slot receiver, after he made a stunning recovery from a major left knee injury (torn anterior cruciate ligament and medical collateral ligament) in last year’s regular-season finale?

So Danny Woodhead could not have asked for a better place than Foxborough to make his mark in the NFL.

“Some of the guys that you mentioned might be small, but they obviously have talent,’’ Woodhead said. “Am I saying that I have the talent of those guys? I’m not trying to imply that.

“Mentioning me in the same breath as those guys is cool, but I’m not too worried about being recognized as that guy or whatever. I just try to come in to work and do my job every day, and that’s what I really try to focus on.’’

Woodhead’s blue-collar approach is part of his charm. Although he is listed on the Patriots roster at 5 feet 9 inches and 195 pounds, the 25-year-old running back readily admits to being 5-7 “and three-quarters.’’ But he stands much taller because of his unwavering work ethic, his uncompromising belief in his ability, and his uncommon maturity. They are character traits hewn by a sense of humility.

“He’s just an exceptional kid,’’ said Bill O’Boyle, Woodhead’s coach at Chadron (Neb.) State College, where Woodhead became a two-time Harlon Hill Trophy winner as the nation’s best Division 2 player. “We’ll never see the likes of him again.’’

Snubbed by scouts
Long before he was featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ during his time in the Jets’ training camp, Woodhead was subjected to his own share of hard knocks. He was not invited to the NFL scouting combine in 2008, largely because of his size. The accolades and numbers (7,962 rushing yards, 109 TDs) he accrued at Chadron State mattered little to NFL scouts.

“It just killed me when he didn’t get invited to the combine,’’ O’Boyle said. “We got him in the Hula Bowl and we got him in as much stuff as we could. For some reason, those combine people wouldn’t even look twice at him. It just killed me.’’

The only thing NFL scouts seemed to fixate on was Woodhead’s physical stature.

“Coming from a small school, people would say the odds were probably stacked against him, but I think it’s probably safe to say that anybody who knows Danny isn’t very surprised by it, I guess,’’ said Ben Woodhead, 27, the oldest of Mark and Annette Woodhead’s three sons who played two seasons with Danny at Chadron State as a receiver. The youngest brother, Joel, 20, transferred from Chadron to play for Peru State (Neb.).

“[Danny] is really one of those kids you don’t bet against, that’s the honest truth,’’ said Ben, now a second-year medical student at A.T. Still University in Kirksville, Mo. “So I’m not really surprised, but I’ve had a great time watching him get to the level he’s at.’’

O’Boyle and Joe McLain, Chadron State’s former quarterback who played in the backfield with Woodhead, never doubted the trajectory of Woodhead’s football career. They knew his boundless energy and indomitable spirit would propel him a long way.

“Honestly, we did,’’ O’Boyle said. “A lot of us on the coaching staff have been around a lot of great players. We’re Division 2, and I coached at 1-AA [Western Illinois] for a long time, but he’s just a different kid.

“I think the first time you see him run, the first time you see him do things, it really shows. He’s just a guy in the weeds. In Division 2, you’re not around a lot of NFL guys, obviously. We’re all hoping some kids can go on and play, but there’s just something about him. He just feeds off the competition.’’

The bigger the opponent, whether it was Montana State or Northern Colorado, the bigger Woodhead played. He had Division 1 ability but never regretted his decision to attend Chadron, where his father played receiver.

“Do I think I could’ve played Division 1? Yeah,’’ Woodhead said. “I don’t think that was ever a question in my mind. But do I feel like I missed out? No, not at all. I really feel like Chadron’s the place that God led me. So, no, I didn’t sell myself short at all.’’

McLain saw big things ahead for his running back.

“You knew he was something special,’’ McLain said. “People all over the town would talk, ‘Is this guy going to get a chance?’ ‘Does he have a future in the NFL?’

“There were so many things said about it, so many arguments both ways, but, yeah, it crossed my mind a couple of times that this guy I’m handing the ball to might be playing at the next level one day.’’

Extra motivation
Three years removed from his college days, Woodhead made his first NFL start, in Week 3 against the Bills. He had been acquired by the Patriots Sept. 18, four days after his release by the Jets, and was pressed into service after Kevin Faulk suffered a season-ending torn right ACL Sept. 19 in a 28-14 loss to the Jets.

Against the Bills, Woodhead rushed three times for 42 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown on a 22-yard scamper in a 38-30 victory.

The next day, at Chadron State’s football booster club meeting, Woodhead’s debut was all anyone wanted to talk about.

“I think he’s just scratched the surface, and knowing Danny, deep down, I know there’s a lot more in him than what he’s done so far,’’ O’Boyle said. “His best days are to come, of that there’s no doubt, because I’ve seen him do it at our level. Nobody in this whole program ever had a doubt that he could do it at the NFL level, either. It was just about getting a chance.’’

That opportunity presented itself when the Patriots needed help at running back after trading Laurence Maroney to Denver Sept. 14.

“Unfortunately, the day after we signed Danny, Kevin got hurt,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “We had no idea that was coming, but he would have been here, either way.

“With Kevin out, that’s given him some opportunities as a third-down back. But again, he’s played on all four downs.’’

In his second game, a 41-14 victory over the Dolphins, Woodhead scored his second NFL touchdown, this time on an 11-yard pass from Tom Brady in the third quarter. He also helped spring Brandon Tate on a 103-yard kickoff return at the start of the second half with a sideline block on Jason Allen.

“He’s done a good job in the opportunities he’s had,’’ Belichick said. “I’d say that’s pretty much the way it looked at the Jets in preseason. He was productive for them.

“I thought he was a solid guy. We scouted him. We liked him. We just didn’t have room for him on the roster at the beginning of the year. But when that opportunity was created, he was one of the higher priorities we had in terms of like Mel Kiper’s ‘Best Player Available.’ ’’

“I trust what I can do and the abilities that God gave me,’’ Woodhead said. “Does anyone like being told they can’t do something? No.

“I don’t want to say that’s the only thing that motivated me, but has it given me a little extra motivation? Yeah.’’

Woodhead has dealt with such skepticism from Day One in high school.

“Now that I’m in the NFL, is that going to stop? Heck no, that’s not going to stop,’’ Woodhead said. “I’m still 5-7 3/4 and 200 pounds. Is that very big? No it’s not. But I don’t care.

“I feel like I can play the game of football. Was that a little motivation at times when people would say I couldn’t? Sure. But it’s not going to stop.’’

And it is not likely to derail Danny Woodhead or New England’s growing infatuation with him.

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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