E.J. Woods: «Some of the best players don’t make it to the NFL Draft because the cannot handle the system. And unfortunately I was one of those players»
— You’ve just finished your training camp in St. Petersburg. How was it?
— It went really well. A lot of players came from different teams, we went over the fundamentals and I just helped them to be more flashy, have more fun. Not being so robotic. And have some swag — I call it sauce. It was pretty fun, i think, they liked it a lot.
— One of the things that differs U.S. coaches from Russian is that they always tell players to have fun.
— When I coach, i try to make it as fun as possible, because if you coach them so serious, player become so tense and they make mistakes. It’s just in their mind — instead of focusing on football, they’re trying to please their coaches and people around them. They don’t want to upset them because they’re so serious. You know, definitely, if get beat by touchdown, not come back smiling… But I never judge them this way. You shouldn’t take fun out of the game.
— During the camp, you met a lot of players that you were playing against this season. Can you distinguish anyone?
— I’m not really familiar with the names, but there was a player… Denis Lobov. I think that he was the best one. He had skills — I wish he was 21 and I bring him to American college. He was that good! I had the prize of 2000 roubles for the fastest player and he had won. By the way, the girls are really good!
— Valkyries? You’ve never heard of them before?
— No! I knew that there are female teams in Moscow, but I’d never seen girls from St. Petersburg.
— Was it your idea to organize it?
— No. When I came to St. Petersbug, the Griffins manager Mikhail Gavrilov reached out to me and told me that he has the brand Athlete and he wants me to partner with him and run the camp. I thougt that it was a good idea and we ran the camp together. Well, to be accurate: It’s not my camp, I’m just the featured athlete.
— You appear to be the first import player who decided to stay in russia after the season. Why?
— Well, my fiancee is here, she is russian and she is pregnant right now. I’m starting a family and obviously i have to be here in Russia. It worked out pretty well, right?
— Congratulations! Good luck to you and your family.
— We are the waiting for the visa right now, so there are the decision we have to make.
— You live in St. Petersburg now. How can you compare it with living in Moscow?
— Well, the weather here is a little bit different. Moscow is definitely for someone who want to live in a big city. St. Petersburg is much slower and more European feeling. When I’m in Moscow, I still feel like I’m in America. It’s very fast paced, like go-go-go. In St. Petersburg there are more families walking around, it’s more friendly.
— What city you like more?
— Mmm… I like both.
— Do you have plans to stay in Russia hereafter? Say, for the next football season?
— Yep, my plan is to stay in Russia for the next football season. Right now, I’m looking for a team and opportunity to keep on playing in Russia. This days i was focused on the camp and now, when the camp is over, i’ll start to look around. At the end of the day, I want to go to a place that will be suitable for my family and I. I want to play in tournaments and compete against the best. When Patriots played in CEFL, that was great for american football in Russia. I want to be a part of smth like that.
— There are not so many teams that are able to pay import players. So, you’re not having a wide choice, to be honest.
— It’s less about paying. I wouldn’t play fo free, but that certainly should be some type of benefit. I want to give other players around me some type of knowledge and be able to win tournaments.
— So, you’re some type of free agent right now?
— I’m in St. Petersburg, i’m just working out and I want to play. Be paid or at least get some type of benefit. In Moscow Patriots, In North Legion, even the Griffins. I think that Griffins have a lot of pieces. And the Moscow Dragons also have. Unfortunately, Dragons can’t pay imports, because I think they would be a good team. Or at least to pay for american coach. That’s the only thing that’s missing in russian football — american coach that could make a twist on coaching. Russians are missing the small things — not the athleticism, it’s just a knowledge of the game. And american coach could teach that.
— There is an american guy in Spartans, who coaches offensive line. Are you familiar with him?
— No, I’m not. But you can tell because they’re so structured. That’s why they won the championship, that’s why they have beat us.
