'Road Less Traveled' Led to Canton for Rayfield Wright: 1945-2022

Hall of Famer Forever Published on : 4/7/2022
The football world today is celebrating the life and career of Rayfield Wright, a man whose athletic skills nearly took him to the National Basketball Association until the Dallas Cowboys persuaded him into choose a different path.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2006, Wright died Thursday, his wife, Di, told the Hall. He had been hospitalized for several days following a severe seizure. He was 76.

“Over the past few weeks, it has become abundantly clear the love that so many Hall of Famers and others around the NFL felt toward Rayfield, his wife, Di, and the extended Wright family,” Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said. “His gentle nature away from the game belied his commanding presence on the field. All fans, especially those of the Cowboys, will remember fondly his dominance on the offensive line in the 1970s and how he took protecting Dallas quarterbacks as his personal mission.

“We will guard his legacy in Canton with equal tenacity. The Hall of Fame Flag will fly at half-staff through Rayfield’s services next Friday as a tribute to the many lives he touched.”

Wright played in 188 games (regular season plus playoffs) over 13 seasons – all with the Cowboys – and won two Super Bowl rings. He was named first-team All-Pro three times (1971-73) and was selected to play in six consecutive Pro Bowls (1971-76). When the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1970s was chosen, Wright was one of the first-team offensive tackles.

Few could have predicted Wright would earn such accolades when his career in the National Football League began. His relatively limited experience in the sport, no clear-cut position for him and the fact his own ambition lay on a basketball court rather than a football field seemed to point to a future far different than as a key figure on “America’s Team.”

Born Aug. 23, 1945, in Griffin, Ga., Wright was active in Boy Scouts – he earned 21 merit badges – and superb with a basketball. Also as a youth, he memorized the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Its words would become a metaphor for his life. As an adult, he would recite the poem by memory as a motivational speaker, and he referenced it several times in his Enshrinement speech.

“Through this poem, I discovered that life would give me choices,” Wright said under a warm August sun in 2006. “It was recognizing those choices that proved to be the greatest challenge. Looking back, my instinct was to always take the easy road. But the easy road never came my way.”

Wright didn’t make his high school’s football team until his senior season, although his basketball talent caught the eye of several colleges, including Loyola University in Chicago. With attending college seemingly beyond the family’s financial reach, however, he considered a career in the Air Force.

Coach Stan Lomax of Fort Valley State College in Georgia then entered Wright’s life, pushing it onto another path.

Wright participated in three sports at Fort Valley State. Remarkably quick and nimble for his size, he played tight end, safety, defensive end and punted for the football team (earning All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors), ran a 50-second 440-yard dash in track and dominated in basketball.

As a junior, he averaged 20 points and 21 rebounds. His size and skills drew the attention of the Cincinnati Royals, who offered him a contract to join the NBA. He pondered the opportunity but told the Royals he wouldn’t leave college early.

Following the completion of his senior season in football, Wright received a phone call that again would change his plans.

“I received a telephone call from a gentleman by the name of Mr. Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys,” he told his Enshrinement speech audience. “He stated that the Cowboys were interested in drafting me. I asked him, ‘For what?’”

Under Hall of Famers Brandt, Tex Schramm and Tom Landry, the Cowboys built their roster with several unconventional players – basketballers and track stars – that other teams overlooked. They selected Wright in the seventh round of the 1967 AFL-NFL Draft.

“I realized that potential, playing for the Cowboys, was a God-given opportunity, and I couldn't ignore it,” Wright said. “I decided to attend the Cowboys training camp, which was in July. The Royals camp didn't start till August. I kind of figured that if I didn't make the Cowboys team, I could go right to the NBA.”

Defying the odds, he made the team.

“That year, 1967, the Dallas Cowboys had 137 rookies in training camp. Gil Brandt was signing everybody that could walk. Only five made the team that year, and I was one of the five.”

Wright stuck with the Cowboys for the next 13 years but securing a position would take a while. Entering the 1969 season, Landry told Wright he wanted to move him from tight end (and backup defensive end) to offensive tackle.

“I looked at him with amazement because I never played tackle before in my life,” Wright told the Associated Press when he learned of his election to the Hall of Fame. “I said, ‘Coach, are you sure?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you’ll make a good tackle.’”

