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Cowboys' Darren Woodson on wait for Hall of Fame: 'At some point, it's going to happen'

The wait is something Darren Woodson has grown used to.

Unfortunately, so is the disappointment.

For the 15th time since he became eligible in 2008, the Cowboys safety has watched another class of men he played with and against be welcomed to football immortality in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In seven of those years, his name was on the list of semifinalists and the case for his enshrinement was made in some secret room to the committee who holds the keys.

This year, for the first time ever, Woodson made it the finalist stage. He was one of 15 greats who had to go about their normal lives for the past couple weeks wondering- and waiting- for what’s become known as The Knock.

Woodson is still waiting.

His wait for The Knock has lasted longer than the entire playing career that has unquestionably earned him the right to hear it.

“Yeah, anytime you’re in a situation where you’re up for an award and you don’t win it… I’d be a fool and lying to you if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Woodson said on Thursday after being passed over for inclusion in the Class of 2023.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m not broken by it.”

It would take a lot more than that to break the three-time Super Bowl champ.

The five-time Pro Bowler.

The four-time first-team All-Pro.

The Ring of Honor honoree.

The franchise’s all-time leading tackler.

The college linebacker who went on to redefine the safety position in the NFL.

When Cowboys defensive backfield coach Dave Campo visited Arizona State in 1992 to work out a cornerback named Phillippi Sparks, it was the Sun Devils’ undersized linebacker who really captured his attention.

“He’s running like crazy out there,” Campo said of Woodson. “He makes a tackle here or there, but Arizona State was so good on defense he didn’t have to make many tackles. But he was around the football all the time.”

Too small to be a pro linebacker? Probably. But Jimmy Johnson also wanted a big, strong safety who also had speed to help Dallas compete with the rest of the NFC East. So Campo put the 6-foot-2-inch, 218-pound Woodson through some DB drills.

“Footwork-wise, explosion and all those things… he was exactly what you’re looking for at that position,” Campo raved.

He promised Johnson that Woodson could start on every special teams unit from Day One and even have a shot at becoming the team’s dedicated nickel back.

The Cowboys used one of their Herschel Walker picks to select him in the second round of the draft.

Woodson started two games that fall, made the league’s All-Rookie team for his special teams play, and helped the Cowboys win the first of three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

He was in the starting lineup on opening day the following season, and the NFL had its first true “cover safety.”

“The nickel position is different,” Campo explained. “It’s tougher to play than the outside corner. The receivers in there are usually quicker and use the whole field to run away from you. That’s where Woodson separates himself from everyone else. He could line up and cover man-to-man with his speed, and was smart enough because of his safety work to understood zones. You don’t see that combination very often. He could handle anyone inside. There’s nobody he really had a problem with.”

Woodson ended his remarkable career with just 23 interceptions, never nabbing more than five in a season. But Dallas played so much man, it can be argued that’s only because he covered so well that he was rarely tested by opposing quarterbacks, even one-on-one against receivers like Andre Reed, Cris Carter, and Jerry Rice.

Hall of Famers all.

As longtime Cowboys writer Rick Gosselin points out:

“With the explosion of the passing game that has made three-receiver offensive sets staples, every team in the NFL now looks for safeties with the cover skills that Woodson brought to the Cowboys back in 1992. He was 30 years ahead of his time.”

Which only makes it harder to see so many defensive backs get gold jackets ahead of Woodson. Not all of them would seem to have a body of work that’s as stacked. One or two very recent inductees noticeably pale in comparison.

And yet, Woodson still waits.

“Going into this, my expectations were set on, ‘Hey, this is my first time on the floor,'” Woodson, now 53, said. “I’m not sure if anyone makes it the first time you get into the top 15 unless you’re a first-ballot guy. But I’m OK. I’ve got a lot of friends and family and tons of support here. I’m going to be fine.”

The fact that he got closer than ever before- only to get rejected again- and have it all happen right in his backyard of Phoenix adds to the travesty, in the eyes of many Cowboys faithful.

Just as the only team Woodson ever played for experienced in the 2022 postseason, making it one step further than last year is of little solace in the moment; it only delays the disappointment. Amplifies it.

But also just like the Cowboys have become accustomed to doing, Woodson is already looking ahead to the future.

With names like Andrew Luck, Julius Peppers, Antonio Gates, and Eric Berry headlining the list of those who will become Hall-of-Fame eligible next year, the Class of 2024 seems to be lacking in surefire first-ballot guys. That could help Woodson’s chances.

But it also requires yet another year of waiting.

“There’s an opportunity for me to continue in this process,” Woodson said, “and hopefully that opportunity is next year, the following year or whatever. I feel like, at some point, it’s going to happen. And I’m okay with that.”

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