HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Danny Woodhead took the football, cut quickly to his left and then disappeared.
The NCAA’s career rushing leader was still somewhere on the New York Jets’ practice field, but it was difficult to pick out his small frame among all the big bodies.
“He’s hard to find for a couple of reasons,” coach Eric Mangini said with a smile Saturday, “the obvious one and he’s pretty quick and pretty elusive.”
At 5-foot-7 1/2 — “People forget the half-inch” — he has heard about his small stature his entire football-playing life. Now in rookie minicamp with the Jets, Woodhead is hoping to make a big impression.
“A lot of other people have thought: ‘You’re the underdog, so you probably really want to do good,”’ Woodhead said Saturday. “Honestly, I just think of it as being any other football player. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.”
No need to. Not when he rushed for 7,962 yards in four seasons at Chadron State, compiled 9,479 career all-purpose yards — second-best in college football history — and was a two-time Harlon Hill Trophy winner as the nation’s top Division II player.
“I just want to keep on playing, just like every other guy in this locker room,” Woodhead said. “That’s what I’m going to do is work hard and hopefully I can keep on playing football.”
Woodhead is already something of a celebrity in the Jets’ locker room, despite his humble, aw-shucks demeanor. The native of North Platte, Neb., was one of the NFL draft’s most intriguing stories last weekend, when ESPN sent a camera crew to his home to chronicle the whole experience. After going undrafted, the camera caught Woodhead on the phone. The Jets were on the other end, telling him they wanted to sign him to a free-agent contract.
“I wanted to be somewhere, I really did,” Woodhead said. “This just happened to be the best opportunity.”
At first glance, Woodhead would not appear to have a realistic shot at making it in the NFL. He’s the smallest guy on the roster — although he’s got good weight on him at a solid 195 pounds — and looks like a kid lost in a forest when he’s around players such as 6-8 defensive end Ropati Pitoitua or 6-5 linebacker Wallace Artis.
“There’s a lot of guys that have been small and undersized and been great players in the National Football League,” said 6-3, 264-pound linebacker Vernon Gholston, the Jets’ top pick, sixth overall. “It’s all about your heart and will to win and how well you can pick up everything at this point.”
Woodhead is no Darren McFadden, of course. But if he can play special teams and learn the playbook, Woodhead just might have a chance with the Jets. He could prove to be the perfect complement to the elusive Leon Washington, who’s 5-8, the powerful Thomas Jones and the versatile Jesse Chatman.
“I love football,” Woodhead said. “If you love to play the game, it doesn’t matter. I think everybody is like that. They just want a shot. I’m just trying to take advantage of this opportunity.”
The fact Woodhead’s gaudy numbers came against Division II competition means little to Mangini.
“When you have that kind of production, I think that’s hard to do, whatever level you’re at,” he said.
Despite the practices being closed to the public, Woodhead has become a camp favorite among Jets fans. Video clips from his college career have been posted on various Web sites and message boards.
“That’s good, then,” he said with a smile. “I don’t want to be hated by the New York fans. It’s better to have them behind you.”
Woodhead wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, but made up for it when he impressed scouts during his pro day in Lincoln. He ran a 40-yard dash that was timed between 4.33 and 4.38 seconds, recorded a vertical jump of 38 1/2 inches and bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times.
Throw in the highlights of some of his best runs, many of which he appears to be little more than a red streak flashing across the screen, and Woodhead makes people forget all about his height.
“Yeah, he’s a little smaller than Gholston,” Mangini said with a laugh. “But Leon isn’t the biggest guy to get off the bus, but he’s a pretty effective guy. I’ve been around a lot of players that people may consider undersized that were incredibly effective.”
This underdog role is nothing new for Woodhead, who was lightly recruited out of high school by Division I schools. Instead, he chose to stay close to home and follow his brother, Ben, who was a wide receiver at Chadron State. He then carved out one of the most successful football careers in NCAA history, silencing the naysayers who said he was too small to play the game.
“It’s something that people have said in the past, but I’ve never gotten caught up in it,” Woodhead said. “It’s never bothered me and I’m fine with how I am, so I’m just going to keep working hard.”