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‘Holy Warrior’: From Jihad to Jahad, Washington State’s middle linebacker has always emulated speed, force on gridiron

PULLMAN – Those who’ve kept up with Washington State’s efforts on the recruiting trail through the Mike Leach era may recall the team’s pursuit of a small, swift linebacker from Helix High School in San Diego five years ago, while Alex Grinch and Roy Manning were working diligently to build a defense that placed a premium on speed rather than size.

To this day, if you punch “Jahad Woods” and “recruiting” into a search engine, you’ll stumble on a handful of bios for a 5-foot-10, 215-pound recruit who was rated three stars by sites like 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN.com, and listed just two offers, from an underappreciated school in the Pac-12, Washington State, and a perennial bottom-dweller in the Mountain West, San Jose State.

Woods, an all-conference linebacker on the verge of reaching 100 tackles for the Cougars this season, probably deserved another star or two, and his sheer athleticism definitely warranted an offer sheet much longer than the one from which he had to choose. But those aren’t the only peculiarities about Woods’ profile.

Nor were they the most glaring.

Each of the recruiting services and any website that published his prospect video listed WSU’s redshirt junior not as Jahad Woods but Jihad Woods. It was Jihad, not Jahad, who was offered by WSU in April 2015, according to a 247Sports timeline. Jihad Woods committed to the Cougars a month later and Jihad Woods signed a National Letter of Intent the following February.

Then a sudden, inexplicable change on the timeline: Jahad Woods enrolls at WSU in June 2016.

It isn’t an editing gaffe, or rather a series of them. But it’s a heckuva story.

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Washington State Cougars linebacker Jahad Woods (13) cheers with fans after the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 10, 2018, at Folsom Field in Boulder Colo. WSU won the game 31-7. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Washington State Cougars linebacker Jahad Woods (13) cheers with fans after the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 10, 2018, at Folsom Field in Boulder Colo. WSU won the game 31-7. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Becoming Jahad

For legal purposes, the second-leading tackler in the Pac-12, the engine of Washington State’s defense and the player whose iconic strip-sack of Sam Darnold helped the Cougars secure a 2017 upset of No. 5 USC, goes by Jihad Woods.

As the tale goes, when Jack and Harriet Woods had their fourth child, Harriet especially was drawn to the name “Jihad,” which is synonymous with “Holy Warrior” – and it’s been more than fitting for middle linebacker who ties passion, aggression and force into his style of playing.

“My wife just liked the name,” Jack Woods said.

“Holy Warrior” is actually the Western interpretation of Jihad, but it isn’t the only one. The name has Arabic roots and linguistically it translates to “striving,” “struggling” or “fighting.” Most commonly, though, it’s associated with a religious movement in the Middle East, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which has used suicide bombings and other acts of violence over the last 32 years in an effort to overthrow the State of Israel.

The United States and other world powers have labeled the PIJ as a terrorist organization. By the time Woods arrived at Helix High, political tension between the U.S. and Middle East had already been mounting for years – and the linebacker’s first name was suddenly the symbol of something that caused great angst and frustration among American citizens.

Jack and Harriet Woods hadn’t run into too many obstacles until their son was a high school junior and Helix was playing Del Oro in the second week of the 2014 season. The game was part of the Honor Bowl series, which has been held every year since 2010 throughout California in an attempt to instill patriotism while educating students, coaches and community members about the needs of military veterans.

The Helix-Del Oro matchup was staged at Oceanside High School, located less than 15 miles from major Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Active and former military members were invited to pop in throughout the day and evening to take in some high school football.

Woods, a two-way star for the Highlanders, put on a show for the servicemen, but whenever the PA announcer blurted his first name from the press box, it prompted the servicemen scattered throughout the stands to perform a double take.

Former Helix coach Troy Starr, a former Urban Meyer assistant at Florida, couldn’t recall his player’s stat line, but Woods made a slew of tackles and also ran the ball 14 times, according to MaxPreps.

“I just remember he made a bunch of plays that game,” Starr said.

Washington State linebacker was an All-CIF San Diego Section first-team player at Helix High School in La Mesa, Calif. (Jack Woods / Courtesy)
Washington State linebacker was an All-CIF San Diego Section first-team player at Helix High School in La Mesa, Calif. (Jack Woods / Courtesy)

It became a constant tune from the press box: “Jihad Woods on the stop,” “Jihad Woods rushes to the outside,” “Jihad Woods with the QB hurry.”

“That was right in the height of the war that was over there,” Jack said, “but it never dawned on us to correlate the two.”

Plus, Jack and Harriet had never pronounced their son’s name the way it appears phonetically – they called him “Jah-hawd,” not “Gee-hawd.” But announcers butchered it anyway. As Woods recalled this July during Pac-12 Media Day, military representatives were so put off it cost him MVP honors in a 34-10 Helix win.

During the offseason, as Woods continued to pick up more college interest, his parents contemplated changing his first name as a way to preemptively eliminate any future problems. They made just one small tweak, and for football purposes only, replacing the “i” with an “a.”

