Willie Wood, a Hall of Fame safety for the Green Bay Packers and one of the heroes of Super Bowl I, died Monday after more than a decade of struggling with dementia in an assisted living facility, the Packers announced. He was 83.
A centerpiece of all five of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams, Wood spent his entire 11-year career with the Packers and totaled 50 career interceptions between the regular season and postseason.
The biggest of those picks came in the first Super Bowl, when the Packers led the Kansas City Chiefs early in the second half. Wood intercepted a pass from Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson and returned it 50 yards to set up a five-yard touchdown. That play keyed an eventual 35-10 Packers rout.
Wood was a starter on all five of Lombardi’s championship teams in the 1960s and was held in high regard by the coaching legend.
“Pound for pound, Willie was the best tackler in the game,” Lombardi said, per the Packers.
The Packers picked up the eight-time Pro Bowler as a free agent after he went unselected in the 1960 NFL draft. He spent his college years at USC, where he also played as the first black quarterback in the history of the school and what would become the Pac-12 Conference.
Wood was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. He also worked as a coach after retirement, becoming the first black head coach in professional football when he took over the World Football League’s Philadelphia Bell. He was the first black head coach of the Canadian Football League as well, heading up the Toronto Argonauts.
Tragically, dementia robbed Wood of so many memories in old age. A story from The New York Times in 2016 revealed he had no recollection of playing in the first Super Bowl, or playing in the NFL at all. He was sadly not alone as a former football player who had lost memories of his prime.
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