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The long road back

Dan Woodward's football career at SOU has come full circle

ASHLAND ' When Dan Woodward walked out of Southern Oregon University in 1998, he realized he was effectively burning a bridge between him, the school and the Raider football team.

Frustrated with life as a student and as an athlete, Woodward embarked on a mission for the real world, where he got answers to questions he didn't even know he had.

Along that often-cruel path, Woodward made a discovery that has turned his life around, leading him back to Ashland and the community he scorned years ago.

Some bridges, it seems, cannot be burned.

I never thought in a million years that my maturity level would allow me to come back, says the 24-year-old junior, and I'd be making this comeback at Southern Oregon.

Any discussion of Woodward, his past and present, automatically seems to carry with it the buzzword maturity, be it low or high on the spectrum.

It's what sent him packing four years ago and what has him grounded today.

At that time, I thought I knew everything, Woodward recalls of his early days at SOU. It happens to a lot of kids who go off to college.

Now I know exactly how to do it and exactly how not to do it.

Back in 1995, Woodward seemingly had the world in his grasp after leading Eagle Point High to a runner-up finish in the Class 4A state football championships.

His strong arm, raw athleticism and sturdy 6-foot-3 frame made Woodward a top recruit in what would be coach Jeff Olson's first year at the helm of the Raider program.

After a redshirt season, Woodward entered the '97 campaign in a three-way battle for the vacated quarterback spot. He didn't play in the opener, saw limited action in Game 2 and then made his first collegiate start in the third game.

Despite winning his first three starts at quarterback, Woodward found himself benched in favor of upperclassman Matt Geske.

I remember Dan as being a raw, big kid with a lot of talent but pretty immature for the position at that point, says Bill Singler, SOU's offensive coordinator in '97 and now the South Medford High head coach. He had the physical talent, but from a mental standpoint, he just wasn't ready.

These days, Woodward echoes that sentiment. At the time, however, he and Singler weren't as agreeable.

We really butted heads between our relationship as quarterback and offensive coordinator, recalls Woodward. His answer to a three-and-out series was to yank me or whoever else was in there.

Then it just snowballed into never knowing who was going to be in on each series.

For Woodward, the disarray coincided with an unstable family life, academic apathy and his own sense of denial toward his athletic standing.

All of that led to him entering the '98 season as the No. — QB under new offensive coordinator Matt Sayre, seeing no playing time and then, finally, getting suspended from the team for a violation of team policy on a road trip.

As the Raiders stumbled to a 4-6 record, Woodward quietly made his way out of Ashland.

My attitude toward the program was not a healthy one, says Woodward. I was kinda young and scatterbrained and didn't really understand how the process worked and why I wasn't getting a fair shake.

When you get into that mode of thinking, it just snowballs and you try to find a place to put the blame, and I ended up making the decision to quit football, to quit school and just go and do whatever comes next.

An unpaid stint with the semipro Rogue Valley Blaze of the Oregon Football League kept Woodward in football in '98.

In '99, Woodward moved to Seattle, where he worked as a shipping/receiving manager for K2 Sports. There, Woodward dabbled in various activities, including flag football and one term of community college. Mostly, he just kinda hung out and ballooned to 247 pounds ' about 50 more than when he stepped on the SOU campus.

It was at this time, as he regaled others about his former athletic pursuits, that Woodward began realizing he was wasting his life.

What followed was a move that required more guts than merely standing firm under an intense blitz: He sent an icebreaking e-mail to Olson. They later talked on the phone and then set up a face-to-face meeting in the winter of 2000.

I didn't deserve it, to say the least, says Woodward, but when he returned my e-mail, I just kind of lit up inside. I felt like coach Olson was giving me my chance. Here it is almost three years since I've been gone and hadn't said a word to him or anything ... for him to even ask to see me was amazing.

On the other end of the line happened to be a football coach who took Woodward's failures at SOU personal, and was relieved to be getting a second chance as well.

Woody's departure was very hard for me because he was a kid I'd recruited, says Olson. I probably take things a little too personal, but being a human being, it just works that way. I did take it somewhat as I failed with this kid in helping him realize his dreams.

Woodward says preparation for his meeting with Olson was nerve-wracking.

I was scared that he was going to talk to me about all the times I did this wrong or that wrong, he says. But it wasn't like that at all. He greeted me with open arms the second I walked in the door.

It was a load off my chest. I just spilled my guts to him after that.

The duo talked about Woodward's days following his exit from SOU, what he learned in the process and how he now viewed his early days with the Raiders.

About the only topic not dwelled upon was football.

He seemed to be very sincere and forthright about where he's been, the choices he's made and where he wanted to go now, recalls Olson. Football was the furthest thing from my mind.

Still, the subject had to finally come up, and Woodward was afforded the opportunity he didn't feel he deserved. He went through winter conditioning and spring and fall camps for the 2001 season. He dutifully served as the No. 2 quarterback behind Travis Mari during SOU's breakthrough season, along the way never complaining or missing a meeting or, more importantly, a class as academics were also brought back into the picture.

Woodward has since become engaged to Kelleen Seedborg and will be married in July 2003, and he's making strides to get his academic standing in order for eventual graduation.

In a less important matter, he also has been a stabilizing force as the fifth-ranked Raiders vie for a second straight playoff appearance.

If Woody never took another snap for us for the rest of his playing career, says Olson, that would be OK with me because I'm very pleased with the direction he's heading in right now. There's no question he'll be successful in whatever direction his life leads him in now.

Former Eagle Point standout Dan Woodward started his football career at Southern Oregon back in 1996, a year after leading the Eagles to the state championship game. After a three-year hiatus, the 24-year-old junior is now the starting quarterback for t Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell