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Friday, September 25, 2009
Versality just one of Woods' many strong suits

By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy
ESPN RISE Magazine

Maybe it's the red and blue football jersey or the "S" on the chest of his track uniform. It could be the way he effortlessly blows past hapless pursuers or the way he handles adversity with dignity and grace.

Whatever it is, there's something unmistakably Superman about Junipero Serra (Gardena, Calif.) senior Robert Woods.

Faster than a speeding bullet? He did anchor the state-title-winning 4x100 relay team last spring.

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Maybe not, but if you've seen him climb the ladder to haul in a pass over a double-team or grab one of his many interceptions, you have to wonder.

Woods has been downright heroic for the Cavaliers' football team since being called up to varsity as a freshman. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound wide receiver/defensive back might be the most versatile player in California and is rated the state's No. 8 recruit in the ESPNU 150, No. 67 nationally.

He was at his best last season, catching 81 passes for 1,378 yards and 19 touchdowns, while adding two scores on interception returns, three more on kickoffs and two on punts.

But Woods isn't satisfied. That's why less than a week into his summer vacation, he was texting Serra coach Scott Altenberg to see if the school gym was open.

It's the same mentality Woods has displayed since he was a freshman. After eight games as a (Super)man among boys on the freshman team, Woods got called up to varsity when an upperclassman went down with an injury.

"On the first day of practice, he came out and never backed down from any challenge," Altenberg says. "He had no fear."

It showed on the field. In only four games, Woods picked off three passes from his safety position, tying for the team lead.

There were times the upperclassmen would remind Woods he was only a freshman -- when there were no seats left on the team bus, he'd have to sit on the floor -- but there was no denying his talent.

Robert Woods
The versatile Robert Woods has drawn interest from USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.

His biggest moment came in a 23-21 postseason loss to Oak Park (Calif.) when he picked off a pass and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. As he dashed up the sideline, eluding would-be tacklers with his dazzling speed, one thing was clear: Robert Woods had arrived.

"I remember our starting corner gave me a sign I'd never seen before," Woods says. "I didn't know what to do, so I just floated over to the open guy, jumped in front of him, caught the ball and started flying down the sideline. I felt like it was faster than I ever ran before."

Heading into his first full varsity season the next fall, Woods was ready to show everyone else what the Cavaliers had already figured out.

"I've never coached a kid with that much competitiveness," Altenberg says. "He shows the other players how it's done. He's such a great role model."

That last sentence means more to Woods than any on-field accomplishment. That's because on April 19, 2007, when Woods' 17-year-old sister, Olivia, died of cancer, her final words to her younger brother were, "Be a role model."

Since then, Woods has tried to lead by example in honor of his sister.

"She was my best friend," he says. "God blessed me with her for 17 years. She never complained and never gave up. So I'm definitely not giving up when times are tough."

It doesn't get much tougher than losing a sibling who doubles as your closest friend and No. 1 fan, but Woods persevered.

"His maturity and ability to cope with such a terrible thing is rare, but he's a rare kid," Altenberg says.

Some of Woods' favorite memories of his sister involve sports -- playing on the same T-ball team, spotting her in the crowd before a big game or meet.

"He always said her voice was the only one he heard in the stands," Woods' mother, Sharon, says.

So Olivia was never far from his mind when he took the field two years ago. Before each game, he would tape his wrists and write messages to his sister.

This one's for you, O. Rest in peace, O.

"Everywhere I go, she's with me," Woods says.

With his sister as his inspiration, Woods caught 43 passes for 801 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. On defense, he had 81 tackles and eight interceptions. His days of sitting on the floor of the team bus were long over. His unyielding work ethic and toughness made him a favorite of the seniors and an easy choice for team MVP.

Woods came back as a junior and posted an even better campaign, helping Serra win its first 13 games to earn a date in the Northwest Division championship game against Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, Calif.). While the team came up short, falling 63-28, Woods scored three touchdowns.

In the spring, he proved his skills weren't limited to the football field. Woods displayed the same speed opposing defensive backs see in their nightmares when he led the Cavaliers to the 4x100 state title. He also placed third in the 400.

Woods' future, however, is on the gridiron. As the 20 or so recruiting letters he receives each day can attest, he has no shortage of options. USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and Notre Dame are just a few of the schools that have offered. Given Woods' versatility, he could play either receiver or safety at the next level. But since he prefers receiver, that's where he's being recruited. He's so talented, most coaches would probably let him call plays or fly the team plane if it meant he'd sign with their school.

For now, Woods is focused on his senior season. He's set some lofty goals for himself, which he's written down and checks often. He's looking for at least 1,500 receiving yards, 10 interceptions and a victory in the Northwest championship game.

It's going to take a superhuman effort to accomplish all that.

Seems like he's the right man for the job.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.