C.J. Goodwin doesn’t believe he ever asked Santa Claus for a football.
In fact, this 26-year-old graduate of The Linsly School believes that if he requested anything sports-related from ol’ St. Nick, it had to have been a basketball.
Hoops was his game, and his dreams involved the NBA and not the NFL.
Funny then how Goodwin will once again wear No. 29 this Saturday in Charlotte as a member of the Atlanta Falcons, huh?
“In high school at Linsly I was really focused on basketball. I thought basketball was my ticket into college,” Goodwin said. “I come from a basketball family, and we’re very competitive with each other. I wanted to be the best one in the family, so that’s what I worked on.
“But when my senior year came around, my friend Chidozie Oparanozie was a pretty big football player at Linsly. Well, we made a promise to each other. He said that if I played football my senior year, he would come out for basketball,” he recalled. “So that’s what we did, and I had a lot of fun playing football, but I never thought I would play the sport again.”
Oh, but he has.
After accepting an academic scholarship to attend Bethany College and play basketball, he then opted to transfer to Fairmont State. “I found myself wanting a bigger school with more people, so I transferred to Fairmont State to have more fun,” Goodwin admitted. “I’m not going to lie about that. That’s why I transferred to Fairmont, and I loved it there.
“When I was at Bethany, I found on the college level that basketball just didn’t seem to be my thing anymore. It was more like a job at that point, and that took the fun out of it for me, and I was really upset about it,” he explained. “But that was a wake-up call, and that’s when I realized I needed to really buckle down on my classes and get ready to get my degree and get on with it.”
Oddly enough, one day on campus the game of basketball would lead him back to a football field. Former Fairmont State football coach Mike Lopez got a glimpse of Goodwin during an intramural basketball game.
“He pulled me off the court and told me I should be playing football for him on Fairmont’s team as a receiver,” he recalled. “So that’s what I did, and I did all right there, but when Lopez left Fairmont for California University, I followed him there after I graduated with my business management degree to see if I could play football there because I was told that I would play a lot there, and even though it really didn’t work out that way, I did get that chance for a Pro Day, and I made the most of that opportunity.”
For the Fairmont State Falcons in 2012 he caught 24 balls for 440 yards and four touchdown receptions, but at California University, during his final year of athletic eligibility, Goodwin made only 11 catches and scored just once.
He sprinted 40 yards in 4.31 seconds in front of 16 NFL scouts after enduring the most difficult physical conditioning he had ever experienced.
“Boogie (Johnson) played a big part with my training because he told me about Josh Pyles, a guy who had worked at an IMG Academy that came to Wheeling,” Goodwin explained. “So I ended up going to him at the Total Athlete Training facility out in Triadelphia. And after my first day of the workout, I ended up throwing up everywhere. I wasn’t ready for that.
“That’s when he told me that if I kept going back to him that I would be making money playing football somewhere, so that’s what I did, and I trained harder than I ever did before. It was twice a day; a workout in the morning, then I would go work my eight-hour shift at the Mel Blount Youth Home, and then I would go back,” he said. “And then the time came for the Pro Day, and there were a lot of scouts there. I did what I did, and that’s how I had the chance to go to the other combines and finally get me a look.”
Ironically, Goodwin and the rest of his family are Cowboys fans because it was the Steelers who rang his phone first.
“Mr. Mel (Blount) knew how hard I was working, and that I was very athletic; he made a call to the Steelers, and it was the Steelers who contacted me and invited me to go to Pittsburgh for a tryout,” he explained. “That’s why I consider Mr. Mel my angel.
“I was a nervous wreck when I went there because that’s the closest I had gotten to the NFL, and I went, and there were two other guys who were there with me. One was a lineman, and the other was a receiver, too, and it was like he and I were going against each other head-to-head. Although I thought I could have done better, I had a decent workout,” Goodwin remembered. “Not even a week later I got a call from the Steelers, and the first thing the guy asked me was about how far away from Pittsburgh I was, and that’s because they wanted to sign me on that day. I’ll never forget that.”
