Rayfield Wright, the professional Football Hall of Fame attacker nicknamed the “Big Cat” who went to five Super Bowls in his 13 seasons in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, died Thursday. He was 76 years old.
Wright’s family confirmed his death Thursday to the Professional Football Hall of Fame, which said Wright was taken to hospital for several days after suffering a severe seizure. Cowboys also confirmed the death.
“Rayfield Wright was an example of what it took to be a Hall of Fame,” Cowboys general manager and owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. “His bravery, agility, passion, charisma and love for football, the community and his family have always sparkled. The original ‘Big Cat’ helped shape the future of the Dallas Cowboys through his illustrious 13-year career. Rayfield was a hero on and off the field. He remained an important part of the Cowboys family for a long time After his playing days are over, he will be sorely missed. Our love and support for his wife, Dee, and the entire Wright family.”
A big player of his era at 6-foot-6 and over 250 pounds, Wright was already a tight end back-up for a few seasons when coach Tom Landry asked him about playing interference. A surprised Wright said he had never played interference in his life, but Landry told him he would do something good.
Wright made his first tackle in the 1969 game against Deacon Jones, the era’s most dominant passer. Wright held his own and settled into place as a full-time starter in the right tackle in 1970, when Dallas made its first Super Bowl. The Cowboys then won their first Super Bowl title in 1971, and Wright was the first of six consecutive seasons. He’s been a professional three times.
“He was the best ever,” Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach said in front of Wright’s Hall in 2006. Rayfield was a large and powerful man who was able to transfer his size and strength from the narrow end to interfering. He provided that he was able to handle some quicker defensive endings and even full-back heartbeats. If he got hit, I don’t remember it. “
His nickname was “Big Cat” because of his extreme intelligence relative to his size.
Dallas won another Super Bowl in 1977, but Wright played only two games that season due to knee surgery. He played in 95 of the team’s 98 regular season games, beginning with 94 of them, in the previous seven seasons.
After Wright started only 16 of 31 games in 1978 and 1979, he was released by the Cowboys the following spring. He signed a contract with NFC East rival Philadelphia, but officially retired due to persistent injuries early in training camp without playing a game with the Eagles.
Wright was diagnosed with dementia in its early stages in 2012, but has long struggled with seizures since his retirement. It was believed that they were the effects of constant blows to the head while playing football. He’s been in hiding for a long time dealing with headaches, dizziness, and, at times, irritability and unexplained forgetfulness.
In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Wright said he had so many concussions during his NFL career that he couldn’t even count them.
When he finally joined the Hall of Fame more than a quarter-century after his last game, Wright was introduced in Canton, Ohio, by longtime Fort Valley State football coach, Stan Lomax.
Wright didn’t make the high school football team for three years in Griffin, Georgia, before going to Fort Valley State in his home state to play basketball. The following summer, Lomax forced him to quit his summer job in a factory to prepare to join the soccer team.
Try Lomax Wright with free safety, then use it as a gambler, defensive end and court finish. The coach also became a father figure for Wright, who was chosen by the Cowboys in the seventh round of the 1967 NFL Draft.
Wright still preferred basketball, although he turned down an offer after his junior season to sign with the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals, the franchise that is now the Sacramento Kings, so he could finish school.
His eyes were still on the NBA when Cowboys player affairs manager Gil Brandt called and said the team was interested in drafting him.
“I realized that being able to play with the Cowboys, was a God-given opportunity, and I couldn’t ignore it. I decided to attend Cowboys training camp which was in July. The Royals didn’t start until August,” Wright said in his Hall of Fame address. “I kind of figured that if I didn’t line up the Cowboys, I could go straight to the NBA.”
Wright said Brandt was “signing everyone who can walk” and that he was among 137 rookies at Cowboys training camp in 1967. He was one of five who made up the team.
Wright was a backup tackle for the first two months of the 1969 season, then took off initially when Ralph Neely got injured. His first start came when he played Dallas, 8-1, in the Los Angeles Rams’ 9-0 game with his intimidating four-way defense.
“We climbed into the line of scrimmage and I looked squarely at Deacon Jones in his eyes, his eyes looking red as fire, kicking his hind leg like a bull,” Wright later recalls. “I’m saying to myself, Oh my God, what have I made myself into?”
Before the ball even cut, Jones shouted, “Boy, does your mom know you’re here?” Wright was so startled that Jones ran over him.
“I rolled over, I looked at our touchline thinking coach Landry was going to take me out of the game,” Wright said. By then Deacon Jones extended his big arms down and said, ‘Hey rookie, welcome to the NFL.’ …I said, ‘Well, Mr. Jones, you don’t know my mother, so don’t talk about her. You want to play the game this way, and we’ll play it.”
The Rams won 24-23, but Wright got a playing ball for the job that ended up against Jones. Their duels over the years have gone a long way toward building Wright’s reputation.
Dallas has had no losing record in Wright’s 13 seasons, a period that included eight NFC Championship games and those five Super Bowl appearances. He was part of the NFL team throughout the decade in the 1970s.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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