FORT WAYNE – So the Fort Wayne Guy came back to town Wednesday, and they rolled out the high school band and an honor guard of black-jerseyed senior football players (holding the doors open for you; calling you "sir") and unveiled a plaque and a sign out front testifying that he did, indeed, hail from this place.
Fort Wayne Hometown Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, the sign in front of Snider read.
And, well, that was just fine for the Fort Wayne Guy, who left a long time ago for Purdue and the NFL and eventually Canton, Ohio, but who never really shook the dust of his hometown from his shoes. It's why Rod Woodson has always been the first to hang the Fort Wayne Guy label on himself, making a point of mentioning growing up on Reynolds Street at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 2009. And it's why he can still talk about swimming at Memorial Park in the summers like it happened yesterday, and why he can't visit the Fort without driving past Snider or making a Powers or Coney Island run.
Oh, and one other thing: It's why, when he donned that pale yellow Hall of Fame jacket Wednesday and came back to Snider to be honored as part of the Hall of Fame's and Allstate Insurance's "Hometown Hall of Famer" program, it was the Hometown part he was more taken with than the Hall of Famer part.
"I like it more so that they're honoring their hometowns," Woodson said. "I love that. I think it's great to be part of a program like that."
This was after he'd been introduced by Snider athletic director Russ Isaacs, then by his longtime friend and agent Eugene Parker. It was after he and Parker had unveiled the bronze Hometown Hall of Famer plaque. And it was after he'd stepped to the podium and looked out over an auditorium stuffed with students and football players and a lot of his former coaches, and even a rep from the John Purdue club.
"The heart of America," he called all this.
It's a theme he nearly always sounds when he comes back to Fort Wayne from his home near San Francisco, this notion that he's still a Midwest guy with Midwest sensibilities. All that blue-collar work ethic that made him the player he was, he says, he got from growing up where he did, with a mom who worked and a dad who worked not one but two jobs.
He has, he said Wednesday, never not worked, until now. Cut loose from his job as a defensive backs coach during the Raiders' latest regime change, he says he's mostly just hanging out with the family for the time being.
"I'm not in a rush to fill my time up," he said.
Nor should anyone, he told his audience, be in a rush to leave the Fort.
"I know a lot of you guys at your age are like, 'I hate Fort Wayne, I want to get out of here.' " he said. "But remember what you learned here when you leave, because it's a foundation you can build upon for your whole life."
After all, he did.
Sports Editor Mark Jaworksi made a video of Woodson's speech, which you can watch here.