Mike Woods

Former Baltimore Colt Mike Woods died last week at age 54. He was paralyzed at 27. (Baltimore Sun file photo / June 2, 2009)

Mike Woods' death last week was much like his abbreviated NFL career with the Baltimore Colts: It went largely unnoticed.

To suggest it was unlamented would be wrong, however. Very wrong.

Woods' career was cut short in 1982 by an assailant's bullet that destroyed his spinal cord and rendered him a quadriplegic the last 27 years of his life. It was what he did after getting shot that made a difference and set him apart.

"He had a spirit that would not give up and a spirit that was happy," former Colts teammate Ron Fernandes said. "How he did that, I can't tell you. That's Mike's greatness, his gift to the world. Anyone who knows him can draw strength from that. He could have folded up after that, and he didn't."

After the shooting, Woods completed his degree through the University of Cincinnati, helped his wife, Milyn, raise four children, watched his eldest son, Shaun, go to Bowie State on a football scholarship and became a symbol of inspiration for those who knew him.

Until Woods walked into the line of fire in a house on the bad side of Cleveland on the morning of May 21, 1982, he was known more for his prodigious athletic talent and a nagging tendency toward injury than for his ability to lead men.

Attempting to retrieve his father from an all-night poker game, Woods, then 27, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A robbery gone bad and a bullet in the neck left him fighting for his life. Within a week, the 17-year-old shooter was arrested.

For the next 27 years, Woods dealt with the grim reality of paralysis until he died at 54. That he did so without bitterness was a testament to his character.

"I think a lot of it had to do with his spirituality," Milyn said Tuesday. "It amazed me every day."

In fact, it amazed everyone with whom Woods came into contact.

"The guy lived a happy life," said Ernie Accorsi, who had been general manager of the Colts for one week when Woods was shot. "It's incredible to say that, judging from what he went through.

"You can say what a tragic life he had, but longevity doesn't determine a happy life. To me, a tragic life is when someone is bitter. This guy was inspirational to be around."

According to his wife, Woods was not even bitter toward the shooter, Victor Gomez Jr.

"No," she said, "he was very forgiving."

During his brief time with the Colts - 36 starts in 48 games, one full season lost on injured reserve - Woods wowed teammates with his free-spirited personality, his sculpted body and his passion for the game. He had been the University of Cincinnati's first All-American, transferring there after his first choice, the University of Tampa, dropped football in 1975.

He was a second-round draft pick by the Colts in 1978, nicknamed "War-daddy" for his reckless style of play. He meshed quickly with "Colonel" Sanders Shiver, a linebacker, and defensive end Fred "Cookie Monster" Cook.

"He was a good guy," Shiver said. "He was super talented, had everything you needed. He always saw the bright side of everything."

Clyde Powers joined the Colts as an assistant coach in 1980, and he, too, gained respect for Woods on and off the field.

"Athletic-wise, he could've gone a long way," said Powers, now the Colts' director of pro player personnel. "He was a big guy [6 feet 2, 233 pounds] with speed, who could rush the passer, cover running backs and hold the point [of attack]. He threw his body around; he was fearless."

Powers became the liaison between Woods and the Colts. Although the team had initially declined to help Woods financially, it did later after Jim Irsay succeeded his father as owner. Irsay sent a $1,000 check each month and helped in numerous ways. He paid for the first year of tuition for Woods' youngest son, Boyce, at the University of Akron two years ago.

"Mr. Irsay's got a big heart," Milyn said.

The Woods family struggled with finances over the years, though Mike was often too proud to ask for help. The Colts held a fundraiser for him in Towson in October 1983. After Accorsi joined the New York Giants in 1999, he helped Woods get a grant from the NFL's Dire Need foundation.

There were Social Security checks and disability from the players' association to help them through rough times. But Milyn said the union has asked her to return the disability check she received for June. That's a loss of about $11,000. And it will leave her close to desperation because she still supports two children and a grandchild.

Finances had begun to get tight recently for Woods. Perhaps that was the despair in his voice two weeks ago when he spoke with Powers by phone.

"Our conversations have always been positive, good talks," Powers said. "This was different. I felt like he was a little depressed. I felt like he was ready to give it up. I said: 'No, Mike, you fought this for all these years. You provided for your family.' "

On Thursday evening, Milyn and Mike watched the Cleveland Cavaliers' playoff game on television. Both dozed off. Then a storm knocked out the electricity, awakening Milyn. She was unable to wake Mike. That quickly, he was gone.

Even though she mourns, she offered this on her husband's death: "He wanted everyone to have a celebration instead of crying."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the EF Boyd & Son Funeral Homes & Crematory in Cleveland.


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