Haki Woods’ circuitous road to Oregon was at times agonizing, chaotic and as lonely as a melancholy Green Day lyric.
I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I’m the only one and I walk alone
Despite growing up in rough neighborhoods, changing high schools in pursuit of better academics, dealing with family dysfunction and a devastating injury, being overlooked by major college coaches and attending a junior college on the brink of losing its football program, Woods’ dreams were never broken.
The senior cornerback walked among the throng of his graduating peers during UO’s commencement ceremony in June.
Now Woods plans to help create some championship memories during his final season with the Ducks.
“Oh, the journey was crazy,” Woods said of earning a degree in general social science. “But it is nice to graduate. It was a little weight lifted off. It was a good feeling. I knew it was going to happen, and it could have happened quicker, I was just taking my time.
“And when it happened, I was like, ‘That’s crazy, I’m the first one in the family.’”
Woods grew up in Chicago before moving to South Bend, Ind., with his mom and three siblings.
The story didn’t exactly follow the Hollywood script of “Rudy,” with an opportunity to step foot on the hallowed ground of Notre Dame to play for the Fighting Irish.
During high school, Woods was often kicked out of a crowded house and spent cold nights walking around in the dark until the rising sun and ringing school bell finally provided some relief.
“South Bend was worse than Chicago,” Woods said of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in both Midwestern cities. “I don’t really really like to talk about that.”
‘Just like another kid’
Woods was able to lean on his football family at Washington High, including his exceedingly big “brother,” Tony Fair, who is now a 6-foot-3, 335-pound defensive tackle at UAB.
“Once we went to high school and actually became closer, I started becoming more aware of the situation. Haki had a tough time,” Fair said of his struggling teammate. “That’s when I invited him to come to my home and stay with me and my mom.
“We had a brotherhood bond after that.”
Woods, a lissome 6-3 athlete, began his prep career at wide receiver and safety. He was a two-time all-state selection who started to draw interest from regional FCS programs.
“He was very fast, one of the fastest guys on the team,” Fair said. “He was tall and could jump over anybody that was out there.”
Before his senior year, Woods made the decision to transfer to a college preparatory high school, Saint Joseph’s, to focus on academics. Due to the district’s transfer rules, that meant sitting out most of the football season and slipping off the recruiting radar.
When then-Indiana State coach Brian Cabral, a member of the storied 1985 Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl team, made an in-home visit to see Fair and his mother, Charla Scott, Woods was there, too.
“We started talking,” Woods recalled. “Tony told him about me, told him a little bit about where I was at and what I was doing. That’s how I got tied in.”
Cabral offered both Fair and Woods scholarships to play for the Sycamores.
“I didn’t have the greatest life, but I had a good life going on, better than what he had,” Fair said. “So I wanted to make sure I was there to help him get the same opportunities I had in my life.
“My mom loved him just like she loved me. She gave him the same treatment. Anytime we were doing something wrong in the house, he was just like another kid for her.”
‘Basically raised himself’
Woods arrived on campus in Terre Haute, Ind., in 2014 and redshirted during his true freshman season. Fair had to wait a year before qualifying academically. Both would eventually transfer from Indiana State and reunite at Pima Community College.
But shortly after arriving in Tucson, Ariz., Woods tore his ACL during a training camp practice. He went back to Chicago to live with his grandma.
While rehabbing the significant knee injury on his own, Woods was also doing manual labor at a warehouse.
Fair admits he was “very worried” his friend wouldn’t return to college, but Woods made the most of the strenuous gap year.
“It wasn’t until I got injured that I grew,” Woods said. “I started understanding the game more. It was like, ‘I can’t give up.’
“Two months after my injury, I started doing backflips again.”
Pima coach Jim Monaco welcomed Woods back with open arms for the 2016 season and knew his gifted pupil had the right makeup to eventually move on to an FBS program.
“The biggest impression I had of Haki right away was how mature he was as a young man,” Monaco said. “He basically raised himself and he had a lot going on personally that he had to deal with. But he is really a laid-back kid, he really fit in well and became a leader right away.”
Woods quickly caught the eye of Rich Rodriguez and his staff at Arizona. As he put together an NJCAA all-American season with 45 tackles (35 unassisted) and five pass breakups in 2017, the offers from other Power 5 programs started to come in.
“When I got back to Arizona, I don’t want to say it was easy, but I loved playing football again,” Woods said.
California, Oklahoma State and Utah recruited Woods, but the opportunity to play at Oregon was the one that piqued his interest the most.
“I’m really here, I’m really attending my dream school!” Woods posted on social media, along with a photo of his UO student I.D., on Jan. 8, 2018, after arriving in Eugene.
‘One of those dudes’
On the field, the utopia Woods envisioned at Oregon wasn’t a reality. He only made five tackles and was mostly relegated to special teams while dealing with nagging injuries throughout his first season with the Ducks.
