The idea of a person being an “All-American” has been romanticized in books, movies, TV shows, and in many places in the culture, but if one was to look at the life and Football career of former ETSU Lion Fred Woods, someone could make a pretty intriguing story and use Woods’ journey as a template for what would make a person truly All-American. Woods was recently selected to be inducted into the Texas A&M-Commerce athletic Hall of Fame this fall for his outstanding Football career in Commerce, notching 5 All-American awards. His story is incredibly unique, and positively All-American.
Behind The Pine Curtain-
Fred Woods was born to be an athlete. It is literally in his genetics. Born and raised in Longview, Texas the second largest city in East Texas, to Hardy and Lilly Woods, the 6th of 11 children. 2 of his sisters played on the Lady Lobos 1984 State Championship Basketball team. Knowing this, his mother decided to get some kind of a ball in his hands as soon he showed interest, and did so by putting him into Longview’s Pop Warner at the beginning of his fourth grade year. This started a journey of Football stardom that would start out east but send him to multiple places across the Lone Star State to help define him as a truly All-American person.
Learning to Lobo-
When Woods got into middle school, he immediately began to play at Foster Middle School in Longview. He was first a safety, it was apparent that he would have the ability to thrive at that position, or any position in the defensive backfield. It would not be long before Woods would be suiting up in the Green and Gold of Longview High and get his first taste of big time gridiron glory. “I moved up the way most football players did, freshman team, JV as a sophomore, and then finally Varsity as a Junior.” Playing Football in Longview, Woods gushes with emotion when he recalls his time in Longview, about 2 1/2 hours east of Dallas. “We had so many talented players in the school, so I was happy to finally get on Varsity.” Playing in a very tough district that included Robert E. Lee and John Tyler from Tyler, Texas High in Texarkana, Lufkin, Nacogdoches, and Marshall. The road to glory was a tough one. “We played a tough team every Friday night, you had better be ready to play.” Woods’ description of the district has been echoed by Dallas area sportswriters for the better part of 30 years. The district at the time was referred by Dallas sportswriters as the “Beast from The East” due to the sheer amount of talent and solid teams that usually beat up on each other every fall. Woods knew this and his team knew as well.
Playing under the legendary Robert Bero, Woods was a reserve outside linebacker his Junior year, the team finished 6-4 but stayed at home during the playoffs. Woods continued to put in the work to be not just a starter, but a standout. As a Senior, Woods was moved from safety and earned a starting linebacker spot, and his teammates would outdo the previous team by notching a second place finish, only behind arch rival Marshall. The team notched a regular season record of 9-1 and drew a first round game against Killeen Ellison, the third ranked team in the state at Texas Stadium. Needless to say, nobody picked the Lobos to win. Woods tells the story of his greatest high school moment, as that day the Lobos took down Ellison to advance to the area round. “Nobody picked us to win, I mean nobody. We just played hard and kept hitting them back when they hit us. No giving up, no breaking.” The Lobos did not squeak by, they dominated Ellison with a convincing 38-22 win. “We shocked the state that day, that was a fun bus ride home, that 3 hour ride went by fast.”
The next week the Lobos would experience the shock and disappointment that their previous opponent had when they were upset by Huntsville 24-14 at Texas Stadium in the Area round. “I don’t know, maybe we were still riding high on all that energy from the previous game, but I know we did not play the way we were capable of, it was a disappointing way to go out, but it was a great season for my last.” Woods Senior year produced fruits that would determine his very future. He was named first team all district and spent the rest of his days as a Lobo by playing Baseball in the spring to stay in shape and keep the competitive fire burning, but he was not ready to be done with Football. Not yet.
“I really wanted to play football again, and there was one school that came to look at me and that was Ranger Junior College on the other side of Abilene. It was a small town, but I liked my visit there, so I decided to go.” After graduating in 1990 from Longview High, Woods was leaving the Piney Woods for the Big Country where he would lay the foundation for the next 6 years of success.
