The early 2000’s were a huge turning point for Oregon Football. The 2001 season including an impressive blowout against Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, and an 11-1 run that showcased a memorable Oregon team. Best remembered for its offense (the “Harrington Era”) many great defenders played a key role in the success of the Fiesta Bowl campaign. Fish Duck wishes to pay tribute to a forgotten starter/key player to a defense that bent but never broke all year; as we welcome two year starter, Defensive End Darrell Wright.
ARRIVAL AT OREGON: PERFECT TIMING AS BIG MAN FILLS BIG GAP
Darrell Wright came to Oregon in 2001 as a junior college transfer to fill a huge gap in the thin Defensive Line. The Ducks had graduated four gifted veterans from the extremely successful 2000 Holiday Bowl run, and only one full-time starter remained. For the first time in history, the pollsters predicted Oregon to win the conference with all the weapons at offense, and defense in the secondary & linebackers. The defensive line, however, was the biggest question mark and needed all it could get to back them up. The 6’4″, 260 lb Defensive End Wright greatly fit the need, and made his presence felt from the start.
Q. WHAT SCHOOLS WERE RECRUITING YOU, AND WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BE A DUCK?
A. Oregon State, UCLA, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Colorado, Minnesota, Louisville, and Iowa State. Even Florida at one point. I wanted to get away from Los Angeles after JC, and didn’t want to return to Florida. Oregon was one of the areas I went to that didn’t have snow in the winter during my recruiting trip. Being from Florida, I didn’t want snow! Also, the campus was smaller, and Eugene wasn’t a huge city. Louisville (a top choice) was just a huge city/campus; I wanted an easier place to get around.
Q. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR EARLIEST MEMORIES OF BEING PART OF THE TEAM?
A. When I first got here, I was embraced immediately when I started workouts. Not knowing what to expect in a new place/home, guys just immediately embrace you around here and that’s what I liked. We all just worked out together in the summer heat! Another thing was “Hazing Night” for incoming freshmen/transfers. During camp, they woke us up at 2:00 AM, and everybody had to run from the dorms across the river to the fields. We had an obstacle course set up on the fields we had to do, and had to compete in that. Then, the rookie shows they had us do were hysterical.
In the opening game over Wisconsin, Wright’s first big break came early. Opposite Defensive End Quinn Dorsey would hit Wisconsin QB Jim Sorgi as he threw causing a deflection. Wright immediately grabbed the pop-up for the interception, returning for ten yards to set up the game’s first touchdown. Oregon would narrowly escape, thanks to Harrington and the offense putting together a comeback; and Wright and the defense holding on two final drives. 31-28, Oregon. Wright would finish the game with two sacks, three tackles, and the one interception.
Q. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER OF YOUR FIRST PLAYING EXPERIENCE?
A. My first playing experience was the opener against Wisconsin. We tried to emulate the noise in practice with speakers, but my first game running through the tunnel – I was just in awe! You see that on TV, but there’s nothing like it. You can barely hear your own thoughts. My first play, I was so nervous I forgot all we practiced. Coach Greatwood called plays and I knew them, but I froze up that moment! The opponent hit me three times, I didn’t even come off the ball; but then I was ready! The next series, my big break came.
As the year wore on, Oregon kept upping its record en route to the Pac-10 title that memorable year. Wright would rotate starting time with Dorsey, before earning the starting job outright in the sixth game at California in a sound 48-7 victory. He would post a tackle in every game played, including a sack and three tackles at Washington State to hold the Cougars to 82 net yards rushing. Wright posted two sacks against Arizona State on a cold November evening as the Ducks cooled off the hot devils 42-24. He was one of five to record a sack in a narrow 21-20 victory at UCLA to claim sole possession of the Pac-10.
In the final game at Autzen, Wright and company shut down the high-powered Oregon State running game, stuffing Tailback Ken Simonton. Wright had three tackles in the game, and the defense stopped Simonton from becoming the first OSU rusher to have four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. The narrow 17-14 victory in the rain secured the outright Pac-10 title, and Oregon went on to play hot #3 Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon soundly defeated Coloardo 38-16 to finish the year #2 nationally. Wright would be part of an outstanding defense no one believed in but themselves and most loyal fans; playing the game of their lives – limiting the once-hot Buffalo running game to only 49 yards on the ground (well below their average of 228/game.)
Wright recalls the intensity of the feelings over the Fiesta Bowl. “My personal favorite game was the Fiesta Bowl against Colorado. All week, everyone expected us to lay an egg or get blown out. They had two All-Americans on the O-Line and an explosive offense. But, it was the opposite, as we went out on defense and stoned them! It turned into a field day; as our offense and defense was rolling. That’s a great memory, as it wasn’t just Oregon watching but everyone in the US, so we had millions watching and it was more exciting to play (so you could then be featured on camera and give a shoutout on camera to someone back home!)
