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Memory of SB XXXVII drives Woodson

IRVING -- No, he's not about to blame anyone, Charles Woodson said.

But imagine that it was the day before the biggest football game of your life, and one of your key players, the team's Pro Bowl center, has disappeared.

Later, former TCU lineman Barret Robbins would spend a month at the Betty Ford Center and be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He told his wife that he spent most of the day before Super Bowl XXXVII partying in Tijuana, imagining that the game already had been played.

Robbins' story and ongoing troubles were the subject of a 2009 report on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. It's a sad tale, and Woodson, now a Green Bay Packers cornerback, has made it clear that he understands that.

"But it was huge," Woodson recalled Wednesday. "It's like if we lost [Packers center] Scott Wells on the day before the game. Usually the center calls out a lot of the protections to all the other guys.

"Barret Robbins was a great player, a Pro Bowler, and a great part of our offense in Oakland. But when something like that happens and the game is the very next day, you can't adjust. When you have a backup who's had time to practice, it's a little different. It was a tough blow for our team."

It has taken eight seasons for Woodson, now 34, to get back to the Super Bowl. He said he often thinks about that first time, about the things that happened and the opportunity that was squandered in the Raiders' 48-21 loss to Tampa Bay.

You could probably make a better case that quarterback Rich Gannon's five interceptions hurt Oakland a lot more that day than where Robbins was. But blame somebody?

"I wouldn't say either of them lost it," Woodson said. "We all lost it.

"The game just got out of hand way too fast. By the time we responded, it was way too late. The score was out of hand and we couldn't recover. It was a team loss."

Eight years later, though, Woodson's memories are fresh. It was a squandered opportunity.

And time, Woodson said, has passed by "so fast.

"It seems surreal," he said. "When I came into the league, I played with Tim Brown and Jerry Rice -- with NFL greats. But it seems so far away now. From college to now, it's just a blur."

A blur, indeed. Ask a young Super Bowl fan this week to name the lone Heisman Trophy winner who will be playing in Sunday's game, and he'll probably name one of the two quarterbacks.

The 1997 Heisman, however, belongs to Charles Woodson, who dazzled the college football world that year as a cornerback, receiver and punt returner for Michigan and beat out Peyton Manning for the award.

Drafted fourth overall in 1998, Woodson spent eight years in an Oakland uniform only to see it end unhappily when the Raiders released him after the 2005 season.

"I remember that off-season, watching the sports shows and hearing them talk about the free agents that were available, and I never saw my name flash on the screen," Woodson said. "That was an indication to me how other teams around the league felt about me and my game.

"For Green Bay to come calling, when everybody else was saying that my football play had declined, I didn't expect it."

In Green Bay, however, where the legends of Vince Lombardi and the great Packers teams live forever, Woodson feels his blue-collar style was appreciated.

"In Green Bay, they respect hard-playing football players," he said. "That's what I bring to the table.

"In Oakland, I think I was a little bit underappreciated. One thing was that I didn't have a lot of interceptions there, but I had a lot of tackles. And for whatever reason, that wasn't good enough toward the latter part of my career there.

"I did a lot of the dirty work on the field for them, and nobody wanted to mention that. But in Green Bay, they really appreciate it. People have stopped me on the street and said how much they respect the way I play. That drives me."

The other driving motivation, Woodson said, is to fill the void that the defeat in Super Bowl XXXVII left behind, no matter whose fault it was.

His 13 years in the league have been a blur, but not that much of a blur.

As much as the Pittsburgh Steelers can announce that they are dedicating this week to Flozell Adams -- 12 years with the Cowboys, 12 seasons without a Super Bowl -- the Packers can make a case for wanting to win this one for Woodson.

"I kind of like being the 'elder statesman' now," Woodson said, eight years after his only previous Super Bowl.

"I think I've grown."

Come Sunday, opportunity knocks. Again.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

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