Willie Wood, who was overlooked in the N.F.L. draft but forged a Hall of Fame career as one of pro football’s greatest defensive backs, playing on five Green Bay Packers championship teams of the 1960s, died on Monday in Washington. He was 83.
His death, at an assisted living facility, was announced by the Packers.
Wood was found to have dementia in 2006 and had received financial assistance from a joint N.F.L.-players’ union fund aiding former players with that condition. He had also undergone several orthopedic operations. In March 2012, when his native Washington named a block of N Street, where he had once lived, as “Willie Wood Way,” he attended the ceremony in a wheelchair.
Playing for the Packers from 1960 to 1971, Wood did not have much speed and was only 5 feet 10 inches tall and 180 pounds at best. But he was an outstanding tackler, often hitting opponents around the ankles when he was not intercepting passes or batting them down. Roaming the secondary at free safety, he was quick to dissect plays and get to the ball. He was also a league-leading punt returner.
A key figure in the Packers’ dynasty built by Coach Vince Lombardi, Wood was a first-team All-Pro five times and was selected for eight Pro Bowl games. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989 and selected to its all-decade team of the 1960s.
Wood made a game-turning play in the first Super Bowl, in January 1967, when the Packers, champions of the N.F.L., met the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of the American Football League title.
With the Packers leading by only 14-10 in the third quarter, Wood intercepted a pass from Len Dawson and ran it back 50 yards to the Chiefs’ 5-yard-line, setting up a touchdown that sent the Packers on their way to a 35-10 rout.
“That play seemingly changed the personality of the game,” the Chiefs’ coach Hank Stram said. “After that we just broke down.”
Although Nitschke called the defensive signals, Wood could seemingly intimidate him.
“I hate to miss a tackle,” the Packers’ offensive guard Jerry Kramer quoted Nitschke as having said in “Distant Replay” (1985), written with Dick Schaap. “I know if I do, I’m gonna get a dirty look from Willie. He’ll kill you with that look.”
At the University of Southern California, Wood was a run-oriented quarterback who also played in the secondary at times. No team selected him in the 1960 draft. He was relatively short for professional football and not particularly impressive as a passer, and as a black quarterback he played a position that, at the time, was reserved for white players. Wood thought he could make the pros as a safety, and he wrote to several N.F.L. teams seeking a tryout. Only Lombardi was interested, and the Packers signed him.
“Lombardi knew I was small,” Wood remembered, “but I had large shoulders and a 17-inch neck. Lombardi liked that.”
Wood became a starter in his second season, replacing Emlen Tunnell, one of the early black stars in the N.F.L. Tunnell was soon to retire as a Packer after forging a Hall of Fame career with the Giants.
“I used to sit around and quiz Em all the time,” Wood told David Maraniss for his Lombardi biography, “When Pride Still Mattered” (1999). “He taught me to anticipate what would happen.”
William Vernell Wood was born on Dec. 23, 1936, in Washington and became a high school football star. He was recruited for U.S.C. by Al Davis, the future owner and coach of the Oakland Raiders, who was an assistant with the Trojans at the time. He played at U.S.C. for three seasons and was a co-captain as a senior.
Wood played on Packer teams that won N.F.L. championships in 1961, ’62 and ’65, defeating the Giants twice and the Cleveland Browns; they then captured the first two Super Bowls, beating the Chiefs and then the Oakland Raiders, 33-14.
He had 48 career interceptions, including a league-leading nine in 1962. He was the N.F.L.’s leading punt returner in 1961, with an average of 16.1 yards per return, and ran back two punts for touchdowns that season.
Wood was later an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers. He was hired by the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League in 1975 as the first black head coach in modern pro football. The W.F.L. soon folded, but Wood became a head coach again, with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts in 1980 and ’81. He later owned a Washington construction firm.
Wood’s survivors include two sons, Willie Jr. and Andre; a daughter, LaJuane; and a sister, U.S.C. said.
Wood was a model of durability, playing in 166 consecutive games for the Packers. But as the years passed, he underwent knee and hip replacements, surgery to fuse vertebrae in his neck and a lower-back operation.
In October 2002, after four major operations in the previous few years, he was walking with a cane. As he told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Like a lot of other players, I was dealt a bad hand.”
Aimee Ortiz contributed reporting.