The August before his junior season at Central Arkansas, Jonathan Woodard's world shook. One of his best friends, a source of support and laughter and friendship, committed suicide.
You don't prepare for this.
"It was really rough," Woodard said. "That was the closest friend or family member I’ve had die. That was rough on me."
Then, the next two years, Woodard molded himself into a NFL prospect.
At 6 foot 5, 275 pounds, Woodard has the rare frame to play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. As Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan surely knows, such physical specimens do not grow on trees. One player Woodard has emulated? Ex-Bill Mario Williams. So after totaling 33 tackles (10.5 for loss) with 5.5 sacks last season, Woodard will be one option in the later rounds. And it's this perspective — losing his close friend, Payne Shanafelt — that drives him every day.
Woodard even changed his number to No. 3, Shanafelt's number in high school.
“It’s something that takes a while to cope with," Woodard said. "I had a strong support system there and they made it easier in time.”
This suicide, like so, so many, was completely unexpected. Only later did Woodard see the signs, which he'd rather not delve into today.
The emotion in August 2014? "Complete shock." Back at Ravenwood (Tenn.) High School, Woodard was the tight end and defensive end; Shanafelt the wide receiver. And Shanafelt was a very outgoing guy, he said, a friend who loved hunting, loved the outdoors. On the field, he was athletic, strong, talented.
Any time, Woodard was home in Tennessee, the two worked out together and threw the ball around. In fact, Shanafelt and Shanafelt's parents were there on site for Woodard's first game his redshirt freshman year against Ole Miss.
So, yes, "complete shock."
"There’s no better way to put it," Woodard said. "I just tried to be there for his family and be there for everybody that knew him. Because he was really a great friend and somebody who was there for me all throughout school and I played football with him back at high school. It was something that really caught us all by surprise.”
That junior season in 2014, Woodard finished with 56 tackles (18.5 for loss) and 10 sacks. He said he "always" thought about his friend, be it a practice or a game.
Now, it's on to the NFL.
Woodard had visits planned with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans. Schematically, he'd make sense in Buffalo, too, possessing the length ends need in a 3-4. As a pass rusher, he works "speed to power," in that he'll try to burn linemen off the edge initially with his quicks and then overwhelm them with his bull rush as the game progresses.
Said Woodard, "That combination is pretty deadly from a guy my size."
So Calais Campbell (6-8, 300) and Carlos Dunlap (6-6, 280) are two other ends he tries to study in addition to Williams. Ryan would love a Campbell clone if there's one out there, someone who'll shut the door vs. the run and provide a steady rush vs. the pass. Before games at Central Arkansas, Woodard turned to two other players, pulling up YouTube clips of Ray Lewis and Brian Dawkins giving speeches and crushing opponents.
Every word, every hit got him hyped.
“The ferocity. The passion," he said. "The ability to will their teammates to win. It’s really amazing to watch guys like that.”
Be it from the 5-technique or the corner, Woodard excelled. He often used his long arms to bench press tackles wherever he pleased. Then again, he did so in the Southland Conference of the FBS. Teams will be naturally skeptical if this small-school prospect can make the leap to the pros.
"I played quality opponents on both levels," Woodard said. "I don’t think teams should be worried about the level of competition I played.
“My game speaks for itself and I think the gap’s really closing as far as the level of talent in the FBS."
Woodard points to the fact that he wasn't heavily recruited out of high school, that he had to "really build myself up to where I am now." He feels sorely overlooked again.
But someone, at some point, will give Woodard a chance to live out his dream... and it's the dream once shared with a close friend he lost.
"It means a lot," Woodard said. "It’s something that takes a while to sink in — what’s really happening? But it’s just something you have to embrace and not let the moment get too big. Just embrace it and live in the moment.”