Life Beyond the Game: The EJ Woods Story – How playing in Russia recalibrated his life

EJ Woods is learning.

Facing a crystal blue sea and surrounded by the pristine white sands of Southern California, EJ admits he’s still searching for his inner paradise.

More than twelve years ago, EJ was involved in an incident that derailed his once promising football career. While he acknowledges and laments his actions that night, it is the unproven sexual misconduct accusations that still haunt him. It is the unfulfilled promise and lack of closure that continue to weigh on him to this day. Football is an integral part of EJ’s identity and reinventing himself has proven difficult.

While fans have long moved on, in 2008, news of Edmund Keith Woods Jr’s commitment to the UCLA Bruins was a big deal. His college stock was sky high. Football recruiting databases, like and PrepStar had rated him as one of the top prospects in the nation. ESPN had him ranked just outside the top hundred, at 101. In fact, among the highly decorated 2008 recruiting class, which included the likes of Julio Jones and AJ Green, Edmund Jr. – or EJ for short – was ranked above future Heisman winner Mark Ingram and two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph.

EJ was recruited by college football heavyweights such as Texas A&M, Florida State and the 2010 national finalists – the Oregon Ducks. He was on the surest path to the NFL.

Or so he thought.

Unfortunately for EJ, he would not play a single down for the Bruins.

EJ had just returned from a winter break getaway with his girlfriend in Lake Tahoe. Sitting alongside his closest friends playing Mario Kart in his standard beige colored and wood furnished dorm room, the group received an invitation to a party to celebrate the start of the semester.

At the party, attended by numerous UCLA athletes, EJ committed the biggest mistake of his life.

With his girlfriend at his side, another female got in his face. While the events leading up to this point could not be independently verified – none of the other parties directly involved responded to a request for comment – what is certain is that EJ pushed the young woman in the facial area. Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office at the time, in a press release, said that Woods had pushed the woman back by the throat.

“That is the biggest regret of my life,” EJ says.

Upon being released to his family the same night, EJ was told to stay away from all team activities while his case was reviewed by the program’s executives and ordered to take anger management and problem-solving classes. His training was confined to personal sessions with a UCLA assistant coach.

Eventually, the suspension was lifted. EJ returned to the team, rising up the depth chart and even winning the starting position at defensive back. EJ still recalls a scrimmage at the famed Rose Bowl, where he dominated play and had the chance to interact with fans – both young and old – as well as pro players observing the next generation of talent. It was the was the highlight of his career at UCLA.

Things were starting to look up. Until March 13, 2009, that is.

On that day, in the early hours of the morning, EJ was charged with two counts of sexual battery and four counts of battery by City of Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.

It got worse.

The Los Angeles Times got wind of the report and soon his name was plastered all over local outlets. The previously internal matter was now in the public eye. In a sign of the changing times – no longer was personal misconduct overshadowed by even the best of talent – EJ’s career at UCLA was over. And as history would have it, so was his pro football career.

According to EJ, on campus other students were quick to pass judgement before the facts were ever presented, turning him into a pariah.

“[This] was blown up to me seeming like this sex monster, which was not cool at all,” EJ says, adding that the reputation he developed was difficult to overcome. “I have a daughter right now… So, if I saw her hanging out with the girl at school that had a reputation of being a troublemaker. I would tell her… you need to distance yourself. And I think that I ended up being that kid that parents told their kids to stay away from. And that’s what hurt me the most.”

EJ Woods with camp attendees in Moscow

What most never learned is that four of the counts were dropped, including both counts of sexual battery. Or that the remaining charges were eventually dismissed.

City of Los Angeles City Attorney spokesperson Rob Wilcox, in a written statement, confirmed that EJ had pled no contest to two charges of battery in 2009 and that the two infractions were dismissed on October 3, 2016.

Facing mounting pressure EJ left UCLA.

Instead of taking the time to take care of his legal issues and do some soul-searching, EJ, more than ever, committed himself to the game he loves. In hindsight, this is one of EJ’s biggest regrets. In fact, a part of him believes that his chance to play pro-football may have been compromised by prioritizing the game over the legal process.

“Me rushing the [legal] process, I regret it more than anything in my life,” an emotional EJ said, with his usually sturdy voice quivering just a bit. He added that the reputational damage has been immeasurable.

The star defensive back’s reluctance to engage in soul-searching would become a common theme in the next decade of chaotic movement.

Following his departure from UCLA, EJ was offered a lifeline by Arizona State Sun Devils wide receivers coach Eric Yarber. The current Los Angeles Rams wideout coach was keen on bringing in the hard-hitting defensive player to shore up an Arizona State team that was falling short of expectations. Yarber offered the embattled Californian a deal – he would have a place with the Sun Devils conditional on him completing an associate degree while playing at a junior college.

