When Ed Marinaro broke the Ivy League career rushing record in 1970, the record he smashed did not belong to a running back. That's because former Cornell quarterback Gary Wood was hardly the usual.
He was a totally unique type of quarterback, perhaps a throwback to a time before passing became prevalent -- a quarterback who ran for more yards than he passed.
Gary Wood would carry this style of play into the National Football League, where even his obituary noted that he "frequently thrilled crowds with his fearless rollout style and his penchant for turning planned handoffs into impromptu bootleg plays for big gains."
Coming to Cornell after a high school football career that saw him never play in a losing game, his freewheeling running and passing attack asserted itself early at Cornell. In his seventh Ivy game Wood won Ivy back of the week honors for a 25-0 win against Brown, where the "elusive ball handler" participated in all scoring and "consistently fooled the Brown defenses with his ball handling and faking," according to Gordon S. White of the New York Times. In that first year Wood would pass for 456 yards but rush for 449 yards.
By the beginning of next season, Wood was recognized as a "chief asset -- one of two top signal callers in Ivy League," (the other being Dartmouth quarterback Bill King) with coach Tom Harp asserting "he will be responsible for all passing and most of the outside running." He did just that, passing for 890 yards and rushing for 889 yards. One game in particular summed up his performance. In a 35-34 upset over Princeton Wood threw for 212 yards and rushed for 125 more as he "outdid the fabled exploits of Frank Merriwell," according to the New York Times' Franklin S. Adams. He was named first team All-Ivy -- but as a halfback, perhaps a nod to his running game.
By his senior year Wood was recognized as one of Cornell's all-time greatest, with Coach Harp declaring before the season that "Wood is a better quarterback than [Navy's] Roger Staubach" -- a future NFL Hall of Famer. While this may be hyperbole, Wood turned in another outstanding season, with 545 yards passing and an astounding 818 rushing. He was again named first-team All-Ivy (again as a halfback), and was named to the AP All-East team. A two-time All-American honorable mention, Wood set five Ivy League career and single-season offensive records, and remains the only Ivy League player to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 1,000 more.
The uniqueness of Wood's college career becomes apparent by comparing him to a modern quarterback known for his running game -- Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons. Vick, noted as perhaps the most mobile quarterback of his generation, gained three yards passing for every rushing yard at Virginia Tech. Wood actually rushed for more yards (2,156) than he passed (1,891).
Taken in the eighth round of the 1964 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, Wood had the misfortune of coming to a team with future Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle already installed at quarterback. His size was also a factor, "5 feet 10 3/4 inches, making him a pygmy in the quarterback fraternity," as described in a New York Times article of the time. His first season he frequently replaced Y.A. Tittle, and was actually ranked 13th among N.F.L. quarterbacks, three places ahead of Tittle. His career had its moments.
In a 1966 game "Wood, a bold, hard to read scrambler, fired up his team by completing six of seven passes," in a win over the Washington Redskins. This was his best season, in which he passed for 1,142 yards and rushed for 196 more. But after moving to the New Orleans Saints, returning to the Giants, and spending more time backing up another future Hall of Famer, Fran Tarkenton, he was done by 1969. One of his last assignments for the Giants was holding the football for field goal kicker, and fellow Cornellian, Pete Gogolak.
Of his career Wood said simply that he had been "categorized -- branded -- as a second-stringer," but he did last five seasons, and it's hard to imagine the NFL fully embracing his style of play, notwithstanding his size and bad luck in backing up two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. After two seasons in the Canadian Football League he was out of football.
After retiring Wood opened an insurance firm in New York. He helped found Temple Beth Torah in Melville, New York, and was inducted into the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He died in 1994.
— Stephen Eschenbach