Q&A: Washington Football Team President Jason Wright (Weinberg ’04) still making history after storied college career

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Tribune News Service (Roman Blanquart/Detroit Free Press)

Jason Wright rushes during his final game as a Wildcat in the 2003 Alamo Bowl. Wright found success at the NFL level, both as a player and currently as the president of the Washington Football Team.

John Riker, Daily Senior Staffer

Though Northwestern set a record this April with Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome II, both of whom heard their names called in the first round of the NFL Draft, that feat wasn’t the only example of the Wildcats making a splash at the professional level this past year. 

In August 2020, the Washington Football Team hired former NU running back Jason Wright (Weinberg ’04) to run the business operations as the team’s president, making him the first Black team president in NFL history. 

Wright played for the Cats from 2000 to 2003 and broke into NU’s backfield as a junior, tallying 1,234 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in the 2002 season. After seven seasons in the NFL, Wright pivoted into the business world as a partner at the firm McKinsey & Company. At just 38 years old, Wright became the youngest current NFL team president. 

The Daily spoke with Wright about his football careers both on and off the field and his vision for the future of the Washington Football Team.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

The Daily: You started football at a young age in sunny California — what about Northwestern compelled you to come to snowy Chicago?

Wright: When Pasadena turned purple for the Rose Bowl (in 1996), it was a formative moment for me. My parents had always drilled into me: “You’re going to go to a great academic school.” Northwestern was one of those few that made their cut and made a mark on me, especially because they had a great running back, Darnell Autry. 

When I came out for a visit, it was probably 40 degrees and sunny the recruiting weekend in January. For me, that was freezing and I was cold. I remember telling Jerry Brown, who was my main recruiting coordinator, “Coach Brown, I just don’t know if I can do this.” He was like, “Son, listen, you came on a bad week, and this is as bad as it gets.”

Lies, lies! My first winter when it was horizontal snow and negative 10 degrees I was like, “Oh, this is some bull crap. What the heck is going on?” I wanted to go home. I absolutely hated it. But I’m so glad that I went.

The Daily: Looking back now, what are you most proud of from your college career?

Wright: I’m probably most proud of two position transitions that I made. From running back to wideout, the coaches did it in a very diplomatic way: we got too many good running backs, and you’re not at the top of the list, and if you want to play, we have a need at wide receiver. I’m proud of how I just really worked hard to transition to a position that’s very uncomfortable for me. It’s not the physical aspects of it that I was proud of: it was the mental aspects of it, learning how to settle myself and reestablish my confidence.

Then transitioning back to running back ahead of my junior year — I started spring ball that year fifth or sixth on the depth chart, and I made the decision to go back to running back because it was open. By the end of spring ball, I was fighting for the starting position. Coach (Randy) Walker would tell me, “Look, Jason, you won that position when in spring ball, you stepped up into the A gap and hit the blitzing linebacker underneath the chin and put him on his back.” To have earned something through grit and resilience and toughness and force was really special for me. There’s lots of wins and all that stuff as a team, but it’s those small moments that nobody saw that I’m most proud of.

The Daily: Becoming the first Black team president is a stellar feat, but Washington’s hirings within its leadership team have only continued finding diverse, qualified candidates. What does it mean to you to both make history in your own role and to set a precedent for promoting diversity?

Wright: While I’m really proud of what it signals to have one of the most diverse leadership teams, it’s actually not for that purpose. It’s because I have a firm belief that talent is equally distributed by God across all people with all types of backgrounds. If talent is equally distributed across all groups, yet we don’t have representative leadership, it means we actually don’t have the best talent. Leading academic research suggests that diverse teams make better decisions. You are actually going to get to better answers empirically if you have different perspectives in the room of all different backgrounds and types.

Going back to the first part of the question, what does it mean? We’re not doing it for charity; it’s not for headlines. That said, it is important and representation does matter in terms of letting other people have an aspiration that might not have had otherwise. I recognize that me being in this role allows for people to see that as possible and maybe kindles that dream or allows somebody to take an opportunity that might not have taken otherwise. I had a lot of visible Black male role models along the way in my pro football career that told me that Black talent that looked like me was welcomed outside of the hash marks, and it could be successful outside of the hash marks. Me being in this role, I think, does that as well. So I’m just focused on being successful in rebuilding this business and accelerating our transition from a sports franchise into a media and entertainment company. If I do that well, I think there will be more.

The Daily: A couple big business side projects are on the horizon for the Washington Football Team: the team’s next name and the stadium project. What excites you most about the future of the franchise?

Wright: Both of these are incredibly exciting and challenging projects. The transition to a new brand and identity is a particularly special one because it brings us so close to the fan base. The old name and moniker — for all of its challenges — is deeply rooted in people’s memory, in their experiences. Even though it is rooted in racialized imagery that we cannot pull forward, we still want to be able to pull forward the great memories that people create in their basement with Grandma watching Doug Williams win the Super Bowl. But I’m excited about it because whatever we do is going to write the playbook for many other organizations, both at the pro level and the collegiate levels. 

The new venue is exciting for me because, first and foremost, it’s an economic development project. The investment of billions of dollars into an area like the DMV that is incredibly diverse has the potential to change generations from an economic opportunity standpoint. For someone like me, whose life has been focused on economic equity, especially along racial and other demographic lines, this is an opportunity to practice what I’ve been preaching for a long time. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @john__riker

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