Woody leads the way

BY BEN SCHUFF | MAY 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Joey Woody stood over one of his athletes at the Cretzmeyer Track. The 37-year-old wore black athletics pants, a black, long-sleeve shirt showcasing Iowa's gold Tigerhawk logo, and black sunglasses. His words came from tremendous personal experience.

Now in his fifth year as an assistant coach for the Iowa men's track and field team, Woody has taken several sprinters and middle-distance runners to levels unmatched before his arrival.

"We've got one of the best track coaches in the nation," sophomore hurdler Jordan Mullen said. "Every event that he ran, we've got amazing people in."

Woody's accomplishments read like a runner's bucket list: high-school and college record holder, 10-time Drake Relay champion, NCAA champion, silver and gold medalist at two separate World Championships.

Approximately 65 people applied for the assistant coaching position Woody now holds.

"I had people who I thought were outstanding candidates," head coach Larry Wieczorek said. "I didn't hand it to Coach Woody on a platter by any means. I felt like my future, my career was at stake."

"That was a tough process," Woody said. "It was a real tough time for Coach Wieczorek to make that decision."

But still, who was going to turn down Joey Woody?

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Home-grown talent

"I remember trying to break the school record in the 600-yard run in fourth or fifth grade so I could win a Pepsi," Woody recalled and laughed.

Growing up in Iowa City, he attended City High. He was a three-sport athlete as a Little Hawk, but nothing was little about his drive to succeed.

"He was such a competitor," said Woody's high-school track coach, John Raffensperger, who spent more than 40 years at City High. "He was as good as a competitor as I've ever coached.

"He wasn't cocky, but he was very, very confident always of what he could do. There was never anything he thought he couldn't do. That separated him from some of the other runners. "

Early in his high-school career, football and basketball were Woody's main interests. Track was nothing more than a means to become a better football player. Raffensperger described Woody as "kind of average" on the track as a freshman. In fact, he was recruited by several Division-II and -III colleges to play football. Even the hometown Hawkeyes were after Woody, recruiting him as a walk-on.

Not until Woody's sophomore year did he start to like track.

"One of the things that stood out to me about Joey is how much he improved while he was in high school," Raffensperger said. "He just got better each year … [his senior year] he just improved incredibly."

Raffensperger recalled a last-chance meet in 1992 in which Woody wanted to help a teammate qualify for state. The 800 meters at this meet featured Dave Novotny, City High's top 800 runner, and a pair of West High runners who were tops in the state. Woody's plan was to simply run as the "rabbit" through the first 400 meters and try to push Novotny to a qualifying time.

But once the race started and Woody realized no one had passed him through the first half of the race, he kept running. He won the race and set a school record that still stands 19 years later.

To this day, Woody holds four City High track records, including the 800 meters, 110 and 400-meter hurdles, and the 4x400-meter relay. He is also tied for the second-best high jump in school history.

City High career cut short

Heading into the state meet during Woody's senior year, the Little Hawks were a favorite to win their first team state track title ever. Woody himself was favored in a few events and was sure to score major points.

But he never made it.

Two weeks before the meet, he was headed to practice when he was in a car accident.

"I was turning left, and somebody came and T-boned me," he said. "The guy was going pretty fast and hit my [car's] side, so I was pretty fortunate really. I was a little out of it, didn't want to go to the hospital, but they kind of forced me to go and found out later I had internal bleeding."

Woody ruptured his spleen, then faced further complications from surgery. He remained in the hospital for almost two weeks, losing nearly 20 pounds. Woody never again ran in a City High uniform.

"My main focus was to get back as quick as possible to prove I'm still worthy of a scholarship," he said.

When asked if Woody's scholarship was ever in jeopardy following the accident, then-Northern Iowa head track and field coach Chris Bucknam answered in a strong, definitive tone.


Running without a track

Had it not been for Raffensperger, Bucknam might never have met Woody. Bucknam was about to leave City High's guidance office at the end of a recruiting visit for another Little Hawk runner.

At that moment, Woody was passed on from his high-school coach, a UNI alum, to Bucknam.

"Raffensperger told me to wait; he had someone he thought I should meet," Bucknam said. "It's seared into my brain the image of Woody walking into that guidance office.

"He was skinny, wiry, and just walked with a lot of confidence. He had the perfect build, long and lean. He had that look; you could just tell."

Bucknam immediately handed over a questionnaire to his newest prospect. The recruiting trip had changed gears at the very last moment. He had to have Woody.