Ranger Junior College was a chance for Woods to play Football again and to get a jump on his studies for college, but it was here where it was evident Woods was blooming into a fantastic player, a guy that a team could ride to success, a guy that could be an All-American one day. “I knew I was getting better when I beat out a guy at Linebacker that was a year ahead of me. He was a good player, but I just beat him out, and when that happened, I started to see that I could really do some good things.” While Woods was an individual standout, his team did not do much in terms of producing. In his two years at Ranger, the team finished 5-5 in the very tough Red River Conference. “When you look at who we played all the time, Blinn, Navarro, Tyler, Trinity Valley, that was a tough group to go against.” Not to mention that just down the road at Cisco, a quarterback was lighting it up throwing the ball, and he would be the guy that be Woods’ opponent for two years, and then brother in arms for two years after that. His name was Clint Dolezel. As a Senior, Woods rolled up the awards, Team Captain, Team Defensive MVP, First Team All-Conference, and notoriety. Woods was no longer having to hope for a school to look at him, they were flocking to him.
After his time at Ranger was done, Woods had established himself as one of the best linebackers in the entire nation on the Junior College level. He was offered scholarships by Oklahoma State, Baylor, UNLV, Michigan, and every Lone Star Conference school. He only visited one school in a small Northeast Texas town called Commerce, East Texas State. ET had just finished its third season of at least 8 wins over the past 4 years. After having a rough go his first two years, new Head Coach Eddie Vowell had put together a resume of 30 wins, one conference title, 2 second place finishes, and two playoff appearances in just 4 seasons. Add to that he would only be two hours away from Longview, Woods was hoping it was a good situation, and was just hoping for a shot to play ball in front of his family and be closer to home than he had been. All it took was one visit to the town before he realized that Commerce, America was the place for him. “Coach Vowell, all it took was one talk with him and I was sold. Coach Mark Copeland, same thing. Those guys sold the school and program on me in one talk. I was ready to be a Lion.”
North by Northeast-
Walking in, Woods knew that once again he had to work to get his snaps in. The first few days of workouts he recognized a familiar face. Clint Dolezel had come to Commerce to compete for the starting quarterback spot after the graduation of All-American Bobby Bounds. “I knew he was going to be the guy. I had played against him and knew what he had.” It would not be long at all before both Woods and Dolezel, two overlooked high schoolers that became JUCO studs, were key cogs in a Lions team that was picking up where they left off. Opening the season against Central Arkansas, Woods had his coming out party as a starter on a tough Lion defense. The next week, ET would head up to Kansas to take on Pittsburg State. The Lions had dropped the Gorillas the previous year in Commerce, and for a while it looked like history would repeat itself, but the Lions had 3 scores called back and a rowdy Pittsburg crowd…..including the Gorilla mascot that stole an assistant coach’s clip board and paraded it in front of the fans……spelled doom for the Lions, dropping a 27-13 decision. “That was tough. A lot of frustration, we felt we were the better team and those three TD’s…one was a pick 6….all got called back and it just got to us, that was the most disappointing loss of that year.” The next week though, the Lions snapped a 2 game losing streak to Southern Arkansas, ranked 6th in the country, by making quick work of the Muleriders 31-16. The Lions went on to finish the season 8-3, the only other losses being to Division I Northwestern Louisiana State and eventual conference champion and national quarterfinalist Texas A&M-Kingsville, but it was the 17-10 loss to TAMUK that would doom the Lions from playing past November. After crushing Cameron 40-3, Woods and his teammates gathered around to await their name to be called for the Division II playoffs seeding, but the crushing weight of disappointment came down when it was announced only the Javelinas of TAMUK would be going. Woods recalls that day with a disappointment in his voice easy to hear, “We should have gone to the playoffs, our season that year speaks for itself. We just should have gone to the playoffs, nothing else I can say.”
