Boston College

Facing Florida State can’t help but stir memories for Boston College safety Jaiden Woodbey

Maddie Malhotra
Jaiden Woodbey has started every game at strong safety this season and has two interceptions and 39 tackles. Maddie Malhotra


Once an ultra-athletic, five-star recruit with infinite possibilities ahead of him at Florida State and beyond, Jaiden Woodbey suddenly felt like an infant.

After tearing the ACL, MCL, meniscus, and posteromedial capsule in his left leg during a game against Louisville his sophomore season in September 2019, Woodbey couldn’t put on a sock without his mother’s help. He couldn’t shower by himself, couldn’t stand up quickly without feeling immense pain, and couldn’t walk or even think about running.

“I couldn’t move,” Woodbey said. “I couldn’t really do much of anything.”

Doctors told him to expect a 12- to 18-month recovery, yet he returned in eight months to play eight games for the Seminoles as a redshirt sophomore. He graduated from FSU and transferred to Boston College to start fresh in January 2020.

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Woodbey, who is set to face his former team Saturday when the Eagles (6-4, 2-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) host the Seminoles (4-6, 3-4 ACC), harbors no ill will toward anyone at Florida State. He said his time at FSU prepared him for life and made him appreciate everything he has to a greater degree.

“I feel like those lessons and those hardships that I went through only made me stronger and made me the man that I am today,” Woodbey said.

When Woodbey first learned as a child that his father, Donnell Woodbey, had briefly played in the NFL, his mind was blown. He started asking question after question. He told himself that if his dad could do it, so could he.

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Woodbey specialized in football and track in middle school but focused on football his freshman year of high school. He got to know trainer Anthony Brown through the program Ground Zero, and they made a pact: If Woodbey showed up, Brown would show up. If Brown showed up, so would Woodbey.

Woodbey often met Brown at 5 a.m. in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., for an early session, drove over an hour to St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, practiced with the team, drove back to train with Brown again, finished his homework, and did it all over again.

“It was incredible that he could put all that into a day’s worth of work at a young age,” Brown said.

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When he got his first offer sophomore year, from UCLA, Woodbey was overwhelmed; he couldn’t believe that he would get a full ride to college like the players he watched on TV.

He had offers from Alabama, LSU, and Oklahoma, among many others, and initially chose to commit to Ohio State. Eventually, however, he decided to attend Florida State because it was his older brother Jibri’s favorite school. Jibri was the one who got him into football, so he felt he owed that to him.

Woodbey started all 12 games as a true freshman and was named an ESPN All-American while playing through a torn labrum. He came up with a key stop on third down in a win over a ranked BC team and finished the year with 58 tackles and eight pass breakups.

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He flaunted his potential on the field despite the injury, but off it he was struggling.

Woodbey, who proudly refers to himself as a “momma’s boy,” wasn’t used to his family living all the way across the country. His mother, Lanette Lars, who has never missed a game from little league to high school to college, was there as much as she could be, but the separation agonized Woodbey.

“I was very, very homesick,” Woodbey said. “I was depressed.”

Brown noticed one day that Woodbey “didn’t look right,” and they decided to FaceTime more frequently. With coaching changes, position changes, and injuries stunting his personal growth, and leading to a lack of stability, Woodbey was barely getting by.

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Then, on Sept. 21, 2019, his life changed forever.

When he first heard that he would likely be out for over a year with the injuries, Woodbey made it a mission to beat that timeline. Even so, it was inevitable for his mind to start wandering and fearing the worst.

“At times you’re like, ‘Man, will I ever be myself again? Will I ever come back? Will I ever be the person that I said I was going to be?’ ” Woodbey said. “It really challenges you.”

His parents reminded him that pitying himself wouldn’t benefit him at all, and they let him know they were there to help however they could.

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Seeing how much they cared inspired him to defy the odds.

“I knew I was coming back,” Woodbey said. “I wasn’t about to let my career go down the drain.”

After finishing his redshirt sophomore season and earning a degree in International Affairs, Woodbey decided to explore his options as a graduate transfer.

When BC special teams coordinator/defensive assistant Matt Thurin reached out, Woodbey was initially confused as to why Ohio State needed another safety. He learned that Thurin was now at BC, with head coach Jeff Hafley, and there was mutual interest right away.

It seemed like an unnatural fit — a five-star California kid and Florida State transfer who saw snow for the first time ever last January in Boston. In reality, it’s a perfect pairing.

The Eagles, a team with a proud history hoping to reclaim what they once had in a new era, and a player who saw everything crumble in front of him but had the willpower and grit to put it all back together.

Woodbey, a 6-foot, 221-pound force who has started every game at strong safety, is first on the team in fumble recoveries (two), tied for first in interceptions (two), and fifth in tackles (39). He came up with a huge interception in a 41-30 road win over Georgia Tech last Saturday and has had a knack for delivering in the clutch for a defense that has allowed the fewest completions (139) and third-fewest passing yards (159.5) in the country.

“A guy’s got to really fit our culture and fit our locker room,” Hafley said. “He’s been a home run.”

Time will tell whether Woodbey — who has one more year of eligibility after this one — can live out his dream of making the NFL like his father. It would be unwise to bet against him.

“Those are two words to describe me: resilient and undeniable,” Woodbey said. “I feel like you can put me in any situation and I’m going to come out like a phoenix.”

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