Note: The following appears in the May issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication's content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
Donnell Woolford starred at Clemson from 1985-88 as a cover cornerback. No opposing wide receiver had more than two receptions in a game in 1988. The Tigers won the ACC title in each of his last three seasons and compiled a 28-6-2 record. A panel of experts picked him as the No. 12 player on Clemson's football centennial team.
He was third in the nation in punt returns with a 15.0-yard average and returned two for touchdowns in 1987. Woolford was a two-time All-American in 1987 and 1988. As a senior in 1988, he was a consensus first-team All-American and was a First-Team All-ACC selection in 1987 and 1988.
The Chicago Bears chose Woolford in the first round of the NFL draft in 1989. In 1992, Woolford enjoyed one of his best years with seven interceptions and 27 passes defended, and in 1993, he made the Pro Bowl. In his nine-year career, the Fayetteville, N.C., native had 36 interceptions and 303 punt return yards along with a touchdown.
When Woolford came to Clemson in 1985, he along with the coaches made a big decision that impacted his career. A star running back, it was thought he would be the next Terrence Flagler or Kenny Flowers, great Clemson backs of the era.
“They wanted me to play running back and I thought it was the place to be,” said Woolford of his first practice at Clemson. “But when I got there, I looked over at the number of running backs in camp and decided I better try another position. I went over to the cornerbacks because they had the smallest number of players.”
Although he would become one of the best defensive players in school history, Woolford said the switch was not easy.
“I know why the cornerback group had the smallest number, because that's one of the hardest positions to play. However, I worked hard and improved at it, and then I went on after college and played professionally.”
Finding the right position was stressful at the beginning, but Woolford said his experience at Clemson was very positive.
“I chose Clemson because it's a great school. We have great fan support. The whole experience was awesome.
“Coach Woody McCorvey recruited me to Clemson, and he was like a second father to me. He and (teammate) Ray Williams helped me when I first got there. They were both people I could turn to when I needed help.
“Everything about my time at Clemson was great. One of the best memories I have at Clemson was beating Georgia in Athens in 1986 on a last-second field goal by David Treadwell.”
Woolford owned the Bears' record for interceptions by a cornerback (36) until Charles Tillman surpassed that mark in 2013, although Woolford reached his total in 18 fewer games.
“I miss hanging out with the guys,” admitted Woolford. “You never get that out here in the real world. You never know who is on your team.
“Back then, you knew if you were a Bear or a Steeler or a Panther. You would go and watch each other's back and have some fun when you go to battle on the field.
“My favorite moment in my professional career was when I got the phone call from Mike Ditka during the draft process, and he asked me if I wanted to be a Chicago Bear. That's a great moment when your coach calls.”
Woolford is now finishing his degree at Clemson and serving as a student assistant football coach.
He will be inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in Columbia, S.C., on May 15. The class also consists of former Tiger righthander Kris Benson. For information on the event, call 803-779-0905. The event, which includes a reception and dinner, begins at 5:30 p.m.