But there was a glaring hole in Bucknam's sales pitch to land one of the state's best hurdlers: UNI didn't have an outdoor track facility. Luckily for Bucknam, it wasn't obvious to Woody.

"They did a little smoke-and-mirrors game with me where they had this beautiful UNI-Dome and this beautiful indoor track so you kind of get in awe of that," Woody said. "You forget, 'I have got to see the outdoor track at some point.' Even when I was on my visit, we didn't talk about it."

For the majority of his collegiate career, he had to train at a pair of nearby high-school facilities, one of which was an asphalt track. Despite being a four-time All-American, he was second fiddle to the high-school team when it came to practice schedules and track availability.

Woody didn't see an outdoor track at UNI until the spring of his senior year. He recalled running on it while a painter told him and his teammates to not run on the wet lines.

Even without the proper facilities, Woody transformed himself into an elite performer. He holds school records in the 600 and 800 meters indoors, along with the 110-meter hurdles and the shuttle-hurdle relay outdoors. As a senior, he broke the Missouri Valley 400-meter hurdle record with a time of 48.18 and owns it today.

Woody won the conference's outdoor Most Outstanding Track Athlete award in 1994, 1995, and 1997 — he redshirted in 1996. He was an eight-time Missouri Valley champion, including winning the 110 and 400 hurdles in 1994, '95, and '97. His senior year, he won the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA championships, becoming UNI's first ever Division-I national champion. Ten years after he last suited up for the Panthers, Woody was named to the Missouri Valley All-Centennial team as a hurdler.

"He was one of those guys you just can't explain," Bucknam said.

Woody had even more success after college. He said his greatest accomplishment is winning the silver medal at the 2003 World Championships in the 400 hurdles. He was also part of the 4x400-meter relay gold-medal effort during the 1999 World Championships.

One of a kind

Woody first went to the Drake Relays his sophomore year of high school. He was an alternate for City High's 4x200-meter relay team; the group ran once and was done. But the surrounding atmosphere and athletes had a profound effect on the young runner.

"One thing I do remember is just seeing guys like Michael Johnson compete for Baylor and just seeing that this is an awesome sport," Woody said. "That's where I got that excited taste in my mouth about track and field."

When Woody returned to the Drake Relays in his senior year of high school, he won the 400 hurdles in record time and ran the first leg of City High's first-place 4x400-meter relay team. He also placed second in the 110-meter hurdles and the high jump. For his efforts, he was named the Outstanding Performer of the meet.

Two years later, Woody accomplished something no one else has in the more than 100-year history of the Relays. After winning the 800 meters and 400 hurdles, the then- UNI sophomore was again named the Outstanding Performer of the meet. He became the only athlete ever to win the Outstanding Performer award in two different divisions.

The year is memorable to Woody for yet another reason, though — it was snowing.

"We're running the shuttle hurdle relay, and it was coming down so hard, you could not see the athlete coming at you until about the last two hurdles," Woody said. "It was just coming down. It was crazy."

Over the next 10 years, he added another 400-hurdles title while in college and five more in the invitational 400-meter hurdles.

"Joey would be right up there with the best of them that I saw," said Paul Morrison, a Drake athletics historian who has attended 73-consecutive Drake Relays. "He was special."

And so are the Relays to Woody. So much so that he and his wife, Heather, named their now 8-year-old son Drake.

Coaching up the best

In March, Woody was named the Midwest Region Assistant Coach of the Year. The award came on the heels of Justin Austin, whom Woody played a large role in recruiting, winning the 200 meters at the Big Ten indoor championships.

Under Woody's tutelage, six Hawkeyes earned all-American status following this year's indoor season.

"He's been instrumental," Wieczorek said. "He's been huge, just huge."

Perhaps Woody's greatest coaching job has been developing Steven Willey. When Willey came in as a freshman, Woody described him as someone who "almost was on the cut list."

Now a senior, Willey is a defending outdoor 400-meter Big Ten champion and a three time All-American.

"I couldn't have asked for a better coach coming in as a freshman," Willey said.

At a practice two weeks ago, Zeke Sayon ran down one stretch of the track. As he approached the corner, Woody came off the side of the track, running in front of Sayon, pretending to take a baton from the sprinter.

While seeing Woody run with his athletes now may be rare, it is not over the summer and during first-semester workouts. He likes to maintain a competitive edge whenever possible.

"It brings us closer together," Mullen said. "It makes us run harder because, well, nobody wants to lose to his coach."

Not even if he's Joey Woody.

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