Wright finished the 2001 year with 12 unassisted tackles, 22 total, five sacks, two deflections, and the one interception for 15 yards. Rarely accomplished by a lineman, he even led the team in tackles for loss yards, with 10 for 35.
Wright earned outright starter as a senior. Though strong on the defensive line and linebackers, Oregon was thin at secondary, which proved very challenging as the year wore on. 2002 was an overall difficult year for the team to match their success of 2001. Wright had a successful senior season; only a non-conference game injury (causing a three game miss) prevented matching his previous years’ stats. His mid-season absence also contributed to Oregon’s struggles on defense, as some reserve tackles had to shift to ends to fill the gap. Wright still managed to return to the lineup to finish the season with 11 tackles, while starting 10/13 games, and completing a successful two year career as a Duck.
Q. DO YOU HAVE A PERSONAL FAVORITE PLAY? WHAT WAS THE MOST MEMORABLE PART?
A. My forced fumble/sack; I remember like it was yesterday. We had a little ‘T-game’ going where the tackle goes first, the end wraps around; and as I came around I had to make move on center. The secondary did a great job in coverage, as the QB had to hold the ball longer, and I passed the center and hit him to cause a sack, counted as a forced fumble.
Q. COULD YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR HEAD COACH AND THE TYPE OF RELATIONSHIP YOU HAD WITH HIM?
A. The head coach was Mike Bellotti, and I thought he was great. He had an open-door policy, and could go in to talk about anything. He was very upfront about doing ‘xyz’ or not. He didn’t show a lot of favoritism (even with Harrington.) That was what I really liked about him. He came himself to see me a few times at JC (though Tedford was recruiting coach.) I really liked playing for him, he was a great guy and great coach by doing his best to help guys.
Following a successful career at Oregon, Wright went on to pursue a successful post-collegian football career for quite some time. Persistence paid for the gifted athlete, as he followed his dream wherever it led him for a number of years. After graduating in 2003, he became a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys where he made his way to second string. Only a hand-break foiled the success of his career as a Cowboy. Surgery with plates & screws were required for repair, forcing an injury settlement and release.
Following rehabilitation, Wright went overseas to the NFL Europe, where he was the #1 pick by the Amsterdam Admirals and had a very successful year. His success led back to the NFL, as the Washington Redskins signed Wright. Another injury (groin pull) forced an NFL cut, but he continued his football career going to the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes. He succeeded, but personally chose to leave after one season, being unhappy in Montreal.
A return to the NFL Europe, made Wright the second overall pick of the draft with the Cologne Centurions, where he had a successful season. The success led to a return to the Northwest, as the Seattle Seahawks would sign Wright the following year. He looked forward to succeeding with the Seahawks, but would sadly re-injure his groin. The training staff at Oregon allowed Wright to return and rehabilitate at Oregon a full summer.
A brief return to the NFL’s Houston Texans did not result in success, but Wright did rehab enough to play for the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators in his home state. Under Coach Jay Gruden, Wright successfully finished his football days the final AFL season. Incidentally, Orlando was up against the Philadelphia Soul in the playoffs, and Wright was defending former Oregon QB Tony Graziani. When going towards Graziani, a block against the center re-injured Wright’s already pulled muscle. Wright decided it was time to hang up the cleats after battling so many injuries, and the AFL’s collapse.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW:
Darrell Wright is back in the area with his wife and three children, living in Springfield where he currently works at Springfield High School as the official Campus Supervisor. During football season, he also serves as varsity coach of the Defensive Line and Special Teams Coordinator. He also coaches track in the off-season, as well as hosting sports camps for youth skills improvement with former team mate Steve Smith. Now 33, Darrell is a successful husband, father, coach, and mentor for high school kids; making a difference by giving back to the community that positively shaped him into the man he is today.
Q. DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL MESSAGES FOR THE FANS?
A. I’d like to thank all the fans who go to those games and cheer the Ducks on. You’re one of the reasons we succeeded and why Oregon continues to succeed. Whether we’re up or down, we get hear your supports via screaming the ‘O!’ That gives the team momentum. Hearing the fans cheer makes a big difference between playing in a quiet and a loud stadium. When the stadium is rocking and you hear the fans on your side, you want to find a will not to lose! When you’re down, hearing the fans and seeing kids & other people saying ‘you can do it’ makes you want to do it for them and really touches you. So thank you to the fans, keep it up!
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