— Let’s discuss your football season in Russia. Do you remember how you got the invitation to play here?
— I went to an agency called ProHunt, their service was finding the team that looking for import. And they told me that Patriots are looking for a player and I took that offer.
— That easy? No emotions?
— Oh, no! When I found out that I was coming to Russia, I couldn’t believe it. I was supposed to go to Turkey and got that twist. Then I researched and found out that World Cup would be in Russia, so that was another big reason why I came here.
— What you knew about Russia before arriving here?
— All I knew was the movie Rocky. It feels russian and I thought «Not bad!». And also there is a video game called «Hitman» — really violent video game. I remember Russia in it and it has a crazy perception of the country. One thing i could say about Russia is that it’s not what people think and media betrays it to be. I love Russia, I’m staying here. I had been in Europe for five years and I left it. I was a little nervous, but every situation is different and my situation is great.
— You heard anything about Moscow Patriots and football here before coming?
— Well, I googled it when I got an offer and the first thing came up was «Guilty Killer» Alexander. I thought: «Who is this guy? He is a beast!». That was pretty interesting, so I started watching the highlights. Also, i found out that Talib Wise, Europe’s Hall of Fame, played for Patriots. I thought that if those guys were here, it seems to be a big pick for me.
— Did Patriots discussed CEFL and general goals for the season before signing you? One year before they’ve also signed import players and got rid of them when European Champions League collapsed.
— No. I found about that only after arrival. And that was great — it means that they’re a good team if they want to compete on that level. At the end of the day, I guess, they really brought me in to play in international games, but that wasn’t the main purpose. My goal was to play the whole season. Actually last year in Switzerland was the first year playing full season and this year was my second.
— Do you remember games against «Wild Boars» and «Koc Rams» in CEFL? What do you think Patriots lacked in those games?
— Athletically we had all the talent. I think it just came down on coaching and play calling in certain situations. And for me, I really wasn’t in shape for those games. I started to get in shape in the middle of the season and if I that tournament games were in June, Patriots would won at least one of those games. You know, everyone was fresh and I just was there a week before the first international game. If we were together a little longer, we could make it work. The team I really want to see participating in European tournament is Moscow Spartans. If the Spartans got an import quarterback or at least QB coach that could come and helped to polish their quarterback, the Spartans could really compete. And their way is more interesting because they’re all-Russian team without import players. It’s smart, because football is ultimate team sport and they rely on each other. At the end of the day, you don’t want to depend on import players, you want the Russian players to develop.
— So, you’re saying Patriots lacked some teamplay?
— I think, in certain situations, yes.
— Did you discussed it with TJ? Maybe, what could be done better in CEFL games from your point of view?
— I never really talked with TJ about it. Keep in mind that it was the first time TJ played football in two years. I just think that we all could play better. He also lacked good playcalling, but that’s all about team being together and train together. Coaches learn players strengths and use that strengths, but this time we were testing each other in the games. We didn’t know our strengths. In the Serbian game we were close, but in the game against the Rams we got beat really bad.
— Other guys from «Patriots» complained on bad conditions.
— It was hard for both teams. The field was messed up, but it’s an even playground — they have to play on the same field and there’s no excuse there. But the field was terrible — maybe, the worst I ever played in my life. It was truly unsafe.
— It looked like an emotional game. Was this the defeat hard for the team?
— I think there was a disappointment because we were so close. We started the game with a bad snap on the punt and… it was a really hard day. We had a long trip — we arrived in Serbia the day before, then got on a little bus for two and a half hours to travel to our hostel, and the next day walk to the field. It was scorching hot and everything didn’t go our way. Everyone was upset.
— You are defensive back and in the middle of the season you were moved to wide receiver position. Why did that happened?
