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Darren Woodson reacts after being inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.

Associated Press — Brandon Wade, file

More than two decades have passed since the Dallas Cowboys won a Super Bowl and Darren Woodson still can’t believe he was fortunate enough to come along at such a magical time in the history of the franchise.

Joining the Cowboys as a rookie out of Arizona State in 1992, Woodson played for three Super Bowl champions in his first four seasons in the NFL. As a starting safety, Woodson played a major role on the Cowboys’ defense.

“I came from a mediocre program at Arizona State,” Woodson said. “I didn’t come from a winning culture. To get drafted by the Cowboys and be thrust into a culture of excellence that Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson built was special. I played with tremendous athletes who were tremendous men on and off the field.”

Since his retirement from the NFL in 2004, Woodson has worked for ESPN as a football analyst. He seamlessly made the jump from the field to the microphone, and enjoys bringing insight to fans about the game he loves.

“I’ve always had a passion for football since I was 8 years old,” Woodson said. “There has always been a fire that burns inside of me. I like to talk about the young players coming up. One of the things I miss most about not playing football is the atmosphere in the locker room, so I like being around guys like (ESPN analysts) Teddy Bruschi and Mark Schlereth. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’m still forever trying to get better.”

On Feb. 21, Woodson will join former Cowboys teammates like Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. He’s talked to them about how special their inductions were in a state that has produced great athletes in so many sports.

“I remember having conversations with a lot of those guys about how inspired they were going into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame,” Woodson said. “I’m already in the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame and that’s a great honor, but just to be recognized by my peers and the writers in this great state is fun.”

Long before Woodson ever thought about playing for three Super Bowl champions, he was a young man trying to survive in a tough section of West Phoenix called Maryvale. He was raised by his mother and was inspired by two older brothers who played football.

Sports kept Woodson on the right path in life and off the streets. He developed into an all-metro player as a running back and linebacker at Maryvale High School.

He credits former Arizona State recruiting coordinator Don Bocchi for helping him see a way out from the confines of his neighborhood to a football scholarship.

“I was a Proposition 48 player, which meant my grades weren’t good enough to play my first year of college,” Woodson said. “But Don always showed up at my high school and made sure I was going to class. I’m from deep in the inner city, and my best friend is serving 27 years in prison. Don kept me going and was the father figure I needed.”

When Woodson gained his eligibility as a sophomore, he stepped in as a starting linebacker and recorded a team-high 122 tackles in 1989. He went on to earn all-Pac 10 honors as a senior and honorable mention All-American.

He felt fortunate that his linebackers coach was Lovie Smith who later went on to become an NFL head coach for the Chicago Bears and is now the head coach at the University of Illinois.

“Coach Smith was huge in teaching me the little things, being a man and taking care of responsibilities on and off the field,” Woodson said. “I carry a lot of the things he taught me with me today. He also taught me a lot of things that helped me transition to safety in the NFL because I had to do a little bit of everything in college like blitzing off the edge and covering the slot receiver.”

Drafted in the second round of the 1992 draft by the Cowboys, Woodson joined a team that was on the cusp of greatness.

While the Cowboys’ offense got most of the glory because of the Pro Football Hall of Fame trio of Aikman, Smith and Irvin, the Cowboys defense had plenty of superb players like linebacker Ken Norton and defensive lineman Russell Maryland. Woodson played mostly in a backup role as a rookie but was valuable on special teams and in nickel formations.

The Cowboys rolled past Buffalo, 52-17, to win their first Super Bowl since 1977.

“It was incredible to win that Super Bowl and to play on that team as a rookie,” Woodson said. “I didn’t really appreciate it until after the game when I saw Mark Tuinei and Bill Bates crying. Bates had been in the league 10 years and had never made it to that pinnacle. I came in as rookie and won it, but these guys had been through 1-15 and 3-13 seasons.”

Moving into the starting lineup in 1993, Woodson recorded 102 tackles and recovered three fumbles. Once again, the Cowboys beat the Bills in the Super Bowl, 30-13.

I”It was harder to repeat but Jimmy Johnson was a master of of knowing what buttons to push,” Woodson said. “He kept it competitive at every position and let us know the importance of understanding every situation . He never took his foot off the pedal.”

Following the 1993 season, there was a huge shakeup when Jones fired Johnson and replaced him with former Oklahoma Sooners coach Barry Switzer. After losing in the 1994 NFC championship game to San Francisco, the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl in 1995 by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Instead of pure joy, Woodson mostly felt a sense of relief after the Cowboys won their final Super Bowl.

“A lot of people were upset when Jimmy Johnson got fired including me,” Woodson said. “When Barry came in, Jimmy’s coaching staff was still there and there was a lot of dissension in the locker room. We had to overcome so many obstacles to win the third Super Bowl. There was just a feeling of relief that the season was over with.”

Woodson continued to be one of the best safeties in the NFL as he made five Pro Bowls and earned three All-Pro honors. But the Cowboys never got back to the Super Bowl before Woodson retired following the 2003 season when he suffered a herniated disk.

“After winning the last Super Bowl, we knew the direction things were going with free agency,” Woodson said. “We knew were were going to lose some guys and it wasn’t going to be the same. We could see the writing on the wall.”

Woodson wants people to remember those three Cowboys championship teams for their all-around greatness, not just the Hall of Fame offense that featured Aikman, Smith and Irvin.

“The three guys get most of the fame but we had so many great defensive players on that team,” Woodson said. “We had a top three defense every year during the Super Bowl years. It wasn’t just a one-sided offensive juggernaut. The defense kept us in games week in and week out and I don’t want people to forget those guys.”

2017 TEXAS SPORTS HALL OF FAME

This is the fifth in a series of profiles on the 2017 class of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame which will be inducted Feb. 21. The rest of the class includes former Houston Cougars women’s volleyball players Rita Buck-Crockett and Flo Hyman (deceased), Texas A&M track coach Pat Henry, 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion Nastia Liukin, former University of Texas football and track star Eric Metcalf, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and former Texas A&M safety Dave Elmendorf.

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