Toe to toe in Los Angeles

After serving as a backup for much of the 1969 season, Wright got his first opportunity to start on the line in late November when right tackle Ralph Neely was injured.

Dallas, 8-1 at the time, was about to face the 9-0 Rams – with Hall of Famer “Deacon” Jones at left defensive end – in Los Angeles.

“We go to the line of scrimmage and I’m looking at Deacon Jones square in his eyes. His eyes seem to be red as fire,” Wright recalled. “He’s kicking his back leg like a bull. I’m saying to myself, ‘My God, what have I got myself into?’”

Before the ball was snapped, Jones bellowed, “Boy, does your mama know you’re out here?” Stunned by the comment, Wright was unprepared for the infamous Jones head slap that sent him reeling backward. “Jones reached his big arm down and said, ‘Hey, rookie, welcome to the NFL.’ I said, ‘Well, Mr. Jones, you don’t know my mama, so don’t talk about her. You want to play the game this way, we’ll play it.”

They went nose to nose the rest of the afternoon, with Wright playing so well he received a game ball from the team despite the Cowboys losing 24-23.

When the 1970 season opened, Wright had locked down the right tackle position, sending Neely, himself a three-time All-Pro and All-Decade player for the 1960s, to left tackle.

With Wright in the lineup for the next decade, the Cowboys finished in the Top 10 in offense every season and reached eight conference championship games and five Super Bowls. He likened his job to a bodyguard.

“Now, offensive linemen are taught to protect the quarterback the same way that the Secret Service protects our nation's president,” Wright said. “In this case, Roger Staubach was our president.”

Staubach appreciated the protection.

“He was absolutely the best,” Staubach told the AP. “Rayfield was a big, strong guy that was able to transfer his size and strength from tight end to tackle. He also had such quick feet that he was able to deal with some of the faster defensive ends and even the linebacker blitzes. If he got beat, I don't remember it.”

Setting a standard

During the 1970s, the Cowboys got five 1,000-yard rushing seasons from their featured running back.

“In the 1970s, he was the standard,” said Calvin Hill, who recorded two of those 1,000-yard seasons. “When you thought about offensive linemen, he was the guy that you automatically thought of.”

Opponents also heaped praise on Wright.

"An all-day fight with Rayfield Wright definitely is not my idea of a pleasant Sunday afternoon,” Hall of Famer Carl Eller said. “I think he is pretty much of a composite of an All-Pro tackle. He has size, strength and quickness. The big thing in Rayfield’s favor is that he has a lot of range. He moves faster than most tackles. He’s just difficult to play against.”

That size, range and quickness earned Wright the nickname “Big Cat.”

Injuries slowed Wright late in the decade, however, and the Cowboys released him in early 1980. He signed with the Eagles but retired during training camp.

“We tried to make a tight end out of Rayfield. Then we tried him on the defensive line. And then he made a great coach out of me,” longtime Cowboys offensive line coach Jim Myers said.

Wright’s post-football career included some coaching and numerous speaking engagements and philanthropic projects. Included in those efforts were stints with the NFL’s Caring for Kids program and the nonprofit Kids 4 Tomorrow organization he co-founded with other players. He also founded the Rayfield Wright Foundation, which helped children obtain grants to attend college and assisted in the health and well-being of abused and neglected children.

Among the other individual awards Wright received were spots on the NFL All-Super Bowl Team (1990), the Dallas Cowboys 25th Anniversary Team (1985), the Cowboys' own Ring of Honor (2004) and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame (2005).

“I never dreamed that I would even be a professional football player. I didn’t even want to play football,” Wright said at his Hall of Fame news conference. “Gil Brandt saw something different.”

He saw a different path for Wright, which the Big Cat implored youngsters to follow as part of his Enshrinement speech.

“To every young athlete within the sound of my voice, it takes courage to dream your dream. Don't let them sit in the locker room. Take a leap of faith,” he said. “Listen to your parents and respect your elders. Learn from your successes and your losses.

“Defeat is possible and a challenge to do better next time. Be satisfied you gave the game everything that you had and remember this: Don't be afraid to travel the road less traveled because Larry Rayfield Wright did, and you can, too.”

Wright’s legacy will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.