However, without the oversight and guidance offered to athletes at top-notch programs like UCLA, EJ struggled. Hundreds of miles from home, in a far-less nurturing environment, EJ left Eastern Arizona College soon after his arrival, with a burglary, allegedly orchestrated by some of his teammates, being the last straw.

Yarber rescinded his offer.

EJ’s one-sided commitment to football did not end there. He embarked on a run that would see him bounce around between colleges in Utah, Oregon, California, and New Mexico.

His unrelenting desire to fulfill his promise on the field was beginning to backfire. EJ was self-destructing on and off the field. In-game, the increasingly frustrated defensive back would often deliver punishing hits resulting in frequent ejections and suspensions. And off field, he burned several bridges in desperate, but short-sighted attempts to revive his college career.

In rescinding his offer, Yarber had told EJ that by not following through on his end of the deal he failed to exhibit the personal growth that would allow him to thrive in the college environment. In retrospect, EJ agrees. And while he has no regrets about not finishing his studies, he laments the missed opportunity for personal growth, admitting that immaturity got the best of him too many times in his former life.

However, undeterred by a tumultuous college career, EJ still wasn’t ready for introspection. He began exploring the alternate routes to the NFL. He set his sights on the Canadian Football League, a path many NFL standouts took, only to later be told that he wasn’t a “fit” with a potential suitor. While his agent told him that it was part of a roster shuffle, EJ believes his past was catching up to him.

Having suffered another setback, at the suggestion of a former teammate and friend, EJ cast his gaze across the pond to Europe. Given his experience at the highest level of collegiate football, EJ says he was a hot commodity on Europlayers, an online platform that matches gridiron talent across the world with teams in Europe. EJ first went to Finland, then to Poland, then to Switzerland.

EJ Woods playing for the Warsaw Eagles in Poland Photo: Radoslaw Makuch

“I used Europlayers and European football to run away from my problems in America. I called it escaping reality,” EJ admits.

Meanwhile, his unrelenting pursuit of on-field glory was also taking a personal toll. He became distant with those he was closest to and those who were there for him at his lowest points. His relationship with his loved ones became strained.

The turning point came in 2018.

EJ was on his way to Turkey to join a local team when he had a last-minute change of heart opting to go to Russia because of the World Cup. While, Turkey, from a football standpoint, was a more appealing option, EJ finally putting himself before the game changed his life in ways he could not have imagined.

Life with family in California

After arriving in Russia, the Southern California native initially thought he would not stay for long. The tough-as-nails football player found the people cold and intimidating. First impressions, however, were deceiving and his new cohorts started to grow on him. EJ said that the tough, yet earnest nature of his teammates and the family environment was what got him to stay.

As much as he taught them about gridiron football, they taught EJ about himself.

“One thing about my Russian bros that they made me realize, [is that] there is more to life than just football. And that’s been like the hardest thing for me. Like, I’m just a football guy. Like bred… to play some damn football,” EJ says. “They gave me a different perspective. Like it’s just football, [it] isn’t life… and I’m a normally very serious person and they just made me smile.”

For the first time in years, his Russian teammates provided him with a fresh slate, looking past his earlier troubles and welcoming him as one their own, EJ says.

EJ recalls an episode where a visa mix-up landed him behind bars in Moscow. The former defensive back, who considers loyalty to be the value most important to him, said that his then-teammates and club officials at the American Football Club (AFC) Spartak Moscow rallied around him to clear up the misunderstanding and that was something he hadn’t experienced in years. The episode is emblematic of a man who says football was never about the fame, or the fortune but rather the comradery.

The culture shock spurred a change in attitude and life transformation.

EJ says that during his time in Moscow he began to move on from past mistakes and grievances. Opening up about past traumas and having others accept him was an essential part of the healing process.

EJ Woods #3 with Spartak Moscow

Before long, the now 31-year-old, who says the events of a decade ago forced him into a shell, was married. And not long after that his first daughter was born. He is now a father of two. EJ says his wife has also stressed the importance of not dwelling on the past or perceived slights throughout their time together.

Those who know him best marvel at the difference.

However, the transformation has not been easy. Separating the man from the player is an ongoing process. There are days when his mind wanders off to reminisce about past glory and what might have been. Occasionally he contemplates how he can get it all back. And in the darkest of times, he recalls the events of that winter evening over a decade ago.

Ultimately, EJ concedes that life beyond the game is becoming more of a priority, although he certainly remains open to any and all opportunities when it comes to the sport he loves. He has also learned to lean on the things he cherished about football – family and loyalty – in his new life. EJ speaks glowingly about his daughters and the responsibility he has for them. And the former college sports standout has also found a passion for investments.

After a 12-year rollercoaster ride, EJ the football player is slowly fading into the background. EJ the man, meanwhile, is learning to find himself.


Sergei, or Serge for short, is an internationally-accredited journalist based in Toronto, Canada. A former mathematician, today he travels the world covering anything from sports to politics to pop culture and wherever they may intersect.