Wrighting his wrongs

Tania Ganguli

There were times during his career at Northwestern that running back Jason Wright wondered why he was still playing football.

When he came to NU, fresh off four years of being “the man” in high school, he thought he was going to be the starting tailback, just like every other running back that comes out of high school.

But like most new players, Wright wasn’t a starting running back his first year. He played mostly on special teams and was moved to receiver his sophomore year.

“It’s a rude awakening,” fellow running back Noah Herron said. “There are a lot of people before you, so you wait and wait to play.”

Three years and a breakout season later, Wright has one regular season game left in his career. After that he will leave a program that, like him, has undergone a necessary change. Instead of just being there to get a scholarship and a useful degree, players are now interested in winning football games.

“We had great success my freshman year and there were still a large number of people on the team not really focused about football, not really focused on winning,” Wright said. “Winning, practice, everything was secondary, working hard was tertiary just far far down on the list and I think that’s definitely changed.

“That’s something I’ve seen in these true freshmen, even the ones who’re redshirting this year. There is a desire to win.”

He entered a program where he said it was “cool” to be bitter and adopted that melancholy attitude. Even in the 2000 season, when the Wildcats were Big Ten co-champions, Wright said those who weren’t major contributors felt disconnected and somewhat indifferent.

“Heading into the offseason (after 2000) it was like I’m not even a part of this team, where do I really fit? Why am I going through this? I hate football,” Wright said. “I hate it and I wish I could turn it in.”

It was a defense mechanism that he and other NU players used. The players admitted defeat and didn’t care. They told themselves, they didn’t come to NU to play football, they just came for a degree.

“Northwestern is the ultimate backup plan for a student-athlete,” Wright said. “If your sport doesn’t work out, if you get injured, you always have a great degree to fall back on.”

Wright didn’t get to be a running back until his junior year when he showed just why that was his best position — he ran for 1,234 yards, scored 13 touchdowns, and was ranked fourth nationally and second in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards.

For Wright, that junior year meant more than setting records and becoming one of the most recognizable players on the team. He decided to make working hard and giving everything for the team cool again, and he realized that he cared about his teammates.

Wright says the accomplishments didn’t affect his attitude, they were a result of his attitude.

But Wright’s mentality didn’t mean everyone else’s attitude changed. After last year’s final game against Illinois, he felt the sting of being surrounded by teammates who didn’t care. Since NU was already out of bowl contention, most of the seniors felt like they had nothing to play for.

“That’s why it was so frustrating last year, you look around for support and everyone’s like ‘uh uh,'” he said.

The Cats had been 4-1 five games into the 2001 season, then lost out their remaining six games. Unable to pick up the pieces in 2002, NU went 3-9, which frustrated everyone involved.

Wright had gone through the maturation process that made him care the year before, but offensive lineman Zach Strief remembers positive attitudes being scarce in the middle of such a dismal season.

“When things get as hard as they did last year, you get a lot of people blaming people,” Strief said. “The more you look for blame, the more bitter you’re going to be.”

Developing a work ethic and desire to succeed in football has taken time and maturation for many of the Cats. But Wright says the current freshmen had it before they came to Evanston.

“I have no idea how these freshmen got there,” Wright said. “Maybe they just came into a positive situation and caught on. You’re not an outcast if you’re gung-ho about the team, you’re not a goody two-shoes if you want to win.”

On a team where players would leave early if they could find jobs, players now want to stay for a fifth year if they redshirted. When they don’t get playing time, they work to change that instead of looking for someone to blame.

For Wright it means caring about his teammates and having them return it. Offensive linemen Matt Ulrich said that Wright will tell the linemen when they missed a block — no other running back can get away with that. But as Strief said, while the offensive line takes care of Wright, he cares about them too.

“Jason’s really good at sensing when one of the linemen are having a bad day, not feeling well or something hurts,” Strief said. “It’s nice to have that one person who come up and be like ‘Are you all right?'”

Wright has a lot of goals for his future, including playing in the National Football League and going to medical school. But he and the rest of the seniors will go into their final game of the season knowing that NU football has changed.

They still value their degrees, but now it’s not the only thing they care about.

Now it’s cool to care about football.