By Kevin Eckleberry Sports Editor
January 31, 2014
In a game featuring two suffocating defenses, points figured to be at a premium when LaGrange and Swainsboro faced off in the quarterfinals of the 2003 state playoffs.
Turns out, offensive points were non-existent.
Through four quarters of football, neither offense put a point on the board.
LaGrange won the game 2-0 because of a first-half safety, courtesy of a tackle in the end zone by a man accustomed to making big plays.
That player was Wesley Woodyard, who was a senior outside linebacker on that 2003 team that went on to beat Peach County in the championship game.
When the season was over, Woodyard was named the Class AAA defensive player of the year.
Woodyard has since gone on to make a name for himself well beyond the boundaries of his home state.
Woodyard was a four-year starter at Kentucky, and for the past six years, he has been a member of the Denver Broncos.
On Sunday, Woodyard and the Broncos will face the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Among the millions of people who’ll be watching the game across the world will be someone who knows Woodyard well.
Donnie Branch was a football coach at LaGrange High for more than 20 years, and he spent most of that time as the defensive coordinator.
He coached a lot of exceptional players, many of whom went on to capture all-state, and even all-American honors.
Branch coached Woodyard for four years from 2000 through 2003.
Woodyard began his high-school career as a safety, and he was a backup as a freshman and a sophomore.
Woodyard was moved to linebacker for his junior season, and that’s where he thrived for his two seasons as a starter.
“He’s as good as we’ve ever had. He’s as good as I’ve been around in football,” Branch said. “And we’ve had some really good leaders and some great kids over the years.”
It wasn’t just about the numbers, although Woodyard’s stats were impressive enough.
Woodyard, Branch said, was the definition of a leader.
“He was my go-to guy,” Branch said. “If things in practice weren’t going good, he was the guy. He rallied the troops up. They liked to be challenged, and it was because of him.”
During Woodyard’s first year as a starter in 2002, the Grangers appeared to have a great shot at a second straight state championship.
The Grangers took a 12-0 record into a quarterfinal matchup against Screven County, but they lost a 15-14 heart-breaker to Screven County.
During that 2002 season, Woodyard had more than 80 tackles, and that included a team-high 12 tackles for loss.
Woodyard also scored a pair of defensive touchdowns, and forced a pair of fumbles and had an interception.
“He didn’t run out and become a star. He got run over, and played in special teams and did a lot of dirty work (before becoming a starter),” Branch said.
Once Woodyard moved into the lineup, Branch said “he just took off and became a really good player.”
As the Grangers prepared for the 2003 season, it was obvious that the defense was going to have to lead the way because of the personnel losses on the offensive side.
“We needed to be great on defense in order for us to win,” Branch said.
The Grangers were great on defense, thanks largely to Woodyard, although he was just a part of a spectacular defense that included linebackers Tray Blackmon and Travis Hart, as well as defensive lineman Braxton Kelley.
Woodyard was, however, “the heart and soul of that bunch” according to Branch.
Players like Woodyard, Branch said, are “your best players, and they’re one of your hardest workers, and then they influence others to do the same. That’s the way he was.”
Branch added that “I’ve never been around anybody who’s more of a winner than Wesley Woodyard, and that’s on and off the field.”
The Grangers opened that 2003 season with a 24-21 loss to the Troup Tigers, but they didn’t lose again.
The Grangers gave up just seven points per game, and they had six shutouts, including the one against Swainsboro.
LaGrange’s offense struggled, but it didn’t matter, not the way the Grangers were playing on defense.
“The kids kept making plays,” Branch said. “We might have a turnover, and we’d knock ‘em back and hold them.”
In the first half, Swainsboro’s offense was backed up deep in its own territory.
Woodyard corralled a running back in the end zone and made the tackle, and LaGrange was up 2-0, and that was all the scoring.
The Grangers followed that win up with a 20-17 victory over Washington County in the semifinals, and they went on the road and beat Peach County 16-7 in the championship game.
Woodyard was tremendous that year.
He had 125 tackles, including 11 for loss, and in his most eye-popping stat of the season, he forced six fumbles, and returned four fumbles for a touchdown.
“I was scared to death when he graduated,” Branch said. “I knew how good we were going to be in 2004 talent-wise, but I was wondering could somebody else replace the other. Turns out, those kids did.”
The Grangers went 15-0 in 2004 and won a third state championship in four years.
While the Grangers carried on without Woodyard, he went on to become one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference during four stellar years as a starter at Kentucky.
In 2008, Woodyard signed with the Broncos, kicking off what has been an extremely successful NFL career.
Through it all, Branch said Woodyard has always maintained close contact with his old school.
“He is really, really special. He comes back and talks to our kids. We stay in contact regularly. He’s a Granger,” Branch said. “We try to teach these guys now that, guys like this, they check our score every Friday night. They’re NFL players, but they keep up with what we’re doing. He’s that guy. He’s not bigger than LaGrange High to this day. He still sees himself as a Granger.”