The novelty hasn’t worn off for Eric Wood.
Even though the Buffalo Bills’ center will return to Cincinnati for the fourth time Sunday as a professional, each trip is special.
“Always. I played a couple games in high school in that stadium,” Wood said. “So it’s always neat going back.”
Wood attended Elder High School on the city’s west side, an area he calls “pretty blue collar.” That’s one reason why, nine years into his career, he feels so at home in Western New York.
Wood spoke with The Buffalo News about returning home, his love for Buffalo, and why this season feels different for the Bills.
What was life like growing up in Cincinnati?
“It was good. The west side of Cincinnati is wrapped around high school sports. Football, basketball, baseball, that's pretty much all I knew as a kid was what sport's coming next.”
How have those blue-collar roots shaped you?
"Both my parents worked hard and they gave us everything we needed. They allowed me and my brother to have every opportunity, which meant I got to play a lot of sports and get into what I wanted, and ultimately football worked hard.
"My dad worked in the moving business and my mom dealt cards at a casino, so they definitely worked hard and provided me with a lot of great opportunities."
Even though you played on two state championship teams in high school, you were considered a two-star recruit. How much of a motivating factor was that in your life?
“I had one scholarship offer to Louisville, and I got offered that after a basketball game. So even after my senior season of football, we played 15 games including the state championship, with no offers. Then Louisville's football coaches came up to a basketball game and offered me a scholarship after that.”
Now you’re nine years in, with a Pro Bowl appearance on your resume. How much do you think about that journey?
“When you're in the moment, you're always thinking, 'What's next? We've got to make the playoffs, I've got to get to another Pro Bowl. I want to be the best center in the NFL.’ You're always worried about what's next, and then sometimes when I'm driving in and I see our stadium lights in the morning, I'm like, 'this is just an awesome opportunity.’ I'm always worried about what's next and I'm not really enjoying the fact that I worked so hard from a not-sought-after recruit to even being here, in my ninth year. It takes a while, but eventually I started appreciating that more and more.”
When did that light go off that something like this could even be possible?
“I had an opportunity at Louisville. What kind of lit a fire under me is I was playing some tackle my redshirt year, a little tackle, a little guard, and one day in fall camp my redshirt freshman year, they moved me to center. The next day we had a scrimmage and I played really well. They said, ‘We're going to move you to starting center, and we think you can be really good at this.’ At that moment, my goals kind of shifted. I wanted to be the best then. That little bit of opportunity and that little bit of confidence springboarded my career.”
So you went from not knowing where you’d play to being a guy who started 49 games in a row?
“Yeah. I think another guy had started more games, but I started every game at Louisville, and really had never been hurt in my life until I get to the NFL and had a rough string at the start of my career. It was just a great opportunity at Louisville early to hop in there. We had a super talented team. It wasn't like I looked around the country and said ‘all these good players are going to Louisville, I want to be a part of that.’ I was really fortunate to be a part of that.”
So how does a two-star recruit end up there, anyway?
Former Louisville offensive coordinator and current Purdue head coach “Jeff Brohm started recruiting me actually my junior year when I was a backup tight end. He would come to our football practices — they were recruiting other guys on our team at Elder — and he actually started building a relationship then. He kind of said, ‘Hey, you've got a big frame, you could maybe play some offensive line.’ At this time I was probably 205 pounds. He's like, ‘You might be able to play O-line, if they're not going to play you at tight end.’ It wasn't them not playing me. I'm assuming I wasn't better than the next guy.
“But Jeff Brohm was really integral. We played Brian in high school, and he was going to Louisville, Jeff's younger brother, and I said, ‘Well I've played against that guy before, I definitely want to be on the same team as him if I can.’ As soon as Louisville offered a scholarship, I was ready to commit without ever having been down there. My dad said let's wait and take a visit down there this weekend. They had mentioned I can hop in this next visit, and then I committed right after.”
You’ve spoken in the past about how your younger brother, Evan (who was born with cerebral palsy and passed away at the age of 11, when Eric was 14) has been an inspiration for your off-the-field work. How much will he be on your mind this weekend?
“He’s the inspiration for pretty much all my off-field work. Him and my family, just knowing the struggles that families have with a sick child, I want to do anything I can to help them. We do a lot financially because that's the easiest for us to do, but we're just trying to take any stress we can off them. Any child is a blessing, but the difficulties that come with having a sick child, we just want to try and relieve anything we can.
You’ve been chosen as the Bills’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year in back-to-back seasons. Why do you think that is?
“You can't always control what happens on the field. You can have a great week of practice and go out on Sunday and just not play well. You can get beat. Those guys get paid on the other side of the ball, too. But you can always control your effort and your attitude and what you do out in the community. That just takes time and what you're willing to do. So I take a lot of pride in that. Looking around our team, I don't know if every team is the same way, but looking at how many other guys that I felt were worthy of it, made it mean even more. Just that guys put me on that type of level.”
You mentioned earlier staying healthy throughout college. That changed in your rookie year when you broke your leg in Week 11 at Jacksonville. That was an injury that left those who saw it in tears? What do you recall most about it?