So, the name on Woods’ driver’s license didn’t change and he’s still Jihad in almost every phase of his life. It’s the name that shows up on his father’s phone. It’s the name he uses on at least two social media accounts, but just in case any WSU football fans care to follow the linebacker on Instagram, he’s ensured to include “Jahad” in parentheses to avoid confusion.

“It didn’t alarm us or anything, but we just wanted things to be easier for him and not to have this situation in college,” Jack said. “So when I spoke to the coach about it, he was like, ‘No problem, we’ll just spell it ‘Ja.’ ’ So it wasn’t a problem.”

‘Baby Ray’

Before Jihad vs. Jahad became a conundrum, observers of Woods’ youth football games on the Pop Warner fields of the Valencia Park community in San Diego forged another name for the 10-year-old linebacker who’d zip from one side of the field quicker than any of his teammates and hit with much more pop.

“It makes me think back to his first tackle season, and I didn’t know he had that kind of spirit in him and after watching him play, people, even the fans, they used to call him ‘Baby Ray Lewis,’ ” Jack said. “We would hear that, people would always say that because of the way he would tackle and how aggressive he was, and it kind of evolved from there.”

Until they put their son in pads, Jack and Harriet thought they had a boy who was mild-mannered, soft-spoken and even-keeled. But Woods switched gears once he got the green light.

“That’s when I started to see the Jekyll and Hyde, when he’s on the field, he’s like a different person,” Jack said.

“It’s almost kind of hard to get him to talk sometimes.”

Until his senior year, Starr and his coaches at Helix had a hard time getting anything out of him. Four years later, the Cougars are still trying to convince Woods to use his vocal chords as well as he uses his legs.

Washington State linebacker Jahad Woods grew up playing football in San Diego. (Jack Woods / Courtesy)
Washington State linebacker Jahad Woods grew up playing football in San Diego. (Jack Woods / Courtesy)

Even if there isn’t much coming out of his mouth, there’s always been a fire burning beneath those long dreadlocks.

“He was an explosive, quick-twitch player who was abnormally fast for a linebacker and he was a really powerful kid,” Starr said.

It isn’t an understatement to say Woods has been growing out his hair since birth. He saved his parents from pulling out their wallet for a haircut by keeping the long, twisted black locks that have been behind him through every tackle he’s made.

“Ever since he had a bottle in his mouth,” Jack said. “My wife started (putting his hair into dreadlocks) when he wasn’t even walking yet. He was crawling around the ground.”

Woods pondered a change in high school, but his dad cautioned otherwise. Like his top-end speed, or his physical play, the long strands of hair jetting from Woods’ helmet had become an important attribute to his on-field profile.

“In football, it looks really cool and all that. It sets you apart,” Jack said. “Then after he started seeing that, I couldn’t get him to cut it for nothing in the world.”

Why chop it off? It adds some pizzazz to a player who already packs plenty of pop.

“Can’t see his number, but you can see his hair,” his father laughed.

Out of the Woods

If Woods ended his career tomorrow, he’d be one of the most accomplished linebackers WSU has had this millennium. Had it ended after just the second start of his career, Woods would still own one of the signature plays in program history – a clutch strip-sack of Darnold, now starting for the New York Jets, that will serve as a top snapshot of the Leach era in Pullman for years to come.

“I thought that play was so cool,” Starr said. “Just so happy for him, so excited for him.”

But Woods, a preseason All-Pac-12 second-team selection, is guaranteed another 15 games in Pullman – that’s at the minimum – which should allow him to put a good dent in the school’s top 10 for career tackles and at least crack the top 10 for tackles for loss.

With more four quarters, he should reach another popular linebacker milestone: 100 tackles for the season. Woods has 92 tackles through nine games, or 10.2 per game, so he’ll have a good chance to break triple digits against Stanford on Saturday.

It would be more impressive if Woods could help the Cougars right the defensive ship amid a turbulent season, and gather at least two more wins to secure the program’s fifth straight bowl game.

Rest assured, he’s concentrated on that goal.

“He hadn’t mentioned anything about numbers of tackles as a goal,” interim defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni said. “I think he’d like to be known as one of the better linebackers in the conference and that type of thing, but he hasn’t mentioned any numbers. I don’t know that’s on his mind. He just wants to go out there and play the best he can every week.”

At times that’s been a struggle for Woods, who was hobbled with a knee issue earlier in the season – causing him to miss parts of two games – and has been, in his father’s words, “pretty rugged as far as injuries are concerned.

“He’ll get banged up, but as long as he can play, he will play … and I think he’s just now getting back up to speed from that.”

Which is when it starts to get scary for anyone standing in his son’s way.

“He’s going to work hard until he can’t anymore,” Jack said.

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Washington State Cougars linebacker Jahad Woods (13) puts pressure on Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Tyler Vander Waal (18) during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, September 1, 2018, at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo. WSU won the game 41-19. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Washington State Cougars linebacker Jahad Woods (13) puts pressure on Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Tyler Vander Waal (18) during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, September 1, 2018, at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo. WSU won the game 41-19. (Tyler Tjomsland)

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