If you click pause at the split second right after redshirt sophomore Real Woods pins his opponent down, right before he springs up to pound his chest in victory, you might be able to see the tattoo on his upper back peeking out of his Cardinal singlet. It’s a W, symbolizing Woods, the family name, struck through by two linked diamond shapes, representing sacrifice.
“We’re all gonna do it,” Woods said about getting the tattoo. “All the boys in the family.”
For Woods, family is everything, and sacrifice is the norm. To get to Stanford, he had to give up four years with his family for a chance to wrestle against elite competition, forego carefree high school afternoons for tireless hours in the gym and leave his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the unfamiliar city of Chicago, Illinois. In short, Woods is well-acquainted with giving up almost everything in order to achieve his goals. But when he read in July that Stanford was planning to discontinue its wrestling program following the 2021 season, Woods felt like there was nowhere to go.
“There is no word that could explain really what it felt like,” Woods said. “It was something I had never experienced before. It was almost like losing someone close to you, someone you love.”
It was not the loss of two more years of Stanford wrestling that hurt the most, but the loss of the dream that he has sacrificed so much for since he was an undersized kid with a fire in his heart, Woods said. Woods started wrestling at the age of six, when his father’s friend, a wrestling coach who Woods calls his uncle, introduced him to the sport.
“My dad was a football coach,” Woods said. “But I was never the biggest kid, so we knew that wasn’t going to be much of an option. So my uncle asked my dad if he could throw me into wrestling and see how that went. And right away it just came naturally to me.”
Within his first two years of wrestling, Woods had won local tournament after tournament, defeating kids older and bigger than him.
“He was like a remote control since day one,” Woods’ father, Ray Woods, said in “The Real Story,” a recent documentary made by Keep Stanford Wrestling that follows Real Woods’ journey to Stanford. “You’d yell out ‘do this,’ and there he would be, doing the same thing on the damn mat.” Real Woods always had something to prove, he said. While his father ran college football practices, Woods would camp out for hours on the sidelines or in the weight room, trying to show that he could compete.
“They would be doing workouts and I would just show off,” Woods said. “I was a hard worker, you know? I could do some crazy things and I would try to compete with these college athletes when I was seven, eight years old. I’m competitive, I’ve always been competitive, and that’s one of the biggest things that has helped me succeed. My dad taught me that, he taught me how to love growth.”
Fast forward a few years and a 14-year-old Woods is making the decision whether to leave his family and the life he knew in New Mexico to attend high school in Chicago. The man in charge of the move was Israel Martinez, a wrestling coach who ran training programs for the top wrestlers in the country.
Years earlier, Martinez had invited a group of local New Mexico wrestlers to attend one of his training programs. Woods was the only wrestler who stood out, Martinez said.
“The golden ticket was the unheard thing that I didn’t announce publicly,” Martinez said in the documentary. “I was looking for a young man who I could bring to Chicago and take advantage of the opportunity … and after the second day, I knew Real was the guy.”
The two quickly formed a close relationship, with Woods taking on increasingly advanced competition in New Mexico and Martinez pushing him every step of the way. But after years of working with Woods, the time to move to Chicago had arrived, and the Woods family had to make a decision.
“When I was discussing colleges with the Woods family, you kind of mention some big name schools because you’re from the midwest,” Martinez said. “Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State and then the top academic schools, Northwestern, Michigan and none of that was getting Jen Woods off the couch, none of that was getting Ray Woods off the seat of his pants. But Stanford Wrestling was what got Mama Woods off the couch, hugging me and really looking at ‘wow this could be the goal, the mecca of education and wrestling.’”
Soon after, a red Stanford “S” appeared, printed and taped to Woods’ bedroom door.
“Every time I woke up in the morning, every time I was doing homework at 2 a.m. with my door closed, seeing that printed Stanford logo, it was just a reminder that I couldn’t stop,” Woods said.
At the other side of his room was a blackboard. On it, Woods drew the Stanford logo, scrawling motivational quotes on either side, reading them back to himself when he was unsure where to go next.
“There was a time for two or three years when I really wanted to quit,” Woods said. “Being a young kid, as you start to grow up you start to deal with things that go beyond just wrestling on the mat. But I eventually realized that feeling that way was the best possible thing for me. Wrestling teaches me that determination and commitment that you need to have for the sacrifice, and after two or three years of really not liking the sport, I fell in love with it.”
So when Woods left New Mexico, moved in with a host family in Illinois and enrolled in Montini Catholic High School, a preparatory school with a reputation for turning out top wrestlers, he knew what he was doing it for. Still, leaving his family for the first time in his life was a heartbreaking sacrifice for Woods.
“I’m a mama’s boy, I love my mom so much, and I always wanted to make my dad proud in anything I did,” Woods said. “When that second year hit, I couldn’t be there for them, I couldn’t be there for my little brothers. I just wanted to take them to wrestling practices and pick them up from school, get ice cream with them. And I just didn’t have those opportunities. I wasn’t able to be there like I wanted to be there as a big brother. I would hear my mom cry over the phone that I was gone for so long and it just all started becoming a little overwhelming.”