— To be honest, it wasn’t an easy decision. Patriots have good wide receivers and I had to prove myself on that position. I noticed that Igor Chernolutsky’s best throw is fade route. During the practice he was constantly throwing the ball to TJ and he was catching it on me on coverage. I had to find out how he gets open. And surprisingly it’s not about TJ, it’s the way how Igor throws the ball. It’s like a teardrop — the ball disappears in the sky and comes down last minute. So, head coach Victor Skapishev gave me an opportunity to run that route. It was surprisingly effective and team didn’t figured that out until the championship.
— So, it was your idea?
— I thinks it was a mutual decision. One of our receivers broken his collarbone. We starved on offense on that point and it was something good for the team.
— How was playing with Igor Chernolutsky for you as a receiver?
— I love the way he approaches the game. He definitely needs an American quarterback to guide him. He’s just missing a little things like steps, timing, game decisions. For example, throwing the ball away instead of keep running and taking a 15-yard sack. Or instead of forcing the ball to the endzone. He need someone to teach him that. But it was a fun to play with him because he know how to make big plays. He trusts his arm to throw the ball deep. He’s not scared and it’s great.
— You’ve played against European teams in CEFL and Russian teams. How can you compare them?
— It all comes down to coaching. Athletically most Russian teams have it all. Guys from Serbia and Turkey may look bigger, but they’re certainly not athletically better. They just got better coaching. In Russia there are a lot of coaches who are probably not new to the game, but they learned football from the distance. I mean, videos, playbooks and those little opportunities what American coaches come. But I’m confident about the talent in Russia — if all the teams outside Moscow and St.Petersburg come together, they’ll be competitive.
— Apart from Igor Chernolutsky, what Russian players can you point out?
— Akaki Rurua is a thing, but he needs an American coach that he respects and he could play in U.S., that’s not even a question about that. Ruslan Gadzhiev physicalwise and knowledgewise is number one in the league for now. He could be a Head Coach here when he finishes. But if we’re talking about younger players, Alexander Kaygorodov from Moscow Dragons has all the potential to be the best player in league. I don’t know his story, but it looks like he’s playing very long. There was a certain play I can remind when we played against Dragons — Igor Chernolutsky was rolling out and tried to throw the ball away and Alexander intercepted the ball out of bounds while keeping both legs in bounds. That’s a very NFL type of play. I have a lot of respect for him because he makes consistent explosive plays — plays that makes football fun.
— The only team you were defeated by in Russia was Moscow Spartans. That happened twice — how can you compare games in regular season and final one?
— They were very different. In the second game they didn’t even tried to throw the ball near me! That’s a completely different gameplan. In the first game they were figuring out their gameplan and when they found it they stuck with it. That was 4-4 cover-3 on defence which let the quarterback make the mistakes and lose the game. Playing against Igor Chernolutsky was a key thing and that was really smart. On offence Spartans had their fast guys outside and that worked good because players here don’t align that well. So, the defenders kept in and Spartans was going wide around them. They got only two plays and they beat everyone, including us. So, the answer is that they found their money plays, as I call it, and used that. They’re good team.
— You may have noticed, that Spartans changed their quarterback during the final game. They started with Pavel Levashev and then switched to Ivan Goloveshkin. For you as a defender, who was harder to play against?
— It was different. Ivan may have been a bit more dangerous because you have to worry about him running. For me as a free safety, it was harder, because as soon as I come down to help against rush, he could throw it over my head. And the same with run plays. Again, that’s what comes to coaching. They made a good game decision — like Bill Belichick or Nick Saban do. So they beat us by making the right decisions.
— On the first game your team got a surprising switch — TJ was a QB, and you came out as a receiver. Why did that happened?
— To be honest, on that point I was still new in the team and I just did what I was told. Now I think that it was a bad choice, but I don’t know what coaches’ thoughts were. It didn’t work. The reason why we were in that game was our defence.
— You were doing good. Three interceptions.
— Yeah. Maybe that’s why the final game was so different. I have to tell again that I have a lot of respects to the Spartans’ coaches because they made a great work of making their guys doing their job. They flowed as a team because all of them just did their job. And that was good job.
