There are times when Eric Wood wishes he could yank off the headset he has worn since August and pull on the helmet he wore for nine NFL seasons.
Every now and then, while sitting in the Buffalo Bills' radio booth, he pictures himself spending football games in the same place he spent them for half his life: on the field.
"I definitely miss playing," Wood said. "But the things I miss about playing are the highlights. And it's easy when you look back on it to remember all the highlights and forget about all the injuries and the way you feel on Monday morning and just a number of things that can go wrong throughout a season.
"With the Bills sitting at 2-0, do I wish I was in the locker room? Many times, yes. But I'm really enjoying the stage of life I'm in now as well."
For the 33-year-old former center, this stage is for talking about the game rather than playing. Wood is in his first season as the analyst for the Bills' radio broadcasts, working next to veteran play-by-play man John Murphy. He's also in his first season as a game analyst for the ACC Network. Additionally, the Cincinnati native does a podcast and other media work, public speaking and whatever he's called on to do as part owner of a Louisville gym and rehab facility, which opened in 2016, with other former Louisville players in the NFL.
That wasn't how Wood envisioned spending this fall after the 2017 season. Back then, he wasn't seeing any sort of finish line. As far as Wood was concerned, his future included 10th and 11th NFL seasons, and he'd be helping the Bills beat his hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday at New Era Field.
But all of that changed with a phone call from Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, the Bills' orthopedist, late in the morning of Jan. 11, 2018. That was when Wood learned a neck injury, discovered during his postseason physical examination, would bring his playing days to an end.
"At that point, I already had a couple MRIs just in the three or four days since the season ended," Wood said. "I knew something was up. But when I got the news that my career was essentially over, arrogantly as a player, you think you know it all. You're going to get way more opinions, you're going to get cleared."
At the time of the call, he and his wife, Leslie, were in a hospital delivery room, awaiting the birth of their second child. About an hour later, Garrett Wood arrived.
"I think the way my career ended, where it wasn't on my own terms, it was injuries and not being cut, it's always going to leave some gray area where I kind of sit there and think, 'Could I still do it?' " said Wood, who joined the Bills in 2009 as a first-round draft pick from the University of Louisville and still makes the city his home as he did throughout his NFL career. "I know I could still play at a high level. But I just would never pass the physical again. So, yeah, I miss it and there's a lot of times I wish I was still playing.
"But if I really racked my brain long enough, especially as I see a guy like (New York Jets quarterback) Trevor Simeon get rolled up on Monday Night Football and I think to the time on Monday Night Football when I broke my leg and how miserable the next four to six months were because of it. Then you could quickly appreciate that you're in the broadcast role and you still get to be around the game and not be beat up."
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Wood, who on Oct. 25 will be inducted into the University of Louisville Athletics Hall of Fame, talked by phone with The Buffalo News about his playing career, his broadcasting work and his thoughts on the Bills.
Buffalo News: Do you ever get angry about the way your playing career ended?
Eric Wood: There's definitely times of anger, frustration, the timing of the injury with literally getting the news while I'm in the delivery room for the birth of my son. That kind of distracted me enough and the initial moment that anger wasn't a huge part of it. It also happened right after the season, when you're always kind of run-down, a little burned out and all that. I don't know that I truly ever got angry, but you always get that pit in your stomach like, you should be somewhere or you're not in the right spot. And that kind of hit me in the spring, my first year out, when I saw the Bills had posted pictures of the guys back working out and I saw everybody in their gear. They had a rough year last year, but they kept the tradition alive that I started with the "Ugly Christmas Sweater Party." It's the little things like that you really miss.
I could sit here and say I could have played another five or six years. The Bills now have their franchise quarterback, they have such great direction under Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane. I could sit here and be really upset about that. Or I could sit here and appreciate the fact that I played nine years in the NFL, was a first-round draft pick, was a kid with one scholarship offer – only one – to the University of Louisville. I didn't even start as a junior in high school on my varsity football team. So I can look at it from two ways and I try to be more appreciative of the career I did have.
Probably the hardest part was the way it all ended, in the sense that I didn't truly get a retirement speech, I didn't truly get a retirement party. Maybe my career doesn't deserve it, but that's the thing that kind of still lingers. As I joke with my wife often, we could still have a retirement party a few years from now and get a couple bands from Louisville and throw down.
BN: Why did the retirement take the turn it did with you dressed in your suit, surrounded by family and friends in the Bills' fieldhouse, and suddenly leaving the stage after speaking for 90 seconds and taking no questions?
EW: I had spoken to Beane and McDermott and we had just come to terms with the situation that my career was going to be ending. And it was an emotional conversation between the three of us. All of us were feeling hurt at that moment. We decided on a date for a press conference that allowed them time to get back from the Senior Bowl and it allowed me to bring my family up there and figure everything out. This was simply going to be an injury announcement. This was not my retirement speech, this was not a retirement party. The injury news had leaked, so it was simply a chance to explain the situation and have me control the message.
