Leistikow: LeVar Woods offers positive reports of change inside Iowa football
LeVar Woods played under Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. He served four teams and seven head coaches in seven years in the NFL. And he is now in his 13th season on the Hawkeye football staff.
In all of that football time, no team meeting in Woods' life has compared with the one that occurred June 8, 2020.
“It was like a movie,” Iowa's special teams coordinator said.
Although closed-door meetings are meant to be “sacred,” as he says, Woods knows that the current discussion surrounding Iowa football and America — race relations and equal treatment — shouldn’t be kept private.
So, during his Wednesday-night appearance on the Register’s Hawk Central radio show on KXnO in Des Moines, Woods painted a picture of what he estimates was 90 minutes of program-changing — perhaps lives-changing — emotion and power.
To set the scene, Woods reminds us everything that led up to June 8.
The COVID-19 pandemic separation for players, who were scattered around the country — many training in isolation — built up three months of bottled emotions. Furthermore, the frustration of losing all 15 spring practices can't be underestimated for 100 young men whose calendars and lives are committed to football.
The social unrest over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor had stirred up simmering emotions in a nation.
And then there was the primary reason for this meeting, with the Hawkeye program hitting a crossroads after allegations of mistreatment and racial inequalities from more than 50 former players — many of them prominent NFL names. Gathered players and coaches (in their first in-person meeting since March) wore masks and were socially distanced. Medical personnel were present and wore face shields, he said.
A surreal scene, as Woods put it. And then, the fireworks.
“It was unreal. Unreal. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Woods said. “… I’ve seen a lot of different come-to-Jesus meetings, if you will. A lot of volatile meetings. Nothing like this, ever.
“There was screaming, there was yelling, there was crying. Myself included. There were real, honest conversations. It was emotionally raw.
“Everyone left exhausted but reinvigorated. Because people wanted to keep talking and keep having these conversations and keep getting things off their chests. I was really proud of everybody involved ... the coaches and players, for being vulnerable. It’s not easy to do.”
Woods’ words Wednesday were some of the most uplifting we've heard in the two weeks since the Iowa football program was rocked by allegations of racism and player mistreatment. At the same time, Woods acknowledged that Monday's announced separation agreement with 21-year strength-and-conditioning coach Chris Doyle was difficult. Woods trained under Doyle in his final two years at Iowa (1999 and 2000).
“He helped me tremendously as a player. I’ve been vocal about that,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, some other guys didn’t have the same experience. My heart goes out to those guys. Just because it didn’t happen for me doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or it isn’t real.”
As our interview continued, Woods shared his personal story — growing up as a mixed-race child in small-town Iowa. His Black father and white mother divorced when he was young, and his mom brought them back to her northwest Iowa roots. Before Woods would star for powerhouse West Lyon High School, he wondered why others looked at him differently.
He and his sister were the only Black people, he says, for up to 40 miles around.
“I felt like I had to wear a mask or felt like I had to fit in at times,” Woods said.
Flash forward to today, when actual masks are on faces in our country.
With a lifetime of experience and NFL stops in Phoenix, Chicago, Nashville and Detroit, the 42-year-old has long become comfortable in his own skin, and his presence on the Iowa football staff during this time of crisis and transition cannot be underestimated. He was here for the start of the Ferentz era — scoring a key special-teams touchdown against Northern Illinois to seal the first of Ferentz’s 162 wins over 21 seasons at Iowa — and can represent a bridge into a more-inclusive era of Hawkeye football.
A positive and caring man, Woods is one of four Black full-time position coaches — Kelvin Bell, Kelton Copeland and Derrick Foster are the others — who understands issues his athletes may have faced growing up and can meet them where they are.
And as he talks to colleagues nationally, he sees a huge opportunity for the Iowa program.
“It’s starting in Iowa, but it’s going to be everywhere,” Woods said. “That’s really exciting for us, being on the forefront. The feeling of progress, the feeling of excitement, and being part of the solution on a national level.”
From the June 8 meeting, Woods saw a united team emerge. One that he said "is really, truly together."
That is the best-case scenario for the Hawkeye program going forward. (Wins would be nice, too.)
"The goal is for all of us to be comfortable being themselves," Woods says. “When people are comfortable — I’ve noticed this as a coach — when they’re relaxed, people can perform much better. That’s all we’re trying to do."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.