Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood's playing career has been cut short by a neck injury.
The nine-year veteran made that shocking announcement early Friday afternoon – a devastating blow to the franchise, and in many ways, the entire community. In a statement issued through the team, Wood said, "I was diagnosed with a neck injury as part of my season-ending physical with the Bills. After consulting with Dr. Cappuccino and other physicians, I was informed that I was no longer cleared to play football, even with surgery or treatment.
"I appreciate and thank everyone for their thoughts, concerns and prayers, and I will shed more light on the situation at a news conference Monday at the team facility."
That news conference – with Wood, coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane – will be held at 1 p.m.
Speaking to the Bills' official website at the Pro Bowl, Bills left guard Richie Incognito called Wood's retirement a "huge loss" for the franchise.
"Eric's a special guy," Incognito said. "He’s been a great friend to me. Great teammate. Great leader. A guy that I really leaned on a lot when I first got back in the league. It’s really a sad day."
Wood, 31, is a team captain who has become a fan favorite over his nine seasons with the Bills, as much for his tireless work off the field as for his contributions on it. Most recently, the Eric Wood Fund raised $57,000 at a November fundraiser to support programming at the John R. Oishei Children's Hospital of Buffalo. Inspired by the memory of his younger brother, Evan, who died at age 11 due to cerebral palsy, Wood's off-field work has come to define him.
"Just knowing the struggles that families have with a sick child, I want to do anything I can to help them," Wood told The News during a lengthy Q and A in October. "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."
Wood was the Bills' nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award in back-to-back seasons in 2015-16.
"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," he explained. "That just takes time and what you're willing to do. So I take a lot of pride in that."
Wood grew up on the west side of Cincinnati, a blue-collar area that made him feel right at home in Buffalo.
"I've always felt like I've related well to people here," he said in October. "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.”
On the field, Wood was the only Bills player to take 100 percent of the offensive snaps for the 2017 season. That was a point of pride for him after his 2016 season was cut short because of a broken leg suffered on Monday Night Football against Seattle. Wood overcame a string of injuries suffered early in his career – including a gruesome broken leg that ended his rookie season and a torn ACL in 2011 – to start 59 consecutive games, from the last two weeks of the 2012 season to getting hurt against the Seahawks.
"That is something I took pride in, because of that (injury prone) label," he said in October. "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."
A former two-star recruit with just one college scholarship offer from Louisville, Wood turned himself into a first-round draft pick in 2009. He started all 120 games in which he appeared for the Bills, second to defensive tackle Kyle Williams among Buffalo's longest-tenured players. A 2015 Pro Bowl selection, his presence in the locker room as a captain will be difficult to replace. Several of Wood's teammates reacted to Friday's news on Twitter.
Deeply saddened by this news. Cannot say enough positive things about @EWood70. Prayers sent your way brotha. Much love to you and your family.
— Zay (@zayjones11) January 26, 2018
Thinking and praying for my guy @EWood70 such a great competitor and leader!
— Patrick DiMarco (@PatDiMarco42) January 26, 2018
My brother @EWood70 I love you bro praying for you 🙏🏿
— Shaq Lawson (@Shaq_Lawson90) January 26, 2018
Wood was hoping to make his farewell from football at Sunday's Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla., two league sources told The News on Friday. He held off the announcement about his future in case he got the call, the sources said.
Wood said last week that he would have gone to the Pro Bowl had Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers decided not to play. Wood was named a first Pro Bowl alternate behind Pouncey and Rodney Hudson of the Raiders. Even if he made the Pro Bowl, Wood was planning to retire regardless, the sources said.
Wood signed a two-year contract extension in August that ran through the 2019 season. He was scheduled to count $8.625 million against the salary cap in 2018, including $4.8 million in base salary that is guaranteed for injury. That cap number would actually jump to $10.39 million if Wood is placed on the reserve/retired list before June 1, accounting for the portion of his signing bonus that was to count against the 2019 salary cap. If Wood is placed on the reserve/retired list after June 1, he would count $8.225 million against the 2018 cap and $2.166 million against it in 2019.
"Eric's done a great job since he was drafted here in '09. We think he's still playing well," Beane said in announcing the contract extension. "We think he's a leader up front, not only on the O-line but on the offense."
Wood was asked in October whether he thought that contract extension would be the last one he signs.
"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," he said. "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."
Just a few months later, he got a taste of that success, being a part of the team that ended a 17-year playoff drought – lifting an enormous burden off the franchise and setting off a week's worth of celebrations in Western New York.
"To end the drought is special," Wood said the day after the Bills lost, 10-3, to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a wild-card game. "That was one of our goals heading into the year. Once we got in the dance, it’s obviously disappointing we didn’t make anything of it in a game that was very winnable yesterday.
"That hurts, but looking back and reflecting, ending the drought feels great. I’m just so glad I won’t have to answer ‘so what’s different this year? How are we going to end the drought this year?’ Now, it’s we have a foundation to build on. Let’s keep improving and let’s go try and win a Super Bowl."
A few days after the Bills were eliminated, Wood was by the side of his wife, Leslie, as she gave birth Jan. 11 to their second child, a son named Garrett who joins older sister Grace.
News Sports Reporter Tim Graham contributed to this report.