“It wasn't the fact that I wasn't good or I sucked or anything. I was just not mentally here,” Woods said. “I didn't gain the trust of the new coaches right away, and it was kind of on me. I was coming in not really focused and stuff. You know how it is with coaches. I didn’t show the coaches that I was interested, I didn’t show them the fight and burn. …
“It took me time to grow and get focused.”
Daewood Davis can relate to Woods’ rocky transition. The redshirt sophomore arrived in the Pacific Northwest from Hollywood, Fla., expecting to step into the spotlight immediately as a flashy receiver.
After being humbled by current Seattle Seahawks rookie safety Ugo Amadi on his first-ever practice rep at Oregon, redshirting in 2017 and only making one catch for 13 yards last season, Davis has switched positions and joined Woods in the battle for playing time in the defensive backfield.
“I’m hard on myself because I know the things I’ve got to do better. I think Haki is the same way,” Davis said of the struggle to find a niche on a talented Pac-12 roster. “Like if Haki messes up, he knows he messed up and he beats himself up. But he comes back on the next play, plays hard, plays better.
“That’s all you can ask for in a guy, someone that can critique himself and go out and do it better the next time.”
Woods entered fall camp healthy and is competing for the starting nickel spot with fleet redshirt freshmen Verone McKinley and other touted newcomers.
“He’s probably one of the top three best athletes on the team,” starting cornerback Thomas Graham said of Woods. “He’s able to run, he’s probably one of the fastest on the team, he can jump the highest. He’s one of those dudes.
“Now we just have to allow him to put that on the field. He’s been doing that in camp, and I feel he’s in a very tight position battle at nickel because they’re all stepping up, making plays. He’s doing what he has to do to make that jump and get that opportunity.”
Woods was the first new verbal commitment in the 2018 recruiting class after Willie Taggart left abruptly for Florida State and Mario Cristobal was elevated to head coach.
“He's so long and rangy. He hit 23 miles per hour on the GPS, which is really high, so his top-end speed is through the roof,” Cristobal said. “And he's a guy that's finally had a full year to develop in a system, and what he's doing this year has some similarities and carryover from what he had in previous seasons.
“We're excited about Haki. He's been very productive and he's been very good on special teams as well. So we see a really productive season for him as a senior.”
‘He’s a strong cat’
As bumpy as Woods’ Oregon trail was, the journey through the desert proved to be well-timed.
Following the 2018 season, the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Community College District announced it was eliminating football at the four junior colleges in the district still playing the sport.
Pima’s program was included in the extinction.
“That is what helped me and Haki rebuild our life. That school was really important for a lot of athletes to have that opportunity,” Fair said. “Without Pima, I wouldn’t have made it this far. I would still probably be back at home in South Bend, Indiana. I don’t know where Haki would be.
“Haki bounced around a lot trying to find an opening to create a new way for his life. It would have been really hard for us to be where we are right now without Pima.”
Monaco, who is now the school’s athletic director overseeing the remaining sports programs, said Woods’ history professor at Pima recently stopped by his office to reminisce about his success story.
“That is the sin of not having the football program. Where would Haki Woods have gone?” Monaco said of his version of Last Chance U. “We love our kids, we work them harder than most, but our kids graduate and they get pushed.
“And Haki just busted right through.”
Dante Williams has tried to pick up where the Fair and Pima families left off. In the beginning, mentoring Woods wasn’t easy for Oregon’s young cornerbacks coach.
“I had a lot of stuff happen to me over my past, so I didn’t really trust people,” Woods said. “I didn’t really trust Dante and I didn’t really talk to him for a period of time. Now he’s like a brother to me. I opened up to him.”
Williams said Woods’ personal development off the field has been the most rewarding part about coaching him.
“Football is one thing, but him as a person, just the growth,” Williams said. “Haki, when it comes to age back there, he’s the grandpa. It’s just seeing him as a person, because football doesn’t last forever. Blessed if he gets the (NFL) opportunity after this, but soon he’s going to have to be a grown man. For him, it’s going to be a lot sooner than everyone else.
“Just seeing him as a person grow, to deal with the things he’s been through, the trials and tribulations, and to see him grow from it and learn from it," Williams continued.
There was a time when Woods' shadow was the one that walked beside him. When he takes the field Aug. 31 for the opener against Auburn at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and for senior day against Oregon State on Nov. 30 at Autzen Stadium, he won’t walk alone.
“Haki is strong, man. He’s a strong cat. I personally don’t think I could have went through that,” Davis said of the FCS and junior college road less traveled to Oregon. “I give him props for being very strong. Haki has handled a lot of adversity. …
“He’s the man, he’s strong, and now is his opportunity to step up and show everybody what he can do.”