He signed his first professional contract on June 4, 2014, and was assigned to the team’s practice squad, but near the end of the next year’s training camp Goodwin was released by Pittsburgh after suffering a shoulder injury.
But he wasn’t done despite returning to his hometown without an NFL roster spot.
“That whole experience was a blessing for me, and that was life-changing money for a kid from Wheeling. I knew when I got hurt that it was going to have an impact on my future with the Steelers, but they told then that if I kept working hard, I would get a chance somewhere,” Goodwin said. “And I had that feeling that someone would give me a shot, but that was a really, really long eight weeks.
“I had to stay ready, so that’s what I did, and then on Week 8 the Falcons called me and said they wanted to give me a workout,” he explained. “They signed me to the practice squad that day (January 5, 2016), and that was a blessing because I still didn’t feel as if I was ready to play in the NFL just yet. But then, in Week 16, the defensive backs coach told me I should consider playing defense. He told me that if I could play defensive back, I’d play forever in the league and once I heard that I decided to give it a shot.”
The Falcons completed the season with an 8-8 record and during the offseason Goodwin was determined to learn the position of cornerback. He traveled to Arizona to work with a specialist, and then returned to Pyles and also began training with Curtis McGhee, a former defensive safety for the University of Pittsburgh who has coached several seasons at West Liberty University.
Thus far Goodwin has played in 12 of the Falcons’ 14 games both on special teams and in Atlanta’s defensive backfield. The Falcons own a 9-5 mark and sit atop the NFC South Division heading into Week 16 against the 6-8 Carolina Panthers.
“This season I am seeing all of that hard work finally pay off,” Goodwin said. “The special teams coach gave me a shot, and if you show you can play special teams, it proves to the coaches that you can play in this league. That really helped me make the team, and I continued to improve as a defensive back.
“On defense I’ve rotated with Deji Olatoye, and he’s a good cover guy and they want me to get some more experience,” he said. “They trust me now, or they wouldn’t put me out there, and that means a lot to me. I mean, this is the NFL and it means everything to me to take advantage of the chance I have been given, and it also helps that we’re having a really good season. Our offense is amazing, so we just have to keep it going.”
The reserve/futures contract he inked with Atlanta is a two-year deal, so Goodwin is hoping to continue attracting the attention of general manager Thomas Dimitroff during the final two weeks of the regular season.
“What I do know for sure is we have the Panthers this week and then the Saints at home in Week 17, so I’m going to continue working as hard as I can to stay here. To be in the NFL today is a blessing, and I’m not taking anything for granted because you just don’t know how far you can go,” he said. “This isn’t the easy life; I can tell you that. At least three days a week this is all sun-up to sun-down. And then we play the games, and you really have to enjoy the game to be here.
“But during those three days I’m at the practice facility from 7 a.m. until 6:30 or 7 p.m. I know it’s not a 9-to-5 job, and I know people who have those 9-to-5 jobs work really, really hard for their families,” Goodwin continued. “But playing on this level is not an easy thing to do, and I am learning every single day and doing my best to take care of myself.”
He credits his family, of course, but also the people of Wheeling and his six years at Linsly.
“I’m still all about East Wheeling because that’s where I grew up for the most part,” said Goodwin, the father of five-year daughter, Caidyn. “And I tell people it’s one of the best places a person could live in the nation. That’s goes for the whole city of Wheeling, too, and Wheeling will always be my home because, along with my parents, Wheeling raised me. I honestly think I had the best childhood ever, and going to Linsly was a big part of that. I got to see all walks of life.
“Sending his kids to Linsly was always the dream for my dad, and now I swear by Linsly. Anyone who asks me anything about schools, I tell them that Linsly is it,” he continued. “I found it all to be amazing, and I learned so much. I learned that the world is a much bigger place than most people realize. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people at Linsly, and I’m sure my older and younger sisters and my younger brother would say the same thing about themselves.”
(Photos provided by The Linsly School and by C.J. Goodwin)