Hall of Famer Rayfield Wright, known as Big Cat to his friends and Dallas Cowboys teammates, died Thursday. He was 76.
His family said that Wright spent the past several days in a Dallas hospital after suffering a severe seizure, possibly related to the concussions he had while playing.
Wright was a rare NFL talent in that he switched positions, going from backup tight end to dominant offensive tackle after he made the Dallas roster. He was late to playing football and felt more comfortable on the basketball court. But he was both big and agile, which made him perfect for a new-age kind of blocker.
Rayfield Wright played 13 years with the Cowboys after coming to Dallas as a seventh-round draft pick from Fort Valley State. He made the Pro Bowl six times during his career and was All-Pro for four seasons. He also was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1970s.
But it took Rayfield Wright a while to get to the Hall of Fame. He was part of the 2008 class that included former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, Harry Carson, Warren Moon, John Madden, and Reggie White.
Wright was known as a terrific speaker. And as part of his 20-minute Hall of Fame acceptance speech, he said: “some say that patience is a virtue. After 22 years of eligibility, God knows that I’m not a saint, but I am a Dallas Cowboy.”
He later told the crowd gathered at the ceremony:
“To every young athlete within the sound of my voice, it takes courage to dream your dream. … Take a leap of faith. Listen to your parents and respect your elders. Learn from your successes and your losses.
“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 did travel the less traveled path to get to football greatness. Wright, who grew up in Georgia, didn’t make his high school team until his senior season. He signed with Fort Valley State to play basketball. But he caught the eye of football coach Stan Lomax. The coach suggested that Wright quit his summer job and concentrate on football. That’s how Wright became a tight end. But he also averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds a game in basketball.
The Cowboys loved to draft athletes and turn them into football players. Dallas personnel director Gil Brandt suggested the team draft Wright, although the prospect also was weighing his NBA options. Then coach Tom Landry thought the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Wright could play offensive tackle.
His first assignment came against the Los Angeles Rams. That meant Wright would need to block Rams great Deacon Jones. Wright held his own against Jones and stuck at tackle, becoming one of the best ever.
Rayfield Wright also was a terrific human being. That’s who his friends remembered after hearing that he’d died. Drew Pearson, a Dallas Hall of Fame receiver, posted on Twitter:
“The news today that my friend and brother Rayfield passed is somber,” Pearson said. “What a wonderful and kind man he was with a heart for service. His smile lit up every room he entered and he is going to be greatly missed. RIP my friend and brother. Prayers for your wife, family & friends.”