It was very important for me, based on the reputation I had in Buffalo and around the league, that I didn't want people to think I was walking away. I was being disqualified physically. And the way contracts read, with large injury guaranteed numbers in the millions and the NFLPA, my agent, and everybody else getting involved – and I'm appreciative of this, but in the moment, it ticked me off and hurt – basically told me what I had written that day as far as the few thank-you's, explaining the situation, talking about how I'm no longer going to be able to play, sounded like a retirement speech. I said, "I'm not going to use the word 'retire.' I'm not retiring, I've been disqualified from football." And they said, "Yeah, we just don't want to play any games with this."
And this all goes down the morning of the press conference, with everybody already in attendance and former teammates having flown in. Kids from the hospital from our foundation that we've worked with for a number of years were already in attendance. So, I said, "I've got to do something." And that led to about the 90-second, awkward injury explanation with no questions answered afterward. I just envisioned one day standing up at the podium talking about how proud I was of my career and thanking everybody I needed to thank and having some laughs. And that never happened.
BN: How are you enjoying the broadcast gigs?
EW: I'm enjoying them a lot. It's fun being back around ball. Last year, I did a couple of pregame shows for a network called Stadium. I called one game for Fox on FS1, so I got a taste of it last year and thought it was probably something I wanted to get into. Luckily, I got two great opportunities. I was extremely thankful to get to work in the ACC, a conference that my alma mater's in and a conference that keeps me on this side of the country, so my travel's not too crazy. And it's one of the premiere conferences, if not the premiere conference, in college sports. And then, obviously, to be back affiliated with the Buffalo Bills organization in the role I'm in has been pretty special.
BN: Between those two jobs, alone, it seems you have a pretty ambitious schedule.
EW: At some point Thursday, I need to get to my ACC location. With two young kids at home (including 4-year-old daughter Grace), I like to stretch that out as far as I can. My play-by-play guy, Wes Durham, is the play-by-play guy for the Falcons, so we always have an early Saturday game. ESPN and the ACC Network have been great the entire time in working with both of us to ensure that we'll always be able to make it to our next game.
We head out as soon as the ACC game's over, which can be interesting, especially with some of these little college towns. Last week, we were in Blacksburg, Va., and in order for us to get to our next location, the best route was to drive three hours to Charlotte and then fly out of there. The last couple of weeks, I've gotten to New Jersey a little after 10 p.m., and then prepped for the game. For away games, I come home that night. For home games, I stay in town an extra day to do some in-house media for the Bills.
BN: How do you keep up with all of the studying you have to do for these games?
EW: When I'm on planes, when I'm in airports, I'm constantly reading. I'm utilizing all my travel time as prep time, so that I can be a little bit more present at home than I could otherwise be. I'm so familiar with the Bills that it's been easier to prep for those games just because I don't need to learn names and numbers. Most teams in the NFL, I'm still very familiar with. If you tell me a defensive coordinator and I don't know him immediately and know his scheme, I can do a quick Google search, figure out which tree he came from, and generally figure out what his defense would look like even without watching some film. In college, that's much different. You also have to really familiarize yourself with a crazy amount of players. And guys wear multiple numbers.
BN: Given the Bills' 2-0 start and the very real chance they could be 3-0, do you feel like you could be missing out on something special?
EW: Yeah. And I honestly felt that way last year. I'd met Josh Allen at the Masters the year my career ended. It was prior to the draft and I thought, "Man, this kid, he looks the part, he acts the part." A buddy of mine, Brian Brohm, the former Louisville quarterback who is the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Purdue, was at the Senior Bowl that year. He loved him. He broke down a lot of tape on all the college guys and I thought, "Man, if the Bills get him, I'll be jealous that I don't get a few years to kind of nurture a young quarterback and always have a relationship with him." And the fact that I didn't get that stings. But I'm very happy the Bills got Josh. He's all about ball and he's got so much talent. He's young and he's smart, he's competitive, and he brings so much to the table. I'm happy for the franchise.
I'm pretty bought in, honestly. That won't surprise some former teammates, maybe colleagues in particular, because I've always been a glass half-full guy when it comes to my projection of the Bills' franchise. I really like what they're doing. Obviously, they had a great defense last year, and they're building on it this year. They have great defensive linemen with the Bills. Jerry Hughes can cause a lot of problems. Ed Oliver's got a very bright future, but with all eight guys up there, they're probably better as the sum of their parts than they are individually. And the thing that worries me a little bit about the defense would be, can they generate a consistent pass rush against elite teams, like when they rush four guys to try to get to Tom Brady consistently because that's what they're going to have to do?
And then, offensively, they've made progression from Week 1 to Week 2. They've made obvious progression from year one to year two under Brian Daboll. I wonder if they can make enough big plays through the air consistently to beat elite teams. I don't want to discredit the two road wins to start the season, but the Jets and Giants are not the elite teams in this league. Sean McDermott, Brandon Beane, the Pegulas, their goal is not to simply make the playoffs. It's to win the Super Bowl. And right now, I've got to see those couple things happen if I'm going to be fully on board with the Bills making a Super Bowl run this year.
BN: What was it like to grow up in Cincinnati?
