On home football Saturdays, Yvonne Alaniva sits in Section 10 at Michigan Stadium, toward the end of her row. She greets those who enter with a smile, saying hello as they walk to their seats.
For many years, she had done the same with the man who sits three seats to her left, never knowing who he was. But then, one Saturday, an image of Charles Woodson flashed over the Big House video boards.
“That’s my boy!” the man yelled.
So Alaniva, in an attempt to support one of the three Heisman Trophy winners in Michigan football history, hollered, “That’s our boy!”
The man turned to Alaniva and said, “No, that’s really my boy!”
The man, it turned out, was actually Solomon Woodson, father of Charles.
Few Michigan players have accomplished as much as his son, both in college and the NFL. Yet on Saturdays in Ann Arbor, Solomon is just like everyone else, tailgating with his friends from the early morning until game time.
He was in his usual seat for Saturday’s rout of Rutgers. No sign of his bloodline was evident as he took his place in the stadium. A baseball cap with a block ‘M’ revealed his rooting preference.
Solomon Woodson attends every Michigan home game, and says he has ever since Charles’ college career began. He makes the trek from Fremont, Ohio, where he raised Charles. His friends from home, 20 years later, still poke fun that his son chose the Wolverines over Ohio State.
But Solomon Woodson’s love of Michigan predates his son’s playing career, which started in 1995. It goes all the way back to 1968, when the elder Woodson was not a fan of how the Buckeyes ran up the score against the Wolverines in a 50-14 victory.
“I was a Michigan fan before Charles and after Charles,” he said.
And Woodson still roots for the Wolverines as vigorously as he did when Charles played in Ann Arbor. Sure, his favorite Michigan football memories come from his son’s career, specifically his Heisman Trophy season in 1997. He’ll never forget the sideline interception against Michigan State or the interception in the end zone against Ohio State that helped the Wolverines win their most recent national title.
It doesn’t hurt that Charles is still doing his thing, either. He’s on the other side of the country, having another stellar season for the Oakland Raiders. He’s 39 years old now, 18 seasons removed from his Heisman Trophy season, but he still displays the ability that he showed at Michigan. The younger Woodson entered Sunday’s NFL games as the league leader in interceptions with five. He is considered one of the elder statesmen in the league, one of three players — along with Peyton Manning and Matt Hasselbeck — remaining from his draft class. He has made eight Pro Bowls and has been named First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press on three occasions.
But when Solomon Woodson watches his son play, Charles is still the high schooler who he says once scored seven touchdowns in seven different ways. He gets the same joy watching his son play as he did back then. He doesn’t get to see him play in person very often (he hasn’t gone to Oakland yet this season), but he is in awe of his son’s accomplishments.
He knows few players last until age 39 in the NFL, and his son’s significant contributions at that age surprise even him, just like Charles’ superstardom surprised Solomon Woodson when he was in high school.
“Oh yeah, no doubt about it,” Woodson said. “I can still see the high school in him because there’s a lot of things he did in high school I couldn’t imagine how he’d do that.”
There is another person in whom Solomon Woodson sees a lot of Charles. That, of course, is Jabrill Peppers. The comparison has become trite at this point. Like Charles Woodson did, Peppers plays both ways and makes defenders look silly, just like he did on his 18-yard touchdown run in Saturday’s game.
He particularly sees some of his son in Peppers on defense, when he chases down offensive players who already passed him, making tackles nobody thought he had any business making.
“I see a lot of potential,” Woodson said of Peppers. “I see a lot of agility. He’s got speed, and his head is always in the game.”
He is not alone in that feeling. Even Charles himself has congratulated Peppers on social media for his performances this season. The two have developed a friendship of sorts.
Peppers has served as a symbol of hope for Michigan fans, a sign that the times of being outmanned and outclassed are gone. Solomon Woodson remembers those times, too. He was there, in his seats at the Big House.
But Saturday afternoon, as the band played and the Wolverines readied to take the field, it was as though the down years never happened. Solomon Woodson is thoroughly enjoying this season.
His favorite part? Jim Harbaugh.
The father of one of Michigan’s greatest players really is just like everyone else.
Cohen can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaxACohen.