Junior LaMarr Woodley certainly has made his mark on Michigan football. Earlier this season, he thought he had done all he could. Through seven games, Woodley had five sacks and 14 tackles for loss. And according to his mother, Janice Staples, Woodley believed it could be time to head to the NFL. His rare combination of strength, speed, quickness and tenacity seem well suited for the “League.” But an arm injury limited his playing time at the end of the year and has him coming back for his senior year, ready to have his best season ever. And Michigan coaches and fans can breathe a sigh of relief.
A two-year-old climbing out of his stroller during a softball game shows the will to be an athlete at a young age.
It was a sign early on that Woodley was going to make his mark as a competitor. When he was just a toddler, Woodley tagged along to his mother’s games. But one time, as Staples played, Woodley decided he wanted to join in on the fun. He scrambled out of the chair and tried to get onto the field. Staples knew then her son was going to be an athlete.
“He could catch and play really well,” Staples said.
Growing up in Saginaw, Woodley let everyone know that he was a child to be reckoned with.
Whether it was football, baseball or, his first love, basketball, Woodley tore up the competition. Many, including Woodley, even believed that hoops would be his ticket to stardom.
“Everybody thought he was going to be a basketball player,” high school teammate and current Michigan running back Jerome Jackson said. “He put up a double-double every night. He’s just an awesome athlete. If he would’ve kept growing, he’d probably be doing that.”
But it wasn’t to be.
Said Woodley of when he knew had to quit: “When I stopped growing, and I was only 6-foot-2. I ain’t no point guard.”
But luckily for him, he was just as good at football as he was at basketball. And Staples could tell that there was something special about her son.
“Middle school, seventh or eighth grade, we knew it,” Staples said of his football talents. “I saw him make a lot of big hits, and I knew he was going to be a good hitter.”
Jackson has known how destructive of a force Woodley is for quite some time. When the two were young, Woodley opened holes for Jackson while playing fullback.
“He used to block for me in middle school,” Jackson said. “He’s been a terror his whole life.”
Woodley added: “They moved me to fullback, and I enjoyed doing it. I didn’t care about getting the ball; I just wanted to knock someone down and let (Jackson) get in for the scores.”
From then on, Jackson and Woodley have been like brothers.
Since seventh grade, the two have forged a bond that has lasted through middle school and through college. It was planned that way.
In one game against Romeo High School, Woodley remembers being on the punt return team.
” was always on the outside of the wall, catching people on the blindside,” Woodley said. “One time, I caught a guy and it knocked the wind out of me, I hit him so hard.”
Said Jackson: “He did something amazing every game.”
Woodley’s exploits on the field began to garner him the attention that fellow teammate Charles Rogers received when Woodley was a freshman. When Woodley saw what he could attain, he knew that football was his passion.
“Once I saw Charles Rogers explode, taking visits and the hype, I told myself that’s something I wanted to do,” Woodley said.
So the 250-pounder continued to make the same hits he had been delivering since middle school.
But everybody wanted the Saginaw guys to go to school together. They were a combination package for the college of their choosing.
“We talked about it, and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Jackson said. “I think it was the right decision.”
Originally, it appeared the Spartans had the inside track. Woodley had some relatives who went to Michigan State, and Saginaw High School sent a good number of students there every year.
“It was kind of hard,” Jackson said. “Both schools were close to home, but I always wanted to come here. But LaMarr had a couple family members who went to Michigan State. So coming up, he always watched them.”
The Spartans were after Woodley and Jackson from the start. Both players knew many people at Michigan State and often visited East Lansing. It wasn’t until Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson recruited them that Michigan got the edge.
“I got comfortable down there, with all the people I knew, but I got close with coach Jackson,” Woodley said. “You just got to go to a place you’re comfortable.”
Luckily for the Wolverines, Woodley decided he wanted to terrorize opponents as a Michigan man and not a Spartan.
Although Woodley was content when he visited Ann Arbor, things were a little different once he enrolled at the University. It wasn’t as easy making the big hits and plays that he did in high school. Almost everyone he was playing against did similar things before college. Now, he wasn’t the only one hitting opponents so hard that they couldn’t come back in the game. He wasn’t used to not being the best.
With this weighing on him, his first year was difficult, and Woodley even contemplated quitting.
“I could go on and on about that,” Woodley said of his first year. “When you’re a freshman, it’s always a struggle because you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s a big jump from high school to college.”
Everyone has to make that jump, but, as a highly touted freshman, Woodley didn’t realize how much of an adjustment it would be.
The practices were not as easy, and everything seemed different.
“Practice was longer, you were waking up early, watching more film and practicing twice a day,” Woodley said. “You really weren’t at home; you were in a hotel room. You were basically on lockdown.”
Neither Woodley nor Jackson knew how to handle this transition. Both now remember wanting to give up. Football was no longer fun for them.
“Once you come to something like this, you start questioning yourself,” Woodley said. “You wonder if football is really for you, and if you can do something else. Those things run through your mind even though you really don’t want to.”
Fortunately for coach Lloyd Carr and Michigan fans, Woodley was able to get through the early trials and tribulations – but not without the help of his teammate Jackson.
Having Jackson around was instrumental in Woodley’s adjusting to college and Division I football. Woodley credits Jackson for always being there for him.
“Usually when guys come to school, they worry about who’s their roommate and whether they can trust him,” Woodley said. “This is a guy I’ve been going to school with since seventh grade, so I didn’t have to worry about anything like that. And I was always comfortable talking to him about my problems, and him too. Plus, the whole room was Saginaw High.”
With Jackson by his side, Woodley blossomed in his first year as a Wolverine. Woodley began to have fun again and realized that it wasn’t as difficult as he thought.
“Now as a junior, it’s like a cakewalk, and I look back and wonder why I was crying and why I wanted to quit,” Woodley said with a laugh.
After his adjustment, the accolades started to pile up. They included being named All-Big Ten second team by the coaches as a sophomore. That same year, the team gave him the Richard Katcher Award as Michigan’s top defensive lineman/outside linebacker.
This season was a bit more difficult for Woodley. He suffered an arm injury that kept him from playing much of a role in the last four games. But before the injury, he showed enough ability that fans and presumably coaches were worried about him leaving early. His stats and playmaking skills had everyone taking notice. Senior captain and fellow defensive lineman Pat Massey noted that Woodley brought an attitude and intensity that his teammates could thrive on. His combination got him noticed by the NFL.
Even Staples thought he was going to go to leave school early before the injury.
“I think he was leaning toward leaving,” Staples said. “When he got hurt it put a damper on that. Plus, I think he wants to play one more year. They’ve got everyone coming back basically.”
But after thinking about what he has done and what he wants to do, she thinks he will come back, and Woodley agrees.
“I haven’t reached my best yet,” Woodley said. “I’ve felt like I haven’t played my best games or had my best year. I still have another year to prove myself. I have to work on a lot of things – pass rushing, stopping the run, making more plays, sacks. I’m a playmaker, and that’s something I know I can do. I’d be selling myself cheap if I wasn’t doing that.”
But he has accomplished one thing he wanted to. Every time he comes home, there is more and more Michigan gear on Saginaw residents. Plus, he’s 3-0 against Michigan State in his career.
“It’s bragging rights. Now when I come home, I don’t have to hear the trash talking.” Woodley said.
With a great deal already accomplished, it would have been easy to take his freakish talents to the NFL. But Woodley wants to prove more to himself and go out on top.