EW: I grew up over on the west side of Cincinnati, a blue-collar area of town. I'm very proud of where I grew up over there. I attended Elder High School, which is historically just an incredible high school – great academics, great sports, a Catholic high school that provides great discipline for young men. I'm very appreciative of the way I was raised and the opportunities I had to get the schooling I had, sports and all that.
I grew up a huge Bengals fan. They were good when I was very, very young. I was born in '86. In '88, they made the Super Bowl. And then they went on a very long dry spell similar to the one I played in in Buffalo. They were a terrible laughingstock of the league, and then they bring in Marvin Lewis and then they go on a nice run. I got to enjoy part of that through the end of high school, into college. In my closet still, I have a Takeo Spikes jersey. I told Justin Smith on the field one time, "Dude, this is crazy. I had your jersey when I was 14 and now I'm playing against you." I had a Peter Warrick jersey as a kid. Whoever was providing the spark of excitement for the Bengals, I was going to get one of those jerseys. My uncle who, unfortunately just passed, was a huge Bengals fan and would take us to games and we would tailgate before every game.
But then when I got to the NFL, you learn quickly how easy it is to turn off your allegiance for your hometown team, especially if you're in the same conference as them. You start rooting against them and it honestly wasn't hard to do. And for family members that would root for the Bengals or would wear my jersey to the game but maybe wear a Bengals shirt underneath or something. I'm like, "You don't understand, if we lose this game, my friends could get cut, I could lose my job, I could not get paid as much in my next contract. But it's cool … wear Bengals gear. I'm glad you're a fan." That's insensitive of me, but I've had this conversation with many people and everybody in the NFL circle agrees with that sentiment.
BN: How do you think this major O-line makeover is going so far?
EW: I think it's gone great. I love the strategy that Beane had going into this offseason, and that was, "We know the offensive line's issue. We know we have a second-year quarterback who we want to be our franchise guy, so we have to protect them. And while he's on this rookie deal, we can go out and pay some guys in front of them." So they paid Mitch Morse to be the highest-paid center in the league and they bring in a bunch of guys that had starting experience in this league. Nowadays, that's getting tougher and tougher to find. Then Beane takes Cody Ford early in the second round, so they truly brought just a ton of bodies into that room and they flooded it with competition, and the cream rose to the top.
BN: What do you think of the way Mitch Morse has performed?
EW: I think he's done a great job through two weeks. Now, as a media member and an employee of the Bills, I can look at it from the outside kind of perspective. The head injury scares me a little bit just because of the frequency with which they've occurred and how long they held him out of training camp. I think they were overly cautious, which I think is extremely smart because when you have maybe your highest-paid player in the concussion protocol in training camp, you cannot risk getting him another one.
It scares me a touch, but I think he's extremely talented. And I love the move to bring him in, because you get the guy right in front of Josh Allen so you should have a sure pocket in front of them. He keeps good depth in the pocket, he's pretty sound in pass protection. Then he showed, through two weeks, he has athleticism to get out and pull and make some plays on the perimeter.
BN: How does a line with four new starters and that wasn't able to work together until the season began build cohesion and chemistry?
EW: There's so much that goes on at the line of scrimmage once the play breaks. It's communication at the line, it's figuring out who you're going to block on each play, depending on the look and the play call in the huddle. And then, how you're going to do it technique-wise. You're going to call out your double teams at the line. You're using code words, because I couldn't look to my right when I was playing and tell John Miller, "Hey, we're going to double team him to that linebacker." It might be "Two Fifty-two," or whatever it may be. And all of that takes time.
These guys, besides Cody Ford, all have starting experience in the league. And him talking with coaches and a number of people, their philosophy on bringing an offensive lineman in is exactly the same as mine would be. Prioritize smart and tough guys, and then we'll figure out if they have talent, size and whatever else. But they've got to be smart and tough first. The guys that are smart and tough are generally going to gel a little bit faster together, because they know what they're doing already. You're not necessarily telling the guy next to you what to do. It's how you're going to do it.
BN: You made a concerted effort to lose a whole lot of weight after you stopped playing, dropping down to about 250 and more than 55 pounds from your last game. Why did you do it and how did you do it?
EW: Why I did it was because, when you have six lower body injuries and you're 31 years old and you're retired with a lot of aches and pains, and you're used to taking prescription anti-inflammatories six months a year and painkillers to get through games, you don't like the perspective of your future, living a normal, functioning, healthy life. I wanted to lose weight to help with the aches and pains, to help with longevity in life.
I ate so much to keep the weight on that maybe the first 20 pounds came off pretty quick. Beyond that, I had to diet and exercise and eat a lot less and create new habits. So now it's just not tough for me to make healthier decisions or not go to the pantry at night or drink the protein shake I used to drink before bed every night or drink the protein shake I would have every morning to try to keep on weight. And the obnoxious amount of carbs and calories and protein I took in. I had to form new habits, and that wasn't always fun. Because after a few beers, making a late-night food run was accepted because I needed to keep the weight on. Well, now, that's not doing any good for me.