Woods would not let the pain get in the way of his athletic success, however. As a freshman in high school, Woods won the Illinois state championship, garnering headlines in local newspapers, but more importantly, attention from Stanford recruiters. In the spring of 2015, Stanford associate wrestling coach Ray Blake ’06 got a call from Martinez asking him to take a look at Woods.
“We were having a random conversation, and at the end, he said, ‘hey, you know, Ray, I gotta put someone on your radar, I gotta tell you about this kid Real Woods,’” Blake said. “He told me about his background, how he met him and what he thought about him, all the sacrifices that Real had to make to get where he was. He told me that Stanford was the end goal.”
To have a chance at Stanford, however, Blake told Woods that he would have to make some changes to his academics. Together, Blake, Martinez and Woods worked to create a plan where Woods would take more honors and advanced placement classes over the next few years. Woods was more than willing to take on the new challenge, he said. Every day, Woods woke up at 6 a.m., drove to morning practice, went to school, attended study hall, wrestled, ate dinner, studied until 2 a.m. and went to sleep. By the end of 11th grade, he held a significantly higher GPA and two more state championships.
In July 2017, Woods committed to wrestle at Stanford, achieving the dream he had sacrificed so much for.
“It was my biggest goal,” Woods said. “And I had accomplished it, but if I could get into Stanford and be content with just that, I wouldn’t be much. So then it’s on to the next goal. My next biggest goal was to graduate at Stanford. And then to be a national champion. And then to be an Olympic champion. And then continue on and then get admitted into med school and be a psychiatrist. You always have to keep going, you can never let up.”
The transition to college was swift and easy, Woods said. He had already built a strong foundation in top wrestling, a position that many wrestlers struggle with when adjusting to collegiate wrestling. Woods redshirted his freshman year, but still blew by the competition on his way to a 22-1 season. In the same season, the team took the top spot at the Pac-12 championship. In 2020, coming off the conference championship and eying a national one, the team came out firing. Woods’ first and only loss that year came to the top-ranked wrestler in the nation, Luke Pletcher, out of Ohio State.
“There were 5,000 people there, and maybe 100,000 people watching online,” Blake said. “A lot of people, frankly, didn’t really know how good Real was before that match. This was his first big test in front of that type of audience. And he was ready. I mean, honestly, going into the match, I thought he was going to win.”
Woods came within a hair’s breadth of taking Pletcher down, according to the announcers.
“I expect to win,” Woods said. “Every time I wrestle, I expect to win, so it was tough. But one thing about failures is that it can be the biggest teacher and the greatest opportunity. It shows you, right in your face, what you need to do to win, to get better, to achieve your goals. So I bounced back.”
After that loss, Woods went on a tear. He finished the shortened season with a 19-1 record in the 141-pound weight class and became just the sixth freshman in Stanford history to win the Pac-12 Championship.
However, just days before the NCAA Championships, at which he was ranked as the No. 3 seed, the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. So, the team set its sights on next season, Blake said. But in July, when the University announced that it would discontinue the sport following the 2021 season, bouncing back seemed like too much of a hurdle.
“These are my biggest dreams, and all of them were taken away, just ripped away from me like that,” Woods said. “And they were just gone. It was like my dreams didn’t exist anymore.”
Woods was at home in Albuquerque when he heard the news. Right away, he went to his parents to talk about the decision and what it meant for him and his family.
“You have to look at your foundation, who you are,” Woods said. “Wrestling is part of who I am, but it isn’t all I am. Everything has been taken away from me. My dreams and my goals have been taken away from me, but I know that I have myself, I know who I am. It’s not the goals and dreams that make me who I am, it’s me who makes me who I am.”
Still, Woods said he has to keep fighting for his dreams and for the dreams of so many other high school and collegiate wrestlers. When Ryan Blake, Ray Blake’s brother, approached Woods in October about making a documentary with FloWrestling showcasing his journey to Stanford, Woods jumped on board right away.
“I think that a lot of people can see that impact and hopefully be touched by the impact that wrestling has had for me and my family and my coaches and everyone around me who supports me,” Woods said. “I just really hope that it helps.”
Blake said that he and his brother wanted people to see what Stanford wrestling can do for kids who may not have had the same opportunities as others. Woods grew up in Albuquerque, where high school graduation rates are among the lowest in the U.S. and crime rates are among the highest, but the goal of Stanford wrestling gave him the drive he needed to chase the future he wanted. Now, Woods is working toward a Stanford degree, planning to attend medical school and pursue a career as a psychiatrist.
As for wrestling, Woods remains uncertain about participating in the upcoming 2021 season due to the increased academic workload that he would need to take on in order to retain eligibility as a result of the July announcement. If Woods can graduate from Stanford early and enter a master’s program at another university, he would be able to wrestle for two more years according to the NCAA rules.
But even though Woods is constantly looking to the future and searching for ways to bounce back, he refuses to forget the W, a permanent reminder of his family, on his upper back. When asked whether the W could also mean winning, Woods laughed.
“I guess it could, if you want to put it that way,” he said. “I love winning, but that isn’t really what it’s about. Everything is for my family. No matter what it’s always going to be for them.”