Through four years at Louisiana State University, David Woodley lived two doors down from me, in a room he shared with Charley McDuff.
Bones, as his teammates knew Woodley, was quiet in comparison with the other occupants of Broussard Hall. He didn't own a stereo; we never heard funk or rock blowing through his cinderblock walls. He didn't snore in his sleep. Unlike many others, he didn't howl or curse or bang his fists against his wall locker when curfew forced him to bed by 11 o'clock. You sometimes caught him humming; nine times out of 10, you'd never heard the tune before.
The first time I saw David Woodley, he was pulling luggage from the trunk of a midsized sedan. "I'm all right," he said to his parents. "Y'all can go on home now."
I had no idea who he was. Although it was important for me to make a fine first impression, this being a gathering of blue-chip football players for the 1976 Louisiana High School All-Star game, I saw immediately upon meeting his gaze that it mattered little what anyone thought of him. He probably knew he needed a haircut. He knew, when sized up, he would stand inches shorter than the other quarterbacks.
"How you doin'?" I called out. He said nothing. Inhaling deeply, I expanded my chest to let him know I was strong and serious, while he slumped his shoulders and backpedaled, with beat-up duffels in both hands, to the stairs leading to the lobby. "How you been?" I nearly shouted. He fixed his eyes above me, on the hard blue sky, and nodded for my benefit before rounding the corner and disappearing from view. I thought him rude and condescending. "You're not big enough to be a damn manager," I mumbled. "Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?"
Later, after a team meeting in the dormitory cafeteria, he followed me to my room and offered his hand. "You're the center," he said. "My name's David Woodley. I've been doing okay. How have you been doin'?" Woodley? I had never heard of him.
I now claim some celebrity status in Louisiana for having been David Woodley's "close, personal friend." Sometimes, on Sunday afternoons, sportswriters call and ask if I'm watching the Miami Dolphins' quarterback on television. Tuned into the game or not, I know why they are calling.
"What is he really like, I mean, really like?" they ask of Woodley, the Dolphins quarterback who has led his team into Sunday's AFC title game against the Jets with some outstanding perfomances over the last month, including two touchdown passes and a touchdown run last week against the Chargers.
Reminiscences are usually so lost to sentimentality or befuddled by time that looking back can be a dangerous business. I know better than to attempt an answer, although it is common for me to surmise: "He was, you know, like you and me. A regular guy; maybe a little quiet, but regular enough."
To whit? He drank three cups of black coffee every morning. He played quarter pool with considerable expertise. He liked beer, was known to smoke a Marlboro in dark, crowded bars. He studied in the library or at the breakfast table, cramming in loads of computer science stuff while the janitor mopped clumsily under his feet. He dated pretty girls. He liked movies. He liked a little Tabasco on his prime rib, a little sugar in his tea.
Once I told a sportswriter about a hot, August night in 1979, when David and I were seniors and both determined to leave our mark of mischief behind on the city of Baton Rouge. "It doesn't have to be a mark even," he said. "A scratch'll do."
He and McDuff, each grasping the handle of a giant igloo loaded down with brew and cheap port, woke me at midnight and asked if I might join them on a drive through the sleeping town. "Don't let me down, Bradley Boy," Woodley said. "It'll be something out of James Dean."
McDuff, a tackle, drove his pint-sized pickup. Bones and I sat on the tire humps in the truck bed, sharing a bottle of warm Boones Farm and saying nothing. Through McDuff's window, Seeger and Springsteen singed the hot night. We stopped only for gas and ice and a dollar cigar that set off spumes of green smoke and sputtered like a Roman candle, before heading to the Ponderosa, the spread of turtleback fields siding the Mississippi River where we practiced twice a day.
Charley parked his rig on the 50-yard line of the offensive field. We unloaded the ice chest and commenced to drink deep into the morning, our hearts beating in rhythm to the winking stars above. My only concern, other than being caught out after curfew, was surviving the 5:30 a.m. wakeup by the dormitory proctor, the predawn skull session and the long, hard practice at sunrise on this very field.
