Football wasn’t the only thing at which Charles Woodson excelled.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee and defensive back, known as a star on the gridiron everywhere he went from Fremont to Ann Arbor to the NFL, was a prolific athlete outside football, as well.
Even with only two basketball seasons under his belt and in addition to his legendary football career, Woodson showed why he is one of the greatest prep athletes Ohio has ever seen.
“Charles really just was a phenomenal athlete,” said Frank Gioffre, who coached Woodson in basketball at Fremont Ross. “If he wanted to be a Division I basketball player, he really could be. If he dedicated himself to basketball, who knows where he would’ve taken his game.”
The grand question of “what if?” stemmed from two excellent seasons as a Little Giants basketball player.
Woodson did not play in his freshman or senior seasons, but his sophomore and junior years produced a comparable amount of electricity to what he did on the football field.
Woodson, who unsurprisingly was gifted the “most athletic” superlative in his senior yearbook, stormed into the Little Giants’ lineup and made an immediate impact as a sophomore. He averaged a Great Lakes League-best 19.6 points per game, and that included 20.7 per game against GLL opponents.
Woodson prioritized football, but he still showed the levels of talent and toughness that coaches yearn for in basketball players.
“His I.Q. for athletics whether it was just for football or basketball was just through the roof,” said Gioffre, who is now women’s basketball coach at Terra State Community College in Fremont. “He just understood the game and had the skill sets for basketball, and it was a part-time thing for him.
“There was no tougher kid than Charles Woodson. Charles had it all. He had the physical, mental, emotional toughness. He had the whole package. He’d challenge you to be a better coach and work harder, and it taught us how to work harder and better ourselves.”
Woodson posted 39 points for a season high on Feb. 26, 1993 against Findlay, which included 10 in the fourth quarter as the Little Giants overcame a 15-point deficit.
“There were many days in practice where we would just watch what he does because of the athlete he is,” Gioffre said. “It was a fun time to coach him, and you knew that in the blink of an eye it would be over.”
Woodson’s athleticism was starting to blossom, but it could have been showcased a bit sooner.
“I think one of my biggest regrets ever, I was very young when I got the job at Fremont Ross, I should’ve moved him up as a freshman,” Gioffre said. “We needed Charles that year. Him being down in junior high, I thought it would’ve been difficult to get him up here, but that group of seniors needed him. He would’ve put us over the top. I should’ve moved him up, and to this day I think about it.”
Woodson improved his scoring output as a junior, once again leading the GLL in scoring with 21.1 points per game.
That season, he raised the bar for himself. On Jan. 21, 1995, he notched a career-high of 40 points in a wire-to-wire win against GLL rival Northview. He also grabbed 10 rebounds in that game.
Woodson was a head turner for opposing players. Rivals knew what was coming when the Fremont Ross Little Giants were on the schedule. Former Northview player John Ellenwood, who was a junior on the 1994-95 team and is now the head men’s basketball coach at Ashland University, was in the gym for Woodson’s 40-point performance.
“There was some unbelievable talent back in Toledo back in that day, but [Woodson] was something really special,” he said. “You didn’t know he was going to be a Heisman [Trophy winner], you didn’t know he was going to be a Hall of Famer and have a such a great career in football, but in basketball, that game, I came off the bench at that time of my career at Northview, … and my best friend and I were sitting on the bench.
“Someone shot a 3-pointer for Fremont Ross, and Charles Woodson was in the right corner. When the shot went off, it came off the rim really hard, and he came running from the corner. To this day, it was the best dunk I’ve ever seen in a game live.
“The ball came off the rim and he was running towards the rim from the right corner, and it was going over his head. He reached back behind to grab the ball and caught it and brought it back and absolutely hammered it home. My best friend and I were sitting near the coaches, and he just stood up and started clapping.”
Ellenwood, who has more than 200 wins under his belt as a college coach, made comparisons of Woodson to another Ohio basketball legend.
“When you saw LeBron James play, it was like, ‘Holy cow,'” Ellenwood said. “Charles had that same thing. He didn’t play basketball his senior year. … They were picked to win the league going into his senior year, and he decided not to play.
“The best player wasn’t playing basketball that year. I was voted MVP of the league that year, but he was superior when it came to everything else.”
Coach Gioffre noted Woodson’s ability to impact his own team’s game planning.
“Another thing when you get a guy like Charles is he makes you a better coach,” Gioffre said. “You were constantly devising ways to get him the basketball to where he’s going to go one on one with somebody or help somebody else get a wide open shot.”
Woodson’s ability altered the way opposing coaches defended him. Following an outing against Tiffin Columbian that year, Tornadoes coach Bob Norton said as much.
“We knew we had no one that could match up with Woodson athletically. … That’s why we used zone,” Norton said. “We went to a diamond and one. That kept Woodson from getting the ball.”
Woodson scored 36 in that game.
“A player like this comes around once in a lifetime,” Gioffre said, “and when you get a Charles Woodson as a professional and as a person and who has given back so much to his community … to see what he has become and knowing that I was fortunate enough to coach him, you have a sense of pride unlike no other.”
Woodson’s basketball savvy reappeared from time to time.
In 2000 as a Raider, he played well in a “Battle of the Bay” charity basketball game against some San Francisco 49ers, including Terrell Owens.
When former Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson in 2018 wanted to wear No. 2 — Woodson’s number — he wanted to get Woodson’s OK to do so. Basketball was the link of how it was accomplished. Patterson’s father, Sean, helped coach Fremont Ross in the 1990s.
“My dad coached him in high school, in basketball,” Patterson said at the time. “He’s actually a really good basketball player.”