October 17, 2009

Coming Up Big

By Jennifer Leavitt
Special to GoHolyCross.com

At almost any sporting event, there is always that one player smaller than the others — that scrappy little guy playing like he has something to prove to the world. And most fans can not help but root for the little man. Fans love to see Dustin Pedroia hit home runs out of Fenway Park, watch Nate Robinson win the Slam Dunk contest in 2006, and this past summer, 4’8” Matt “the Rat” Correale from Peabody Mass., played in the Little League World Series and became a household name. For the Holy Cross football team, there’s the 5’10”, 165-pound defensive back Michael Wright.

At eight years old, Wright would play football with his brother and his brother’s friends, who were all five years older than him. Though the obvious underdog, he did not let that get in his way. He not only kept up with the older kids, he played better. Many years later, things have not changed much. “It must have been foreshadowing,” Wright said with a smile. “I’m not the biggest or the strongest or the fastest, but I compete. I am a competitor.” Competitor is an understatement. Wright has that attitude people admire. If you knock him down, he will get up stronger, motivated to work harder. He does not look at the things that hold him back — he keeps his eyes on what he wants.

Growing up in Fort Washington, Md., Wright was a natural athlete and stole the show in whatever sport he chose to compete in. He participated in the various programs the local Boys Club had to offer including basketball, baseball, soccer and football. He was a standout player in each sport and always excelled. It was basketball that won him over, and as he grew up, most of his talent was seen on the court.

At Friendly Senior High School, Wright played varsity basketball all four years. A change of pace began during his sophomore year. Due to the encouragement of a friend, Wright went out for the football team and to his own surprise, won a varsity position. “I had always focused on basketball, but I guess those athletic skills I built converted over to football,” said Wright. That point marked a growing passion for a new game. “Football is the ultimate team sport,” he said. “In basketball one person can take over the game, where as in football everyone is needed. The tackling, hitting, scoring touchdowns — it’s different from basketball. I liked it.” By his senior year, Wright only saw football in his future.

Coming to Holy Cross was an easy decision for Wright. “I felt comfortable here — in the environment and with the coaching staff and the team,” he said. “The players didn’t look at me like someone who would be replacing them. I felt wanted and welcome.” Even having been on visits, Wright still had no idea what to expect when beginning to play football at the collegiate level. “Everyone told me college football is a different sport than high school football. I just expected to learn a lot.”

Wright learned something he had never known before his first year at Holy Cross, the very painstaking position every athlete dreads: riding the bench. Up until then, he had never seen much of the sidelines, and was not too interested in getting familiar with them. “It’s tough,” said Wright. “You put on your uniform for home games and you try to cheer, but you just feel detached from the game. You try to hold back your emotion and expression, but it’s hard because you want to play.”

The breaking point for Wright was one particular game. The first away game of his freshman season was against Georgetown and he did not get to travel with the team. “That’s home for me, and not making that trip destroyed me,” he said. “From then on I worked harder. After missing that trip, I promised myself I would never miss it again.” Wright has definitely proved to be a man of his word.

At the start of preseason sophomore year, Wright was surprised when he discovered how low he was on the depth chart. Having worked so hard his freshman year and that following summer, he did not believe the depth chart reflected his solid presentation. But for Wright, that only meant it was time to work harder, and it was not long before things changed. Defensive coordinator Richard Rodgers pulled Wright aside after one practice and told him if any of the older guys got hurt, he would be stepping in. “I had no idea he thought that highly of me or recognized that I was playing well based on the depth chart,” said Wright. “That was when I started to feel a part of the team.” That season Mike played in eight games as a backup or on special teams, making nine tackles total.

Being thrust into varsity action took some getting used to. Though a second year player, the game was new to him. “I went into games trying to remember the things we practiced that week and just trying not to be too nervous,” said Wright. “As defensive back, all I was thinking was ‘Don’t get beat, don’t get beat deep.’” By junior year, having had experience on the field, Wright’s mentality transformed. “I still get the butterflies before a game, but it’s less of the ‘Don’t mess up’ and more like ‘Yes, I could possibly change this game,’” he said. And that he did — starting all 11 games at cornerback that season, Wright had 34 tackles, including 32 solo stops, a team-best 12 pass break-ups and an interception.

Growing up with the Crusader football team, Wright not only improved as a player, he developed as a person. “This team has challenged me in every way — physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Wright. “When I was a freshman I had an answer for everything. I don’t make excuses any more. I’ve become more patient and have become a better listener.”

Transitioning into college athletics, much like finding his way through an obstacle course, was made a little easier having teammates by his side. “We’ve grown together and realized that we are going through the exact same thing,” he said. Wright also says there are no words to describe how he has come together with his teammates as the years have passed. Initially, he was not too optimistic about building close relationships with the guys on his team only seeing how different they were. Being forced out of his comfort zone has made him realize otherwise. “Nick Cole is one of my closest friends on the team,” said Wright. “Who would have thought that a kid from Arizona and I would be good friends? Or John Myrick from Ohio? I love these guys. We learn so much about each other talking and sharing stories. We’ve become like family.”

Becoming united with his teammates has helped a lot on the field as well. “For defensive guys it helps to know where someone is coming from,” he said. “Off the field, we talk about football and we learn what guys are thinking while on the field — that helps during the game.” When asked what he thinks about the Crusader defense being somewhat underrated, he smirked and said, “Defensively we would rather be a secret. We want teams to be worried about the Holy Cross offense and then be surprised when they play us or look at the tapes and realize the defense is good also. It’s really not even in our thinking — we know how good we are.”

This year, being one of the players coming back with experience, Wright plays an important role for the Crusaders. As one of the older guys, he now sees the freshmen come in and go through the same things he went through. “You go from the bottom of the totem pole up. You might not even start on the bottom, you might be on the ground,” he said, recalling his past occupancy at the foot of the pole. This year he feels like a big brother on the team. Fellow teammates will turn to him when they are down or being criticized. Knowing the struggles associated with the big transition to college football, Wright gives helpful advice and tries to keep his peers motivated. “As a senior, you know it’s your responsibility to keep the guys in line, to make the plays, and to lead the team to wins,” he said. “But it’s hard not to think about the fact that these are my lasts — my last time playing Harvard or my last time doing this or that. I’ve been trying to live day by day and not look too far ahead.”

Not looking too far into the future may be especially hard for the Crusaders this year. The past three seasons, the Crusaders have come up just one win short of claiming the Patriot League title, and this year they have been favored to win it. “It’s not like we’ve done bad the past three years,” said Wright. “We’ve been so close. It burns me up inside. Sometimes I feel like I’m crazy I want to win so bad. Thinking about it though, it’s more of a motivation than anything.” When asked what he thinks the team needs to do to win, Wright said, “We have to play one game at a time. I know it’s preached all the time but we need play hard and not think too far ahead — that’s the only way.”

With a relentlessly driven approach to all his undertakings, it’s a safe bet Wright will be headed towards a bright future after Holy Cross. The Sociology major is still weighing his options, considering careers in business, sport management or in the federal government, while not completely ruling out continuing with football. Whatever direction he chooses to go in, it is likely he will go far. History has shown us complications bring out the best in Wright, and while keeping his eyes on what he wants, no barriers will stand against determination like his. But for now, he will live for today.

This story originally appeared in the October 17 edition of the Holy Cross Game Day Program, for the contest between the Crusaders and Dartmouth. To order a copy of the program, visit the online store.