Gold Jacket Spotlight: Rough 'Welcome to NFL' Didn't Stop Rayfield Wright
Claude Humphrey was named to the Pro Bowl six time that decade. Deacon Jones, already a member of the All-Decade Team of the 1960s, still had gas in the tank and fury in his body in the early ‘70s.
Each attacked from left end; each is enshrined in Canton.
For right offensive tackles in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, facing those Hall of Famers and other standout left ends of that era week in and week out – Bubba Smith, George Martin, L.C. Greenwood and Ron McDole to name a few more – meant constant bruising battles and long Sunday afternoons.
In Dallas, the Cowboys could breathe a little easier than most other teams, thanks to the decade-long excellence of Rayfield Wright.
Rayfield, whose career is featured this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight, proved to be a worthy match for the best defensive ends in the National Football League. He was named first- or second-team All-Pro for six consecutive seasons and to six consecutive Pro Bowls and finished the 1970s as a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team as a first-team tackle.
His path to excellence as an NFL tackle was far from traditional.
As a two-sport athlete at Fort Valley State in his native Georgia, Rayfield played safety, defensive end, tight end and punted for the football team. He demonstrated far more prowess on the basketball court, averaging 20 points and 21 rebounds as a junior.
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.
The Cowboys, who found several future contributors on the basketball court or competing in track and field, saw in Rayfield another diamond in the rough.
“My senior year, I received a telephone call from a gentleman by the name of Mr. Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys,” Rayfield recalled in his Enshrinement speech in 2006. “He stated that the Cowboys were interested in drafting me. I asked him, ‘For what?’”
With the 182nd pick of the 1967 NFL Draft, Dallas made Rayfield their seventh-round choice.
Rayfield decided to pursue football, but the “for what” part remained a work in progress for more than two seasons. After part-time play at tight end and defensive end in 1967 and 1968, Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry suggested Rayfield could excel at tackle.
After two months as a backup in 1969, Rayfield got his first start when right tackle Ralph Neely, who had started 64 consecutive games, was injured. Next up on the schedule: undefeated Los Angeles (9-0) and their Hall of Fame left end.
“We go to the line of scrimmage and I’m looking at Deacon Jones square in his eyes,” Rayfield told The Associated Press in an interview just after his election to the Hall of Fame. “His eyes seem to be red as fire. He’s kicking his back leg like a bull. I’m saying to myself, ‘My God, what have I got myself into?’”
Rayfield was unprepared for Jones’ devastating initial rush and was sent reeling backward to the ground on the first snap.
“Jones reached his big arm down and said, ‘Hey, rookie, welcome to the NFL,’” Rayfield said. “I said … ‘You want to play the game this way, we’ll play it.’”
Rayfield performed so well, he received a game ball despite the Cowboys losing 24-23.
Neely, himself a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1960s, shifted to left tackle for the 1970 season. He and Rayfield anchored those positions until Neely retired in 1977 after 13 season and 172 games.
Rayfield also played 13 seasons, through 1979, and 166 regular-season games. He appeared in five Super Bowls, winning two rings.