[Podcast Episode 2.3 includes the entire Rayfield Wright interview, and is now available on iTunes. It can also be found at the end of the article.]
Legend is a term that rolls off our tongues too often these days. In a world of instant gratification, twenty-four hour sports news cycles and short-term memories, our society will often toss a label on moments, people... whatever they can, in order to give it more importance than it deserves. Players are quickly considered great for only two or three year's worth of production. They are Hall of Fame candidates after five years of being above average.
It's only a rare few that achieve greatness over an extended period of time and also change the way others view their position that deserve to be considered legends. It may have taken some years for national writers to realize his worth, but amongst Cowboys fans, Rayfield Wright has long been a legend.
Cowboys fans experiencing angst over the current right tackle solution would really long for yesteryear if they had a chance to watch him pave the road for Tony Dorsett, Duane Thomas, Calvin Hill and others. If they watched him putting oncoming pass rushers on their back instead of regularly helping his quarterback off of his.
Wright played for the Cowboys between 1967 and 1979; a span that saw the Cowboys go to five Super Bowls. It took a couple years for Head Coach Tom Landry to realize that his transcendent athleticism was better suited to protecting the team's quarterbacks on a full-time basis. Wright was a basketball player by nature, earning a scholarship offer to play for Loyola University (NCAA National Champs in 1963).
Instead, Wright went into the Air Force for a stint before joining Ft. Valley State College to play both basketball and football. After not making his high school football team until his senior year, Wright excelled at both. Averaging 21 points and 20 rebounds a game, Wright was offered a chance to leave school and play professionally for the Cincinnati Royals. He declined, so he could finish his education, knowing the NBA would be there for him later.
Fortunately for the Dallas Cowboys, they hit on one of those five rookies. Wright would go on to a legendary career: six-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro. Using Pro-Football-Reference.com's Approximate Value metric, he was one of the league's 10 best players twice in his career: 1971 and again in '73. Appearing on Wright's Foundation's website is "Roger Staubach once said, 'Rayfield Wright protected me in the same manner in which the Secret Service protects our nation's President...with vigilance.' "
It took 25 years for the "world" to catch up to the original "Big Cat's" greatness. Even Dallas owner Jerry Jones had didn't have Wright enshrined in the Ring of Honor until 2004, two years before the Hall. In the meantime, Wright wasn't sitting around stewing over the slight. He was helping youth that were either underprivileged or under-exposed realize goals some of them never even knew they had.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Rayfield Wright a few weeks ago as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate's Hometown Hero program. Wright was being honored in his hometown of Griffin, Georgia and gave me a few minutes of his time. We touched on his time in Dallas, his foundation, Tony Romo's skills and Doug Free's problems as well as Jason Garrett's performance.
Here's a transcript of the interview.
Blogging The Boys: Today is a great day for you I'd imagine, being honored by Allstate and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in your hometown of Griffin, GA. Can you talk about how your hometown helped shape you into the player you were and the man you are today?
Rayfield Wright: Being born in Griffin... it's always an honor to be recognized by your peers and those of the city you are raised in. You know there are so many people that touched your life and some of them have already passed on, but you will never forget those who have touched you. Going to Fairmont High School here in Griffin was an honor because so many teachers had there hands on me and did not let them go like they did with some other students. It is a memory that you will never forget and I am honored to be back in Griffin and receive this tremendous honor.
KD: Obviously, your upbringing, the way you were raised by your mother and grandmother had a lot to do with the man you became and has led you to forming the Rayfield Wright foundation which works with inner city youth and you know that is something this world needs more of. Can you talk about the history and mission of the foundation?
RW: You know the interesting thing about the foundation is the fact that when I graduated from Griffin High School, my final year... I was selected by the principal to become one of the students that would receive funds from a gentleman that I had never met. This gentleman sent me $50 a month until I graduated I didn't know his name never seen him before in my life I couldn't tell you anything about him but he sent me $50 a month because he wanted to help a kid that was trying to make it in college but didn't have the financial resources and I was selected. After he had started this, I went to my high school principal and asked him what was his name.
He never told me his name and I told him well I couldn't pay him back until I graduated from college and got a job and my principal told me that he did not want me to pay him back. I said well what does he want? He indicated that he wanted me to do something... said if I ever got in the position to help another kid to do so.. and so the Rayfield Wright foundation was started basically because of that. Someone reached out and touched me and helped me to be in a position to graduate from college and I have never forgotten that. That's what started the Rayfield Wright Foundation. And as of right now, the Rayfield Wright Foundation has helped 36 kids go to college, and I am very honored and proud to be a part of their life.
KD: That's beautiful and exactly what we need more of today. Now back to what is going on today. Obviously the Pro Football Hall of Fame is involved in the honor for you, but it did take them over 25 years after your playing career ended for them for them to honor you with induction. With all the accolades that you received while you were playing you would have considered yourself one of the top tiered players of your generation. How did your view of the HOF change over those 25 years from when you retired up to the point when they finally inducted you in?
