Star football player and community organizer Ja’Darius “JD” Woods, 24, moved to Lawrence from Mississippi when he was 10 years old and quickly dove into the youth sports scene in town.
He started off with basketball, thinking he was the next Lebron James, but he realized around second grade that football was a better fit.
“Football lets me go out there and be myself and do something I love,” he said. “Football has brought me a lot of friends. I’ve met different people from different backgrounds, and one of the coolest things is that we can always learn to relate to each other.”
Woods hasn’t limited his influence to the football field — he’s also given back to the community through clothing drives for kids, and he wants to continue that work into the future.
After graduating from Lawrence High School in 2016, Woods spent his first year of college at Missouri Western State University, where he was a student-athlete on the football team. He then transferred to Baker University in the fall of 2017.
Baker football coaches were eager to sign the talented running back after his departure from Missouri Western. At first, he was skeptical of Baker because of its small campus and the fact that Baldwin City only has one stoplight and no McDonald’s.
This soon faded after he went on his official visit and decided to make Baker his new home.
“Baker was the right fit for me,” Woods said. “There’s a stigma of playing at the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) or JUCO levels. Everyone wants to play D1 or D2, but a lot of athletes would be in a better position if they would just trust the process.”
While wearing the No. 1 jersey, Woods broke multiple Baker and NAIA football records. He set the new record at Baker for career rushing yards and became the first Baker football player in history to be a three-time All-American. He also set the new record for the most career rushing touchdowns and the most career rushing yards in NAIA history.
Along with setting a slew of new records, Woods earned many honors. Just a few among them: He earned First Team Heart of America honors three times in his career and was named the 2017 and 2018 Heart of America Offensive Player of the Year, and he capped off his career as the Heart of America South Division Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year.
Jeffrey Colter, owner of training and mentorship business Never Be Satisfied (NBS), has known Woods since he was in elementary school. Colter would help him train during breaks to strengthen his skills.
Colter says the talent Woods showed at Baker was nothing new — he has always excelled in athletics.
“What JD did at Baker is what he’s been doing his whole life,” Colter said. “He never settled, and he wanted to be the best he could be. I always knew he would be great and do great things.”
Even though Woods was used to being the star player, he was not immune to feeling stressed and lacking confidence from time to time.
“I felt like I had to score three touchdowns or get 150 rushing yards for people to feel like I had a good game, and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself,” he said.
He says he had to go through a period of self-reflection to realize his worth and see the bigger picture. Now, he is more focused on his future than ever.
He participated in the Baker commencement ceremony in May of 2021 to receive his diploma, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in interpersonal communications. He was also on the dean’s list.
“Our experience at Baker is going to be one to tell because we went through COVID [and] we went through the justice system with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. The world shut down, but we were able to adjust when we got back to school, and now I have my degree.”
Woods’ mother, Katrice Woods, expressed how meaningful it was to see her son walk across the stage as a first-generation college graduate in his family.
“It was really a blessing. It takes a village, and I see that we have that village – that family and friend support and community support,” she said. “I have an overwhelming feeling of joy when I see JD succeed.”
After playing his last season of football at Baker in the fall of 2021, Woods set his sights on the NFL. He signed with an agent and got to work.
He was invited to participate in the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas, making it the first college showcase he has attended. The four-day event provides exposure to and mentorship from professional football recruiters and players. This year it was held on Jan. 8 through Jan. 12.
He has also started an 18-month program to seek his master’s degree in health care administration from Baker. The program is currently on pause for him since he is deep into his football training, and he’s the busiest he has ever been.
When he is not training or playing football, Woods says he likes to “just chill.” He enjoys adding to his sneaker collection, reading, watching the “Stranger Things” series for the tenth or eleventh time, or spending time with family and friends.
Along with his friend Anthony Harvey Jr., Woods has organized four clothing drives for children in Lawrence – two Kicks 4 Kids events, held in the summer, and two Coats 4 Kids events, held in the winter.
Their most recent event, Coats 4 Kids, was held on Dec. 19 and resulted in kids being able to get warm coats ahead of the brunt of winter weather, plus funds raised for Ubuntu Performance, a local gym owned by Kelly Barah.
Woods wants to continue this community work as long as he can. In the future, he hopes to host a community breakfast event where families can eat for free and kids can play basketball and other games.
Though JD has so much going on in his life right now, he has a huge support system to keep him grounded. He attributes his position in life to coaches, teachers, mentors, family members and friends.
He can always count on wisdom and an encouraging phrase from his mom.
“I hope that JD is where he wants to be in the next few years, which is an NFL player. I want him to do it for himself and not anybody else,” Katrice Woods said. “We have a phrase that I have given to JD at the end of every one of our conversations since he’s been in school, and it never fails: ‘Never give up.’”
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Star football player and community organizer Ja’Darius “JD” Woods, 24, moved to Lawrence when he was 10 years old and quickly dove into the youth sports scene. He’s shattered records and earned a multitude of honors since, but he hasn’t limited his influence to the football field.