By Gil Brandt, NFL.com Senior Analyst
Special to Profootballhof.com
As a football scout, fate occasionally takes players away from your organization or fails to let you see them fully develop. Often it's injuries, but sometimes it's a trade, or even another team taking them in the draft before you get the opportunity. But with Rayfield Wright, I had the privilege of watching a boy become a man.
Wright had been a four-year starter for his high school's basketball team in Griffin, Ga., and had even played in an all-star game with legendary former New York Knick Walt "Clyde" Frazier. He had been offered several basketball scholarships -- one of them from prestigious Loyola of Chicago. But he almost chose not to go to college at all after a career day in high school. One of the speakers was a colonel in the Air Force who convinced Wright that he could have a very rewarding career in the military.
Wright even talked some of his friends into joining the military with him and they all went to Atlanta and passed physicals. Most were sworn in five months later, but then Wright met Stan Lomax. Lomax had just been hired as the head football and basketball coach at Fort Valley State (Ga.). Wright changed his mind about military service and jumped at the opportunity to play for Lomax, who gave him a scholarship on the condition that he played both sports.
Judging Wright's talents on the field was a difficult proposition from a pro perspective. He was such an athletic player in college, able to play positions as diverse as free safety, defensive end, tight end and punter. Thanks to our scout Dick Mansberger, the Cowboys were able to identify Wright's talents and we ended up taking him in the seventh round of the 1967 draft. Mansberger did an outstanding job of scouting at the historically black colleges for us, finding Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame-level talent at little-known schools like Fort Valley State, Morgan State, Virginia Union, Johnson C. Smith, Florida A&M and Elizabeth City State.
March 17, 1967, was the first day I met Wright personally. At age 21, he had just gotten off the first plane ride of his life, a flight to Dallas with Lomax. We signed him to a three-year contract that called for salaries of $15,000, $18,000 and $22,000 to go along with a signing bonus of $10,000 and a brand new Pontiac Bonneville. My, how times have changed in pro sports.
When Wright signed, the coaches told him he would play tight end. But after the first rookie weekend he was told he was to gain weight before training camp so he could play defensive end. During camp, the plans to move Wright to the defense full time were scrapped and he played his first two seasons as a tight end, with an occasional play on the defensive side.
In the spring of 1969, coach Tom Landry reviewed Wright's situation again and made the decision to permanently move him to offensive tackle to make use of his fantastic athletic ability and quick feet. The "Big Cat" agreed and -- because of an injury to right tackle Ralph Nelly -- made his first start on the O-line Nov. 23 in Los Angeles against Deacon Jones, another future member of the Hall of Fame. Before the first play of the game, Jones looked across the line of scrimmage and as Wright, "Boy, does your momma know you're out here today?"
Wright neutralized Jones that day, and that performance against one of the best players in the league gave Landry the confidence to name him the permanent starter at right tackle before training camp in 1970. Wright went on to an outstanding career on the offensive line for the Cowboys, helping lead the team to two Super Bowl championships and five total appearances. He earned six trips to the Pro Bowl and was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s.
From where he started in small-town Georgia -- and the original indecision with his position in the pros -- Wright always found a way to harness his athleticism to its fullest potential, no matter the circumstances. The induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, will be a very proud day for someone like me who was able to play a part in his progress from the day his NFL career began in with the Cowboys in early 1967.
Did you know
The No. 7 has been big for Wright in his career. He was a seventh-round draft choice; he wore No. 67 in the preseason as a rookie; he wore the No. 70 as an offensive tackle during his career with the Cowboys (13 years, 182 games); he is the seventh Cowboys player to enter the Hall of Fame -- Tex Schramm and Tom Landry did not enter as players; In 1970 Wright played in his first of five Super Bowls; he is the seventh player from the state of Georgia to be enshrined in the HOF; On Aug. 17, Sonny Purdue, the governor of Georgia, will be proclaiming "Rayfield Wright Day" in the state; He was selected to the 1970s All-Decade Team as an offensive lineman; he played in seven NFC Championship Games in the '70s.