3 years after breaking back in accident, WR Artrell Woods still chasing football dreams

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As Artrell Woods lay motionless on Oklahoma State's weight room floor, Hubert Anyiam looked on in shock.

A freshman, Anyiam was just getting acquainted with the Cowboys' conditioning program when he witnessed an accident that would make anyone cringe. His teammate, Woods, had just completed a step-up drill when he went to return his 185-pound barbell and slipped.

The weight came crashing down on top of Woods, who knew something wasn't right with his spine.

As Anyiam looked on, he and his teammates could only wonder, "Is he going to get up?"

That was three years ago. The spinal cord injury left him partially paralyzed, but a determined Woods is back on the path toward becoming a top-notch receiver again. Now at Central Oklahoma, a Division II school in suburban Oklahoma City, Woods could make his debut as early as Saturday night when the Bronchos open their season against Pittsburg State.

He has a football dream he refuses to let die.

"That's one thing I always believed in, just keeping my faith," Woods said. "After what happened with the back situation, I was allowed to walk again, I was allowed to run again. God put it on my heart, so I felt like it's something I need to do.

"I also owe it to my family because I'm still that one last hope. I feel like the pressure's on."

Just getting back on the field to catch a pass isn't enough for Woods. He already did that at Oklahoma State, getting a standing ovation for a 7-yard reception after he'd made his initial recovery following the July 2007 accident.

Now, he's after something more. He wants to develop far enough that he gets the chance to play after college and improve his family's way of life back home in Bryan, Texas.

Coach Tracy Holland believed in Woods' dream enough that he extended a scholarship offer when he heard that the one-time speedster was looking for a new place to play. Woods said he needed a change of scenery instead of walking into the same weight room where his life changed so dramatically.

The time has also given Woods time to grow stronger. He stayed in school but didn't play through all of 2009, then arrived at Central Oklahoma in January. Then he tore an Achilles' tendon, another potential hurdle in his recovery.

"Basically, Artrell said, 'No, that's not acceptable,'" Holland said.

Woods has done all he can to speed up his rehab to be ready for the season. Still, Holland is cautious about rushing Woods onto the field and risking a setback for a player he believes can be a difference-maker when he's healthy again. Even if he doesn't play Saturday night, Holland said "he will play and I think he will make a significant contribution to this team."

"I know with the drive and the heart that he's got, he's going to get it back where he wants it," Holland said.

Back in 2007, Woods had a breakout spring and appeared on his way to being Oklahoma State's next star receiver when everything changed. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors determined he had a fracture dislocation of vertebrae and an incomplete spinal cord injury. At first, he was unable to move his legs.

The morning after surgery, Woods surprised everyone when he was able to wiggle his toes. Within weeks, he was up walking again without aid. Just over a year later, he was playing again.

"If he says he's going to come back and play football and try to get back on the field, then I believe he's going to be able to make some type of impact to it unless something else backs him down to where he can't," said Anyiam, now OSU's top returning receiver.

Anyiam said Woods was part coach, part motivator after returning to the Cowboys — and he still feels a lingering effect today. Compared to what Woods had been through, Anyiam didn't see his recovery from offseason ankle surgery as being nearly so daunting.

Holland believes Woods' perseverance will rub off on his Bronchos, too.

"Most players who have gone though what he went through would quit," Holland said.

Woods simply doesn't see that as an option. He's long considered football a path to a better life and remembers how it was usually running backs from his hometown that got noticed and were given a chance at the next level.

That's how it happened for him, too.

When he started playing organized football in seventh grade, Woods was playing cornerback and not very happy about it. He got into an argument with his coach and the team's running back one day and was challenged: "You come do it then!"

From that moment until he arrived at Oklahoma State, he played running back. He's determined now to make the most of the opportunities he's been given.

"I'm going to play as long as I have legs and feet. You'll see me trying out somewhere, regardless of what happens and wherever it happens," Woods said. "You'll see me trying to play somewhere."

There's certainly hope for Woods. Former UCO players Jermelle Cudjo and K.C. Asiodu are currently competing for spots on NFL rosters, and another victim of a weightlifting mishap — Stafon Johnson from Southern Cal — got to play for the Tennessee Titans this preseason before he was injured again.

"I think the kid has a lot of heart, a lot of grit. He's obviously got talent but injuries prevented him from being as good as he could be," said Gunter Brewer, Woods' former receivers coach at Oklahoma State. "But he'll stick with it and he's still got a lot of talent.

"It just depends on what level you play at, and — who knows? — God may give that back to him."