Move to tackle paves way for Hall of Fame career

Updated: August 3, 2006, 10:54 AM ET
Associated Press

IRVING, Texas -- Two years into his NFL career, Rayfield Wright wasn't doing much for the Dallas Cowboys as a backup tight end.

Yet he was big and strong, quick and a hard worker -- the kind of things coach Tom Landry liked.

So one day Landry had an idea: How about playing tackle?

"I looked at him with amazement because I never played tackle before in my life," Wright recalled. "I said, `Coach, are you sure? He said, `Yeah, you'll make a good tackle."'

Hall of Fame good.

Wright will be enshrined Saturday, joining Landry and two players he blocked for, Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett. He's the team's first offensive lineman to get the honor, making it as a seniors committee nominee.

"He was absolutely the best," Staubach said. "Rayfield was a big, strong guy that was able to transfer his size and strength from tight end to tackle. He also had such quick feet that he was able to deal with some of the faster defensive ends and even the linebacker blitzes. If he got beat, I don't remember it."

Calvin Hill ran behind Wright for six of his 12 NFL seasons and says it's no coincidence that all four of his Pro Bowl trips came when Wright was opening holes.

"In the 1970s, he was the standard," Hill said. "When you thought about offensive lineman, he was the guy that you automatically thought of."

Wright made the Pro Bowl six times and was voted All-Pro four times. He anchored the line for an offense that finished in the top 10 in scoring all 10 seasons in the 1970s, while helping pave the way for the first five 1,000-yard rushers in team history.

Most importantly, he was a key contributor on teams that won seven division titles and played in five Super Bowls, winning twice. He was one of the team captains for most of those years, too.

Many of the defensive stars of his era called Wright the toughest player they ever faced. Former Minnesota star Carl Eller summed it up one time by saying, "An all-day fight with Rayfield Wright definitely is not my idea of a pleasant Sunday afternoon."

The position switch from tight end wasn't the only unusual part of Wright's route to Canton.

Unable to make his high school football team, he went to Fort Valley State (Ga.) to play basketball. The following summer, coach Stan Lomax made him quit his summer job at a mill to get ready to join the football team.

Lomax tried Wright at free safety, then used him as a punter, defensive end and tight end. The coach also became a father figure to the fatherless Wright.

"And still is today," said Wright, who will be presented by Lomax at Saturday's ceremony.

Landry was another big influence. Wright trusted his coach's instincts so much that he threw himself into his new position with gusto. Everything clicked for him one day when he was watching films of the tackles he admired most and realized that keeping a defender from getting to the quarterback was akin to keeping someone from driving to the rim in basketball.

"You do that by quickly shuffling your feet," Wright said. "If you cross your feet, you get beat."

At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, Wright proved so nimble he was nicknamed "Big Cat." And he was big for his era. He also played at a time when the right tackle was the most important spot on the line, so that's where Landry put him.

Wright was a backup the first two months of the 1969 season, then was thrust into the starting job when Ralph Neely got hurt. The timing was brutal.

Dallas was 8-1 and going on the road to play the 9-0 Los Angeles Rams and their Fearsome Foursome defense. Wright's assignment was Deacon Jones, who was in the prime of his menacing Hall of Fame career.

Coaches warned Wright that Jones was big, strong and mean. "So am I," Wright answered.

Then came their first encounter.

"We go up to the line of scrimmage and I'm looking at Deacon Jones square in his eyes, his eyes seem to be red as fire, he's kicking his back leg like a bull," Wright recalled. "I'm saying to myself, `My God, what have I got myself into?"'

Before the ball was snapped, Jones bellowed, "Boy, does your Mama know you out here?" Wright was so stunned that Jones ran over him.

"I rolled over, looked over at our sideline thinking that Coach Landry was going to take me out of the game," Wright said. "By that time, Deacon Jones reached his big arms down and said, `Hey, rookie, welcome to the NFL.'

"I said, `Well, Mr. Jones, you don't know my Mama, so don't talk about her. You want to play the game this way, we'll play it."'

The Rams ended up winning 24-23. Wright ended up doing such a good job against Jones he got the game ball. Their duels over the years went a long way toward building Wright's reputation.

"People talk about Reggie White, but as far as I'm concerned, Deacon Jones was it for defensive ends, he was unblockable," Hill said. "Yet Rayfield was able to take him."

Wright will be only the sixth player from the Landry era to make it to Canton, joining Staubach, Dorsett, Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro and Randy White. It doesn't seem like many considering their success, especially when compared to the number of players honored from other, less-successful clubs.

Some have called Wright's Hall omission part of an anti-Cowboys bias among voters. Skeptics note he was the only one of four tackles on the all-decade team of the 1970s not already enshrined.

"I've always wondered why he wasn't in sooner, but once you're in, you're in," Staubach said. "It's a well-deserved moment for all of us on the 1970s Cowboys."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press