K.J. Wright took the trip of a lifetime this past offseason.
It’s one that’s changed his life.
The Seahawks’ Pro Bowl linebacker made his season debut last weekend. He played 50 of 59 snaps in Seattle’s two-touchdown win over the Lions in Detroit. It was his first game since he had knee surgery in late August then a slowed recovery. Wright’s return meant he and All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner were together again. They are the only two starters from Seattle’s Super Bowl seasons of 2013 and ‘14 who remain on the defense.
Wright’s return also started a pledge he’s made to do something far more important on a global scale: He’s trying to transform a population in Kenya.
“I went there this offseason. I had an amazing time,” Wright said Thursday, before practice for Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Chargers. “I highly suggest that each and every one of you guys go to Africa...
“It’s an amazing place. ... And I when I was there, I noticed this young girl had dirty, brown water, and so, I just wanted to help this community. Young ladies have to walk many miles, twice a day, just to bring back water. And when they do get the water, it’s not even clean. So millions of people suffer from (not having) easy access to it.
“I just want to bless this community that blessed me.”
That community is in the Maasai Mara region of southwest Kenya. It is known for its wildlife, including lions and the great migration of wildebeest each summer, along the border with Tanzania.
“This year I am donating $300 for every tackle (to providing clean water to the Maasai Mara region),” Wright said. “I just want to make this a community effort. I want everyone to feel a part of it. I want everyone to feel involved, because I think it’s a really good thing, to help people that are in need.
“It’s something I’m doing. I’m going back next year.”
Wright said he wants to get two wells built, at a cost of about $20,000 each. He’s been told that would adequately provide the town’s population with fresh, clean water for everyday living.
“To get a well built in this community would take a lot of stress off a lot of people,” he said. “To have water that they can drink, that you can clean clothes with, that you can bathe in, it will be a beautiful thing once we get it done.”
His goal is to donate $50,000.
“Hopefully we can all reach that goal,” he said.
He’s up to $1,500 personally, after one game. He had five tackles at Detroit.
Wright is following what Seahawks Pro Bowl defender Cliff Avril started in 2016 by providing basic needs for an impoverished land. Avril, who was forced to retire this spring because of a neck injury, has been visiting and donating to build schools and more in Haiti, the Caribbean nation where Avril has relatives and ancestry.
Wright said he was at a community dinner in Kenya, during a trip there in April with former Seahawks teammates Byron Maxwell, Mike Morgan and Malcolm Smith. At the dinner Wright was given a Swahili name that means “the one that gives hope.”
“I don’t know if they give everybody these names, but I really took that to heart,” he said.
“I feel like that’s been my whole purpose my entire life, to help people reach their full potential, and just to give back. Because life is bigger than us. It’s bigger than K.J.
“If the world is a better place, than I’ve done my job. So I’ve got to make that happen.”
Of Kenya in particular, Wright said: “Just good people. Good food.
“And they don’t have much, but they are just so happy. I look at myself, I get mad when the wifi is not working on the plane. And these people are suffering from water.
“It just really put life into perspective, to show you what’s real and how blessed we are. And how some people are less fortunate that we are.”
Wright and wide receiver Doug Baldwin are the longest-tenured Seahawks on the active roster. Each arrived to the NFL and the team in 2011, Wright in the fourth round of that year’s draft and Baldwin as an undrafted free agent.
Wright is in the final year of his four-year, $27-million extension. At the end of it he will have earned almost $28.9 million in the NFL with Seattle.
He is in the same situation as All-Pro safety Earl Thomas: about to turn 30 years old with an expiring contract.
The Seahawks declined to give Thomas the top-of-the-market third contract he demanded and for which he held out into September. Now Thomas is on injured reserve with his second broken leg in three years, and headed for free agency in March.
Unlike Thomas, Wright has been with the team all offseason and through the entire preseason, at practice each day. Wright had arthroscopic knee surgery in late August to fix his left knee with an eye toward being right for 2019 and beyond. Wagner has twice publicly advocated for the Seahawks to extend Wright past this season, saying it’s the proper move for a foundational player that has done it “the right way” as a Seahawk.
The team has yet to offer Wright any deal for 2019 or beyond. And this is not the time to do that: one game into a 29-year-old return from knee surgery that cost him to miss the season’s first six games.
The Seahawks drafted Shaquem Griffin this spring then put him at Wright’s weakside linebacker position. But so far Griffin has not proven ready. The rookie started the opening game at Denver Sept. 9 while Wright was just starting his knee rehabilitation. By the second quarter of that first game, backup middle linebacker Austin Calitro replaced Griffin.
Griffin hasn’t started since, and has only played a few snaps on defense, against Oakland in London Oct. 14. That was the last game before Wright returned last weekend.
Last week, Wright said of his future beyond this season: “That stuff will handle itself.”
Thursday, he said: “It feels good to play this long, be a part of this organization.”
Then he repeated what he’s said for months.
“Hopefully, I can play here until I retire,” he said.
In the meantime, he has some Chargers to tackle on Sunday.
And a few wells in Kenya to build.