25-Year CFB Anniversary: Woodson Becomes Primarily Defensive Player to Win Heisman

Most would agree that the Heisman Trophy has largely become a quarterback award.

Historically, however, running backs have fared pretty well. In 2020, DeVonta Smith became the first wide receiver to win the award since Desmond Howard in 1991.

On this day 25 years ago, Michigan’s Charles Woodson did something no player had before or has since. He became the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman.

When the day began on Dec. 13, 1997, many expected that Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning would take home the hardware. When the night was over, however, the most prestigious individual honor in collegiate sports went to the cornerback from Michigan.

More than 700 first-place votes were cast. 433 of them went to Woodson.

While helping Michigan complete a perfect season and win share a national championship, Woodson contributed in all three phases of the game. He finished second nationally with seven pass interceptions. Seeing time on offense at wide receiver, Woodson caught 11 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Woodson also rushed for a score and had a memorable punt return for a touchdown in a rivalry victory over Ohio State.

The No. 4 overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, Woodson would spend 18 years in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers. Woodson recorded 65 career interceptions, played in nine Pro Bowls and won one Super Bowl.

In 2021, Woodson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He became the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman on this day a quarter-century ago.

Photo courtesy of Michigan athletics/Bentley Historical Library

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.