Willie Wood, a Hall of Fame safety whose key interception in Super Bowl I helped carry the Green Bay Packers to a 35-10 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs, died Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C. He was 83.
“The Green Bay Packers Family lost a legend today with the passing of Willie Wood,” Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said in a statement. “Willie’s success story, rising from an undrafted rookie free agent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is an inspiration to generations of football fans. While his health challenges kept him from returning to Lambeau Field in recent years, his alumni weekend visits were cherished by both Willie and our fans. We extend our deepest condolences to Willie’s family and friends.”
In what was initially billed as the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game following the 1966 season, the heavily favored Packers held a tenuous, 14-10 lead over the Chiefs at halftime. On Kansas City’s first possession of the third quarter, while driving near midfield, quarterback Len Dawson felt pressure and tossed a wobbly pass that Wood picked off and returned 50 yards to the Chiefs’ 5-yard line.
Thanks to what legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi called “the steal of the game,” Green Bay scored on the next play for a 21-10 lead and never looked back.
“We played well in the first half and at the start of the second half, but that interception by Wood changed the complexion of the game,” Chiefs coach Hank Stram said at the time.
Wood had an injury-plagued college career at USC, where he became the first black quarterback in the Pacific Coast Conference. He was bypassed in the 1960 NFL draft, but, undeterred, Wood sent a letter to NFL teams seeking a tryout. Lombardi then made two wise decisions in a career full of them: answering Wood’s letter and moving him to free safety.
“The Packers saw his heart while the others saw his size,” Jim Hill, who played for the Packers from 1972 to ’74 and now is the sports director for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, told The Associated Press. “Vince had an eye like Joe Torre or Tom Lasorda. He could see talent where other people couldn’t.”
It was at that new safety position, on the opposite side of the ball, that Wood excelled. Known as a fierce hitter with a nose for the ball, Wood carved out a career that included being first-team All-Pro five times and selected for the Pro Bowl eight times.
Despite shoulder injuries that limited him in college, Wood never missed a game in his 12-year NFL career, all with the Packers, who won five titles during his time in Green Bay. He ranks second in team history with 48 career interceptions. Only Bobby Dillon, recently selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of its centennial class, has more (52).
Lombardi once said, “Pound for pound, Willie was the best tackler in the game.” Wood was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
“The game has lost a true legend with the passing of Willie Wood,” Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said. “He had an unbelievable football career which helped transform Green Bay, Wisconsin, into Titletown USA. Willie was a rare player who always fought to be a great teammate and achieve success.”
Wood tried his hand at coaching after his retirement in 1971, first as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers. He became the first black head coach in pro football when he was hired to lead the short-lived WFL’s Philadelphia Bell. He was also tabbed to run the Toronto Argonauts, becoming the first black head coach in the CFL.
But opportunities to return to the NFL as a head coach never materialized, and Wood instead focused on supporting his family and started his own contracting business.
He is regarded as one of D.C.’s greatest high school athletes after starring at Armstrong High. A city street is named Willie Wood Way.
“The thing is, my dad never wanted to leave football,” his son, Andre, told the New York Times in 2016. “He needed a stable way to make a living. But I know he would have stayed [on] the NFL coaching track had he been asked to. But he wasn’t.”
In his later years, Wood battled neck, hip and knee problems, and — perhaps most devastatingly — dementia that left him with no memory of his big plays or his induction into the Hall of Fame.
The Packers said Wood suffered from advanced-stage dementia for close to a decade and died at an assisted living facility in D.C.
Wood is survived by sons Willie Jr., who coached at D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson High and in the Arena Football League, and Andre; and daughter LaJuane. His wife, Sheila, died in 1988.
ESPN’s Rob Demovsky and The Associated Press contributed to this report.