Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Wood Dies at 83

House Hearing On NFL Retirement Benefits

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Willie Wood, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the first African American quarterback in what is now the Pac-12 Conference, died today of natural causes in Washington, D.C., USC announced. He was 83.

Following a college career at USC that was curtailed by shoulder injuries, Wood was not among the 240 players selected in the 12-team, 20-round NFL draft in 1960. He sent postcards to several NFL teams asking for a tryout and ended up signing with the Green Bay Packers.

Wood played for the Packers from 1960-71, starting at free safety on five NFL title-winning teams and in the first two Super Bowls, both won by the Packers.

Wood broke open a close contest in the third quarter of Super Bowl I, intercepting a Len Dawson pass and returning it 50 yards to the Kansas City Chiefs' 5-yard line. He had a 31-yard punt return in Super Bowl II that was the longest in a Super Bowl for 16 years.

Wood was among two safeties chosen on the Super Bowl Silver Anniversary Team in 1990. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.

“Pound for pound, Willie was the best tackler in the game," legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said.

Wood was born Dec. 23, 1936, in Washington, D.C. He is regarded as one of Washington's greatest high school athletes after starring at Armstrong High. A street in Washington is named Willie Wood Way.

Wood began his college career in 1956 at Coalinga Junior College, then transferred to USC. In an era of single-platoon football, Wood shared time at quarterback as a 1957 sophomore and led the Trojans in punt returns. A shoulder injury early in the 1958 season slowed him most of his junior season. He was USC's captain in 1959 and led the team with five interceptions.

After retiring as a player, Wood became the San Diego Chargers defensive backfield coach. He became pro football's first African American head coach in modern history when he coached the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League in 1975, a position which ended when the league folded on Oct. 22, 1975.

Wood's next coaching stop was as an assistant with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League as part of the staff of his Green Bay teammate and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg.

When Gregg left after the 1979 season for the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, Wood became the first African American head coach in the CFL. He was fired after the Argonauts started the 1981 season 0-10.

After coaching, he opened his own business in the Washington, D.C. area, Wood Mechanical Systems.

Wood had been confined to assisted living facilities for about 13 years and had suffered from advanced stage dementia, according to the Packers.

Wood is survived by sons Willie Jr., who coached in the Arena Football League, and Andre, and daughter LaJuane, along with a sister and several nephews and nieces. His wife Sheila died in 1988.

Photo: Getty Images

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