A few minutes after the Bills picked Eric Wood with the 28th pick of the 2009 NFL draft, I was on the phone with my old pal, Geoff Hobson, who writes for the Bengals.com website. Hobson got to know Wood when Eric, who played college ball at Louisville, was a high school star in his native Cincinnati.
"You just got your next Kent Hull," Geoff told me. "He'll anchor the line for 10 years and be a great go-to guy for you in the locker room."
Hobson knew what it meant to Buffalo people to hear the comparisons to Hull, one of the most beloved of the Super Bowl Bills and a respected source of insight and wisdom for the reporters. At it turned out, he was right. The affable, curly-haired Wood soon became the center on the Bills' offensive line, a reliable force on the field and a stand-up guy off it.
Sadly, Wood didn't quite make it to the 10-year mark. He played nine seasons for the Bills. His career came to a sudden end on Friday with the shocking news that he would have to retire because of a neck injury. As of this writing, there was no official word on what caused the injury. Wood told the team he didn't want the news out, though it's hard to keep anything this serious a secret nowadays.
There's a news conference scheduled for Monday, which will be a sad beginning for Super Bowl week for fans in Buffalo.
Wood was truly one of the good guys, a fixture in the community and a faithful, if generally diplomatic, resource for the media. He was the Bills' nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award in both 2015 and '16. His Eric Wood Fund raised more than $57,000 at a November fundraiser for the Oishei Children's Hospital. He gave his time to countless community causes, including the Bills' Play 60 Program, Teammates for Kids, and Make A Wish.
When healthy, he was equally reliable on the field. This past season, Wood played in 100 percent of the offensive snaps as the Bills broke their 17-year playoff drought. He helped pave the way for a running game that led the NFL in rushing yards and average per carry in 2015 and '16 and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2015.
Wood was sensitive about the notion that he was injury-prone early in his career, when he missed 15 of his first 48 games. But he played every game from 2013-15 and was having another fine season before breaking his leg on Monday night in Seattle halfway through the 2016 season. That led to speculation that the Bills might move on from him. But in something of a surprise, he signed a two-year extension worth an additional $16 million before the 2017 season.
After a career of unflagging optimism, Wood finally made the playoffs. When the Bills lost 10-3 to the Jaguars in the wild-card game three weeks ago, he was disappointed with the offense's performance, but encouraged with the direction of the franchise under Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott.
"I'm proud of the way we worked and fought all year," he said that day. "Obviously, you're going to have your most enjoyable season when you make the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. But this team was enjoyable to go to work with, a lot of grinders, a lot of fighters. A lot of people put egos aside for this team.
"I'm proud of us, but man, when you have a game out there like that one was and you don't come back, it hurts. It really hurts."
Not as much as it hurts to see his career cut short in this way. Wood's loss creates another big hole on a roster with several of them. But the void in the community, and the locker room, will be even harder to fill.