Across the levee, you could see tugs and barges pushing up current, their red and white lights scarring the darkness. I smelled diesel exhaust. "It's beautiful," Bones said. "Kinda like Christmas. I will never forget this night, never, not in a million years."
I am full of dumb stories, I told the sportswriter, then apologized, knowing it was best not to go any farther. "That's what Woodley's like," I said. "He's a regular sort of guy in a mixed-up sort of business. What he wants to do is keep things simple."
I did not tell him that, upon rising from the turf, Woodley sent McDuff out wide as his primary receiver and ordered him down in a three-point stance. David set me up behind him, as a fullback, and described a play not in our offensive system, one that sent me faking over the middle, then breaking to the sideline and following in McDuff's path through the invisible secondary.
It was our finest hour. Bones huddled over an imaginary center, shouted signals at the top of his lungs and received with quiet dexterity a snap from center. We ran the play to perfection, but when Woodley scrambled helplessly from his imaginary pocket, both McDuff and I circled back, the obsequious, hulking linemen, and came to our quarterback's aid.
I don't know how the play ended. I think David broke away as a result of our key blocks and ran to glory, spiking the invisible ball and dancing a hero's jig in the end zone. He was off somewhere in the legendary darkness, where I had never been, and it was all I could do to keep myself from cupping my ears and silencing the roaring cry of all America. "Victory," he shouted, "sweet, sweet victory."
It was not a secret that David Woodley was unhappy in Baton Rouge. Most of his college career, he played second fiddle to local favorite Steve Ensminger, a quarterback of great talent touted by the coaching staff as LSU's next Bert Jones. David started in front of Ensminger as a senior, although he often expressed a bitterness toward the many fans he believed never really accepted him as the better of the two.
After losing to Southern California, 17-12, in a 1979 game in which he played very little and was jeered by thousands of fans who wanted Ensminger calling the signals, David came by my room and lay prone on the bed across from mine, unmoving in the soft, gray glow of late night. He buried his head under his pillow. "What do I have to do to make these people like me?" he asked. "Tell me, John Ed. What do I have to do?"
When depressed, Woodley was known to take an occasional "sabbatical," a retreat of sorts in which he skipped class and spent much of his time off the practice field locked up in his room, in self-imposed exile. If you knocked on his door begging entrance, he usually remained quiet, hoping you would think him away, or he would say, "Yeah?" And you knew he preferred to be alone.
After not seeing him for a week, I once borrowed a proctor's key and let myself into his room, without permission. He was sitting upright in bed, lost in a sea of bed whites, watching a soap opera. He patted the spot on his bed where he wanted me to sit. The room smelled of stale cigarette smoke and dirty socks. There were newspapers all over the floor, some of them yellowing. The shades were drawn. "I'll come back later, Dave," I said. He nodded and forced a smile. I locked the door on the way out.
That was a long time ago. I haven't seen David Woodley in three years, the last time being days before he was drafted in the eighth round by the Miami Dolphins. It was late in the afternoon and, walking through the quadrangle on my way to an afternoon class, I heard someone call my name.
We sat under a naked mimosa and watched night fall. He was full of doubts, uncertain as to whether he would be drafted, hoping for a chance to play in the NFL, just a chance, as most of us graduating seniors were. He said he might get married. He needed his degree as soon as possible and would work extra hard this semester to pull up his grade-point average.
He missed all the guys and remembered all the good and funny moments. He remembered that summer night on the Ponderosa, drinking more than we could hold and playing rough and tumble against the night. "Those lights on the barges, on the water, remember that?" he said. "That whole night was beautiful in a silly, schoolboy way."
I called McDuff last week. He said David lived on a ranch outside of Miami with his newlywed wife. He owned a couple of horses, a dog or two. "Bones," McDuff said, "everybody's trying to figure out what makes him tick. He just likes it simple. He wants it nice and easy."