Despite the disappointment of no postseason, Woods had his best year as a Football player. He was awarded first team All-LSC honors, was second on the team in tackles, only behind future NFL starter Curtis Buckley. He added 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. It was apparent his best days were ahead of him as a player.
The 1993 season would not be as generous to the Lions as the 92 season had been. “A lot of really good players had graduated. Eric Turner, Billy Minor, a really good offensive and defensive line, we just lot a lot of studs and firepower. 93 was a young team, but those guys, you can’t throw them under the bus, because two years later, they were an 8 win team and back in the playoffs.” The 1993 Lions dropped to a 5-6 season, but that did not mean that Woods had stopped his prolific production. Woods had his finest season, racking up Consensus All-American awards from Kodak, considered at the time the gold standard for All-Americans. Woods became the first and only player to sweep up 5 All-American Awards, all first team. Despite the season not going the way he wanted from a team perspective, Woods was awarded what he was deprived of the previous year, a post season game in the form of the Snow Bowl, a collegiate all-star game for D2 players that was played in Fargo, North Dakota. He and Dolezel were both selected not only as starters, but as Captains for their team. “That was just a great honor, so many great players across the nation, and for me and Clint to be picked to start and also be Captains was really a great thing.”
The End of the Road-
After a good showing at the Snow Bowl, Woods was looking to go pro, but took a reasoned approach to it. “I wanted to play, but I wanted to know how it was going to play out.” At his pro day, he worked out in front of the Pittsburg Steelers, Cleveland Browns, and the Atlanta Falcons. “I was hoping for a call on draft day, but it didn’t come. I was disappointed, but I knew this meant that something else was made for me.” Woods got one more option in the Arena Leagues with the expansion team Fort Worth Cavalry, but decided that the time for Football was over. “I had a great shot to play ball with the Cavalry, but there was such a chance it might not work out, I decided I had just reached a point where Football had done all it had meant to do in my life. It got me a lot, but it was time to look to the future, Football was just a part of my life, not my entire life.”
Building A Life-
After turning down the Arena League offer, Woods did what so many people do, he went home to clear his head and see what opportunities awaited him. Woods first did the one thing that may have played a larger role in the life he enjoys today, he enrolled at nearby Wiley College and finished his education graduating in 1998 with a degree in Physical Education. He later got back into contact with a childhood friend who would later become his wife, Deardra, an alum of Lamar University. He joined Lone Star Steel and is currently in quality assurance, a position he has had for 16 years now. He became a family man when he welcomed his daughters Farah and Hasanati. “They are my life, nothing matters more to me than my wife and my daughters.”
The Call to the Hall-
Woods is an everyday man, the kind of guy that has a routine. He gets up, goes to work, hits the gym after work, and then goes home to his family, but it was one day in May he had just finished working out when his cell phone rang and on the other end was Tim McMurray, the Texas A&M-Commerce athletic director. He was calling to let Woods know that his final honor, the one he had wanted perhaps more than any other was being granted. He was joining the Texas A&M-Commerce Hall of Fame. “It was like an out-of-body experience, I was just in total shock. Nothing else had come close to this. The only things that ranks above this was marrying my wife and witnessing the birth of my little girls. It is such an honor, to this day, I am still speechless.”
An All-American Life-
Fred Woods will take the field at Memorial Stadium this fall for the final time to be awarded in front of thousands of fans for what he did in Commerce, but his story is uniquely American. A back-up linebacker becomes one of the greatest players in the history of the storied Texas A&M-Commerce football program, almost goes pro, gets his college degree, marries a childhood friend, and gets up everyday to be the best Husband, Dad, friend, and person he can be. Despite all the Football glory, Woods is a family man first and foremost. “My hobbies are all around my family, traveling with them, doing things with them, and it is not because I feel like I have to, it is because I want to.” On this July 4th weekend as the country celebrates what we have been blessed with, Fred Woods is one of the many who can look back at the past with a smile, and know that what he did in the past is what gives him reason to smile about the future.
If that is not an All-American story, I don’t know what is.