“I was kind of on a roll my rookie year. I was playing guard for the first time. The week before, our O-line coach, Sean Kugler, said, ‘You're playing better than any rookie I've ever coached. I think you're the best rookie linemen in the league.’ I don't know that he was also telling other people that, too, but at that time I was kind of on a roll. I was playing pretty well, and then that happened.
“I had never really been hurt. It was all very surreal. The bye week was the week before and I had closed on a house in Louisville. So I had no furniture, no nothing. So then I'm sitting in a hospital bed in Jacksonville, I had just closed on a house and I'm up in Buffalo by myself at the time. I had to make a lot of decisions quick that were unplanned.”
Partially as a result of that injury, combined with knee injuries that ended his 2011 and 2012 seasons, you developed a label as injury prone. How much did that bother you?
“I would always talk to the media after my injuries and I would say look I know what you're going to write and I know what you're thinking, that I'm injury prone. But these are like, breaks and tears. It's not like I have a bad back or a bad hamstring that I'm missing practice week to week. It's literally I don’t have a single thing going, and then there's like, a catastrophe.
“After that, I took a gamble on myself on my next contract. I said ‘Look, I know I've been hurt, but I'm willing to take a gamble. You can put a bunch of money in playing-time bonuses,’ which we did. And then I went on to start the most consecutive games of any active center. That is something I took pride in because of that label. I try not to feed into that, but I had almost convinced myself, ‘Ok, so when's it going to happen again?' So it was special to get on a streak of good luck, I guess.”
You signed a two-year contract before this season started that has you in Buffalo through 2019. Do you think that was your last contract?
“I don't know. My thinking is I want to play well enough through this contract that they're trying to get me to re-sign again here. I don't necessarily ever want to hit free agency. I love this organization. I love what we have building. As soon as I got to spend an offseason with Sean McDermott and then Brandon Beane came in, I said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ I would never forgive myself if I left and then the success happened. I don't care what money, what beach town there is out there. It would never sit well with me.
“I talked to Will Wolford for a while about it. He's a part of the financial group I work with in Louisville. He's like, ‘Man, Buffalo's a special place.' He left for more money, and he said it's not always worth that. This town means a lot to me and my family, but I like the direction. That was a big part of it. Yeah, I understand I haven't been to the playoffs yet and I'm reminded of it a lot, but each year is a new year. I've had seven coaches. But I like what we have going.”
After nine years, I feel like Western New Yorkers have accepted you as one of their own. Does it feel like that to you?
“Nine years is a long time. Where I grew up in Cincinnati is similar to where I live here. A lot of suburbs — just kind of a blue-collar area. I've always felt like I've related well to people here. When people ask me what it's like playing in upstate New York, I'm like 'I pretty much live in upstate Ohio.’ It's right on the lake. People don't talk like they're from New York. If anything they talk like they're from Canada. They don't talk like New Yorkers.
“It started out, my rookie year and my second year, I'd have a few people come to games. Those people started bringing more people. Now it seems like every week at my truck, we have 15 or 20 people. We have a tailgate every week after the game. We've got our traditions and we embrace them. We know we're going to Ilio’s after a game. I've got Western New York roots now.”
You mentioned earlier that you like what the new front office and coaching staff have brought to the organization. So what’s the biggest change?
“With every head coach, it's run a little bit different. So every time it's been a little different. This team's a little closer and that's for a number of reasons and they've been pretty well documented. One of the reasons is this organization has done a good job of bringing in quality people and quality players. They don't necessarily have to be the world's greatest superstar, but if I know exactly what (the guy next to me is) going to do, he knows exactly what I'm going to do, we trust each other and we're going to play better, than if I think, ‘I don't know if that guy's in his playbook.’
"McDermott and Beane have done a great job of identifying people that are like that and keeping them, and if not, identifying them whether it's in free agency or on another team and saying, ‘Ok, when they're available, we'll bring them here.’ You bring in a guy like Jordan Matthews. He's productive, he works his tail off and he's a great dude. I could go down the list. Jordan Poyer. Micah Hyde. E.J. Gaines. These are all hard workers, trustworthy guys. When you meet the guys they bring in, you say, 'Oh, I get it now.'
“I'm not saying we're going to go 15-1. But I like our direction. I think what we're building is a culture. And the culture will produce wins. And it will produce longevity of wins. Not a hot start, not a five-game slump. It's ok, 'We're going to work our tails off every week, we're going to try and earn the right to win, and if we play well enough to win, we will.' If we don't, we need to come back and do it again."
You’re 31 now. How much have you considered what might be next for you?
“Not a whole lot, because I've always had the philosophy that if you're worried too much about what you're going to do when you're done playing, you're going to shorten your career. The guys that try to hop into broadcasting early or do too much outside of football, you generally get out of football a little quicker.
“Coaching at the college or pro level is very appealing, but the hours aren't. I don't think I want to do that, be away from my family that much. We built our dream house in Louisville this offseason. That'll be home base. We'll see. I've tried throughout my career to network well, to make a good impression with people, always advance myself as a person. If I'm in any type of investment deal, I try to learn a little bit about it, just so I can be a well-rounded guy, where when I'm done playing, I can be an asset whether it's broadcasting college games, whether it's real estate or whatever. I just want to keep advancing as a person.”