From The Beginning, Wright Was Special

By Frank Luksa
Updated: January 30, 2006

Larry Wright

Larry Wright

DALLAS — This was the way it was done 60 years ago in the rural South. You were born at home and, often as not, died at home.

This is the story of a birth.

The family was poor in material goods. There was no car or telephone. Wind provided air conditioning. The nearest city of size lay 40 miles distant. Hospitals weren’t much closer.

The area was mostly desolate, open farmland. Houses were scattered miles apart. Isolation was another way of life.

No one went hungry, though. Families planted gardens, ate what was ripe and canned the rest. Cows, pigs and chickens were other sources of food. Anyone caught short could depend on a neighbor to share.

On a hot Aug. 23 in 1945, the mother was pregnant with her third child. That didn’t prevent her from working. Labor pains struck as she hand-washed laundry in the back yard. Her mother ran more than a mile to the nearest house to call a doctor.

Meantime, in answer to an earlier summons, a midwife arrived. Men of the house were in the fields. Two younger children played in the yard. No one responded to a call from the front door. The midwife entered and found the mother inside lying on the bedroom floor.

That is where he was born, on a blanket spread over a wooden floor. He was a big baby, weighing 12½ pounds. They named him Larry.

The father was Cuban-born and stood almost 7-feet tall as best the child remembered. It was from him that he inherited the 6-6 height of manhood. He received little else of value from a parent who abandoned the family when Larry was 3. He didn’t see his father again until his junior year in college.

Hard work was an everyday chore even for a child. Larry planted and harvested crops, chopped wood for a stove that heated the house where his family lived with grandparents.

Work remained constant when the family moved to a larger town where his mother and grandmother were hired to clean, cook and help raise their employers’ children. Larry found a job when he was in the fourth grade.

He loaded firewood into tubs from the back of a truck. He earned 25 cents a day after school and 50 cents on Saturday. He kept 10 cents of the quarter and gave his mother 15 cents. On his Saturday payday, he kept 20 cents and gave his mother 30 cents.

He was the wealthiest boy in his tiny world. One penny bought a handful of candy. A movie cost 10 cents.

He grew close to his 6-foot grandmother, known as Big Mamma. She rose early and prayed every morning on bended knees. Larry began his days with Big Mamma, who instilled in him a joy and love for religion that he still embraces.

Basketball became Larry’s passion in high school. He was good enough to play in a state high school All-Star game, scored more than 20 points and finished second in the MVP voting. The winner was a guard named Walt Frazier, destined for NBA fame with the New York Knicks.

Money was still so tight Larry borrowed an ill-fitting suit from his cousin to wear on Career Day for high school seniors. The garment belonged to Morris Stroud, taller by more than three inches, and headed for a six-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs at tight end.

A partial scholarship, government grant and part-time job covered enough expense for Larry to enroll in a small college as a two-way athlete. He played basketball well enough that the NBA Cincinnati Royals asked if he’d turn pro after his junior season.

A promise to family to complete his college degree kept him in school, and a severe ankle/knee sprain as a senior spoiled those NBA dreams.

Larry’s first football position was at free safety. Then he became a punter, defensive end and finally a tight end. The moves were a precursor of his professional career where he switched from the defensive line to tight end to offensive tackle.

One summer, home from working at a dry cleaner, Larry became aware of a man sitting on the front porch of his house. He passed the man without speaking and went inside. His mother called him out and said, “I want you to meet your father.’’

Father and son shook hands. Both said, “Hello, how are you?’’ Their reunion ended there. Larry often asked his mother to explain why his father left, but she declined to talk about it.

“I’ve never harbored any bitterness or hatred toward my father simply because I never had a chance to know him,’’ Larry says.

Years later, when an NFL team decided to draft Larry in 1967, it referred to him by his middle name. Therefore, on the seventh round, the Dallas Cowboys announced they had chosen Rayfield Wright from Fort Valley State.

Sixty years after his birth on a wooden floor in tiny Esma, Ga., Rayfield is a worthy candidate for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Should he be elected – and he should – the tribute would extend beyond honoring a superb athlete to include an admirable way of life.