— Another game for you was semifinal game in Perm. How was it?
— We had a coach switching, because Viktor Skapishev had a back surgery and our defensive coordinator became head coach. And on that game I had a suggestion: If they have seen our games, the expect me to go deep. What if instead of it we will make a quick spot, I’ll try to make some moves and go. He listened, we did that in the game. That was something new for Tigers, they didn’t prepared for that. That was a great team win and a great coaching win. Steel Tigers were playing good and they were a really physical team. They did make us worry and it was a close game. Score doesn’t show how physical and hard it was.
EJ Woods touchdown on spot route against Perm Steel Tigers (1:35:20)
— Looking at the whole year, what moments were most memorizing for you?
— I think, regular season game against Spartans was my best game. And that semifinals in Perm. I still got some clips on my phone and watch them.
— And apart from football?
— We got barbecues with Stas Rashitsky after the game in his house. Now I miss things like that.
— You were named MVP by the end of the season. Was it something unexpected for you?
— To honest, I had no idea. One day Igor Chernolutsky started sending me pictures from First & Goal. They were in russian and I didn’t understand. So, I asked my fiancee to translate and she told me that I’m the player of the week. So, that moment I got awared of First & Goal and started really paying attention. One day I’ve seen a poll and realized that I was in a shortlist for MVP. That was pretty cool! I didn’t expected it all, but It was definitely a great honour. I hold it close to my heart, I have never won an actual MVP trophy even in high school.
— Three years ago Igor Chernolutsky also won season MVP. And Patriots also lost the finals. It’s like a Madden curse.
— No way!
— Do you remember other guys from the shortlist?
— That’s not really about MVP but I can name the guys whom I payed attention to during the year. I liked the quarterback from Spartans — Ivan Goloveshkin. Nikita Gureev from Moscow United is pretty good. Black animals from Spartans — Omari Grinyaev and Alexander Yatsunenko. Also, Alexander Belov. He’s a baller! When I just arrived to Patriots, on one of the first practices, I got him one-on-one and he made me fall! I still remember it: he runs a route on a full speed with double move, one-two, he made me open my hips and I felt down. Everyone was like: «What the heck?». And then he got me again. To be honest, I think, Alexander gave me the fire not to underestimate Russian athletes. It made me take it all very serious. He got all the potential and he will have a break-out season in Dragons.
— As an import player, you’ve also brought one thing to football here — shit-talking. Before you, we didn’t had this culture at all. All athletes here pretend to be exceptionally serious.
— First of all, I do it all out of fun and being competitive. I’m never malicious, that’s why I don’t make it personal. I’m always talking about football and it makes it all exciting. At some point, I try to market American football and, say, battle between Patriots and Spartans. It’s just entertaining. How cool is that Spartans made me eat my words! Like Conner McGregor had to do that by losing to Khabib.
— By the way, did you really put $500 on McGregor?
— Of course!
— Oh, man! Let’s talk a bit about you being a baller in America. I’ve seen that picture where you were mentioned in a list together with Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro.
— When I came out of a high school, I was one of the top defensive backs in the nation. I played in the first ever Under Armour game that showcases top athletes in America: Julio Jones was in it, A.J. Green, Marquise Goodwin, Blake Bortles — all the top players, who currently are in NFL. After that list I went to UCLA and that hype from high school followed me to college. I was projected to be top-4 safety taken on the NFL draft. That’s what that list was about. But I was never able to make my dreams become a reality, because I left my university and things didn’t go as planned.
— So, you never actually played in UCLA?
— No. I never played even a single game in Bruins. That what makes that list so stupid. How the guy who has never player has so much hype and potential? The only place where I played was college in New Mexico. That was for two years. But it was good — we had four player who got to NFL from there.
— Can you name them?
