*EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran in the Week 17 Gameday program, when the Broncos defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 38-3.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Five years ago, linebacker
This season, he fought for a Pro Bowl berth as one of the AFC's most productive linebackers. Through 15 games, Woodyard is one of just four AFC players with at least 100 tackles, a sack and an interception. He's set career highs in almost every category this season, including his three interceptions and four sacks.
"I'm trying to continue to work on my craft and get better every day," Woodyard said. "My teammates believe in me, and I've just been having fun out there this year. Not worrying about anything, just going out there and playing football."
He's already earned some hardware this season, taking home his first career AFC Defensive Player of the Week Award after becoming the first player in team history to post one sack, one interception and one forced fumble in the same game during Denver's 34-14 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 8.
As he's gotten more time in the starting lineup, Woodyard's confidence and comfort level have grown.
"Whenever we step on the field, we expect to win and we know we should win every game we play," Woodyard said. "That confidence just seeps out of everybody's pores in the game. You actually smell that confidence in the game. It's not being overconfident, it's just having fun and enjoying the game."
While his season might have caught some people off guard, Woodyard's teammates knew what he was capable if given an opportunity.
"It was only a matter of time," cornerback and fellow team captain
"I'm not surprised at all," Miller said. "Since I've been here, he's been making big-time plays, doing big-time things, so for him to come out here and have the type of season that he's having isn't a surprise at all."
In 2008, 253 players had their names called during the NFL draft, but Woodyard wasn't one of them. Despite earning first-team All-SEC honors during his final two seasons at the University of Kentucky, where he led the conference with 10.6 tackles per game as a senior, Woodyard went undrafted.
He joined the Broncos as a free agent and immediately opened eyes with his work ethic and playmaking ability.
"I came in my rookie year and I just wanted to give them my all and have a shot to play the game that I love to play," Woodyard said. "It was just exciting. It was a lot of hard work and determination. I just stuck by myself and believed in myself."
He has played double-digit games in each of his five seasons, but still remembers where he started his career.
"I keep that chip on my shoulder," Woodyard said. "I never take anything for granted. Always work hard and outwork whoever is out there beside you. It keeps me humble."
After starting his rookie season as an undrafted free agent, he finished the year as a team captain. Woodyard has held that position ever since to become just the second Bronco in franchise history to serve as a captain in his first five seasons with the club, joining Hall-of-Fame running back Floyd Little with that distinction.
"I just lead by example," Woodyard said. "I don't like to talk a lot, I just like to go out there and do it the right way and do it the way I've been coached to do it. Do it the way my teammates depend on. That's going out there and playing hard-nosed football until the end of the whistle every snap."
Having climbed from the bottom of the depth chart to a starting role, Woodyard serves as a living example for the college free agents that join the team each summer fighting the odds for a spot on the roster.
"It gives me the opportunity to be on that same level and talk to them and tell them what they need to do and what they should do," he said. "For the most part, they listen to me and they look up to me and they always seek out advice."
In 2011, cornerback
Harris credits Woodyard's leadership and example as a factor in his success.
"Just to always continue working," Harris said about the advice he received from Woodyard. "Any time you see a guy go undrafted it definitely gives you a chance, knowing that you can come from the bottom and start in this league."
Woodyard has taken that leadership beyond the playing field and into the community.
Named the Broncos' recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in each of the previous two seasons, Woodyard said he enjoys using his position as a football player to help people.
"I think that's what it starts with," Woodyard said. "It's important that we give back to the community and help out the community that we're in. I think that's what our world is missing. We don't reach out and we don't help enough people. That's something with my status of being a football player in the NFL, I take advantage of every opportunity that I can to help out."
Woodyard even set up his own foundation, 16Ways, which works with at-risk youth. As a team captain, Woodyard has tried to impress upon the younger players the importance of taking the time to be active in community enrichment programs.
"I love seeing guys sign up for them," Woodyard said about the team's community events. "I used to be the first one to sign up, now it's funny, when I come around the corner, now there's 10 guys that have already signed up for an event. That's always good. Now there are more rookies at every event than I've ever seen."
The togetherness that the team exhibits off the field at community events has also been evident with the way the team celebrates big plays on game day.
"It's exciting seeing my teammates dance around," Woodyard said. "That's what it's all about - having fun and having that true camaraderie."
Whether it's a sack, a turnover or a defensive touchdown, the Broncos defense has had plenty to dance about this season.
Denver's defense has scored six touchdowns this season and ranks in the top five in nearly every defensive statistical category.
Woodyard's teammates have pointed to him as one of the reasons that Broncos teammates feel more like family than coworkers.
"He has a good attitude about everything," Bailey said. "He's a very good teammate and one of the guys you can talk to about anything. He's just a good person."
Through his play on the field, his interaction with teammates, his attitude at practice and his commitment to the community, it's clear that the fifth-year linebacker is doing what he loves.
Because of the passion that Woodyard comes to work with on an every-day, every-down basis, he has emerged as a leader of one of the NFL's top defensive units.
"It's exciting every day, because I'm playing the game that I love to play," Woodyard said. "It's something I look forward to and I'm excited about driving into these gates at Dove Valley."