RW: Well you know you enter the National Football League or any other professional sport any time you don't go into that sport looking to become a Hall of Famer or Pro Bowl player or an All Pro player. You are there as I was to do the very best job that you could do in order to help your team win ball games.
I remember getting ready to go on stage and prepare myself to make my speech, and Tony Dorsett came up to me and said 'Rayfield, if you have something to say, say it. Because you will never get this platform again.'
I thought about what he had said and they had told all the inductees that they had 12 minutes to deliver our message and it took me twenty-two minutes for me to deliver my message and I told the people afterwards well you guys kept me out of the hall of fame for 22 years after... they just turned around and laughed and I said well man it's the truth. So you know it's a tremendous honor to receive such a recognition.
KD: We definitely can't let you go without finding out your position on the current state Cowboys. You protected Roger Staubach and Danny White, you were even part of the team when Don Meredith was at the helm even though you were on the defensive side playing tight end at the time but its pretty safe to say that you know quality Cowboys quarterbacking. What's your opinion on the current guy that's in charge, Tony Romo? Do you have an opinion on how he plays and what he brings to the table for the team?
RW: Absolutely. In all honesty I really respect Tony Romo for his actions and his leadership, as well as his performance on the field. A lot of people, a lot of fans, are indifferent about what I'm saying. You have to, as an offensive lineman when I watch the game... I watch the offensive line and I think that the main reason why Tony runs for his life and possibly throws so many interceptions and not perform as well as some of the fans think he should perform.
My personal feeling is that the improvement of the offensive line will make a difference for Tony because if you notice, whenever he has the time to look down the field and throw the ball he will find a receiver and his passes are pretty good. All quarterbacks will throw an interception because of certain reasons. I looked at it and I say to myself, I would love to block for Tony Romo.
I think he's a great quarterback. He may not be in the class of some of those I did have a chance to protect, but I think that he's a good quarterback. I know his time has almost passed 'cause most quarterbacks last about 8-10 years and Tony is in that range right now. So whether or not the Cowboys can produce an offensive line that will give him the protection that he needs in order for him to perform the way he should perform, not just for himself but the club as well as for the fans.
KD: Now you did mention that you do see some problems with the way the Cowboys are performing in protecting Romo. The man that's been playing your position - right tackle - last year, he seemingly has been falling on hard times; talking about Doug Free who made the transition from right tackle to left tackle and now back to the right. Can you diagnose some of the things that you are seeing with him as far as him not being able to play the way we hoped he would in protecting Tony?
RW: You know I played right tackle and that's the strong side and a lot of things happen from the strong side which is different than the weak side. Smith plays the weak side now and I think Smith is one of the young players that I feel the Cowboys should build their offensive line around. Now, Doug Free started out playing really good football but sometimes things happen to players that cause them to... how would you put it... that cause them to decrease in their performance and in their technique and abilities.
When I look at Free, I look at his foot work, because for an offensive lineman footwork is the most important thing that could happen. It's almost like playing basketball. I couldn't make the high school football team so I became a great basketball player that was sought after by the Cincinnati Royals. Now in playing basketball, you never cross your feet you always shuffle your feet to stay in front of the guy who has the ball and trying to get to the basket. So you shuffle your feet in order to stay in front of him because if you cross your feet in front of someone that has the ball he is going to dunk or lay up on you - you can't get back.
It's almost the same thing for a lineman: you have to shuffle your feet. Its not about strength, it's about balance.
KD: Now you mentioned his bookend, Tyron Smith and that the Cowboys should build a line around him; you're preaching to the choir right now. We are praying that they actually do allocate some resources in the draft coming up with some of the linemen that are available, but what do you see in Smith as far as him being the type of centerpiece you could build your line around. What are his qualities?
RW: Well what I see in Smith is I see someone who is eager to learn because it is very seldom that you will find a lineman that plays right tackle and is switched over to left tackle because the setup is altogether different. But the strength, as well as the footwork and the quickness that Smith has, has really impressed me about his play. He is a strong gentleman and he's young but I am very excited to watch him develop and grow because I think he is a great young player.
KD: Real quick. You played for the late, great Tom Landry.. What do you think about Jason Garrett?
RW: Well Jason, of course as you know, was a young coach that came into the game. I look at it as almost like a chess game. You take a young coach and go against coaches that have been involved in the game for years. It's hard to play chess sometimes with someone that has been playing for 10-15 years.
I think he is developing into a good coach and it takes a little time for that to happen. All coaches that have coached in the game for a long period of time, you know when they were young coming in it was the same thing.
I do respect Garrett and I do pray that his development in the Cowboys system turns out to be a great thing.
Many thanks to Mr. Wright for giving us a moment of his time and his views on this current iteration of the Dallas Cowboys.