— Sure. Abdul Kanneh, Jordan Campbell, Tyler Slavin and Patrick Carney.
— You ever been thinking of your career going another way? Being selected on the NFL Draft?
— As a football player in America, every kids dream is to be selected on NFL Draft. As you got older and go to college you start understanding why college football is structured the way that it is. It’s done to eliminate a lot of players. And some of the best players don’t make it to the NFL Draft because the cannot handle the system. And unfortunately I was one of those players. I got my college degree, but I was never able to adjust to that system. I wanted to do it my way. But when you’re in one of the Division I university, you have to do it their way.
— Can you tell about that college system? Why it was so hard?
— In high school all you have to worry about is doing your homework, playing football and hanging out with your friends. You play football because you love it. When you get into division I level, where there are billions and billions of dollars, it becomes a job. It’s not a fun anymore. I’ll tell you my schedule. I wake up at 5 am, then I have to be at weight room 6am where I have strengths training till 8am. Then I have classes from 9 to 3pm and football practise from 4pm t 8pm. Finally, tutor from 8pm to 10pm. And repeat. It becomes a real job. So for me, high schools should do a better job on preparing kids, who are going to be an athletes , to prepare for college. There would probably be a lot more success stories if they had that.
— Do you still watch college football when staying here in Russia?
— I’m watching highlights only. I tell this my fiancee all the time — I’m so depressed, I want to watch football, I want ESPN, but I can’t mainly because of the time difference. So, I watch Youtube.
— Do you have favourite teams?
— I’ll name a few. Obviously, Alabama. They’re now having this quarterback who is very good and Jerry Jeudy the wide receiver. UCLA, of course. But I don’t like Chip Kelly at all an his gimmick offence — that’s not a football to me. And the University of Miami. It’s my dream university to go to. There’s a funny story about this. University of Miami came to my high school championship and we played against Long Beach Poly. Long Beach Poly is known nationally as the best high school team and a lot of guys from there played in NFL. And I went to Crespi. So, Long Beach Poly vs Crespi — battle of top recruits. There was a kid Vaughn Telemaque, safety — and I was also a safety. For that moment, I’ve already committed to UCLA, but I wanted Miami offer, just for my ego. But this guy got three interceptions, won the championship and got an offer from Miami.
— You ever looked after him in Miami?
— Yes, he had some nice games.
— And what about NFL?
— Don’t laugh at me, but my favourite NFL team of all-time is Cleveland Browns.
— What do you think of Browns’ current season? Was Hue Jackson got fired right?
— I don’t know. I don’t think that it was a right decision to get rid of Josh Gordon. I definitely was disappointed with that — you don’t just give Gordon to New England Patriots, that doesn’t make any sense. But I think that they still have got potential, they just need to be consistent.
— Was Baker Mayfield the right choice for the first overall pick on draft?
— He is too short to be a quarterback. There are two best short QBs — Drew Brees and Russell Wilson and no one behind them. I like big quarterbacks — Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton. But keeping in mind all the first picks in last years, he’s probably the best.
— You’re wearing CFL shirt. Is there anything that connects you with Canada?
— Well I had no shirt before the interview and I just put this one on. But actually there is a story. After college I had tryouts for NFL and CFL. I did the regional combine, but didn’t got invited to the super regional — I paid $250, but it didn’t worked out. Then I went to open tryouts for Canada — I paid another $100 for several tries. Nobody called me. One day I just looked at myself in the mirror and was like: «Ok, is this the thing I want to do in my life? I got to be realistic — I don’t look like an NFL player». I’m a good player, but it don’t look like I should look like. I went to the gym, I started working out, I’ve changed my diet. The next year I went another five tryouts and got CFL certified agent. I told one team, the Hamilton Tigercats, that I’m a former top player and I’m the best player on this camp. I run 40 yards for 4.3 sec. So, they called me and I signed three-year deal for $65,000. Later I was released and that was the closest I ever got to my dreams.