As a fellow Mississippian, K.J. Wright knows all about Walter Payton.
“He’s a legend,” Wright says of the late, Hall-of-Fame running back with the Chicago Bears and champion of charity.
“Man, he and my mom went to the same college. They both went to Jackson State. He’s just a legend. He’s from Mississippi, so he’s always someone that I’ve watched.
“And I didn’t know until I got here (to the NFL) how much he did for his community and how much he meant to the city of Chicago as well.”
Wright is becoming a legend, too. Particularly in Seattle. And in Kenya.
That—and about 10 other reasons—are why he is the Seahawks’ 2018 nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
The 29-year-old Seahawks’ Pro Bowl linebacker is one of the most genuine, pleasant athletes I’ve had the privilege to cover and get to know in my 20 years of sports writing. He’s down-to-earth, so refreshingly real in conversations and actions, in a business where money and egos and competitiveness often trump humanity.
For the past year, Wright has been donating money to provide clean water to towns in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, after visiting the African country this past offseason. He brought books on his trip, and helped teach English to children there.
He’s up to $20,000 pledged and raised. He’s going to use that money and more to build two wells to provide for a town in Kenya. He says each well costs about $20,000 to install, to provide clean water you and I take for granted.
Back home—and Seattle is where he says he wants to stay and live well after he’s done playing football—he builds houses for the homeless in south Seattle. Wright recently got involved with the Sawhorse Revolution, which began in 2010 as a summer carpentry camp for children on a farm north of Arlington in Snohomish County north of Everett.
“They’re tiny homes. They’ll be in south Seattle,” Wright said Thursday. “We went in there just cutting wood and laying the foundation on the floor and building the roofs. We just really wanted to help.
“I met them when they came out to practice (at Seahawks headquarters in Renton), so I made that connection and just stuck with it.”
Wright has joined former Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril on Avril’s annual trips to Haiti; he is helping build a school there in La Chanm. Wright coached a youth football camp in Port-au-Prince. He is a mentor for Chargers and former Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung’s Future Leaders program, working with inner-city kids to help them learn basics of entrepreneurship and technology to tackle problems in their communities. Wright is also a mentor for Seattle-area youth through Rainier Athletes, a local program that seeks to motivate students to achieve, and through the NFL’s Character Playbook teaching Seattle-area middle-school students how to build healthy relationships and make good decisions.
So, yeah, Wright doesn’t do much other than play football.
He says this season has been “tough” for him. His future with the Seahawks is unknown beyond this final month of the regular season, in which he may not play. His knee hasn’t proven itself fit for more than the three games he played after making his delayed season debut Oct. 28 at Detroit.
Coach Pete Carroll said again on Thursday the team has no firm idea when Wright may be able to play again.
He’s in the final year of his contract. While All-Pro linebacker partner and great friend Bobby Wagner has publicly tasked the Seahawks to do right by Wright and re-sign him for 2019 and beyond, the fact is Wright will be turning 30 years old. He has a knee that has not responded well to surgery. The Seahawks drafted his potential replacement this year in Shaquem Griffin. They have an athletic, experienced weakside linebacker for now in Mychal Kendricks, who will return from league suspension Monday to play against the Vikings for Wright. (Kendricks is facing a sentencing hearing in federal court in Pennsylvania in January for insider trading.)
Wright acknowledges his nomination for the Payton Man of the Year award “couldn’t come at a better time.”
“It’s important we keep balance in our lives and give back to the ones our heart,” he says.
“I’ve been like this since I was a kid,” Wright said. “My grandma, she did a lot of stuff when we were growing up just giving back. We went into St. Jude’s Hospital (the children’s research hospital in Memphis, Tenn., near where he grew up in Olive Branch, Miss. “We went to visit nursing homes. We went to the middle of Mississippi to just give out clothes and video games.
“So we’ve always been that kind of family, and that’s how I was raised.”
His family did oh, so well.
Wright will wear a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year helmet decal through the end of the season, when or if he gets back on the field, in recognition of his nomination for all he does on and off the field.
Each of the league’s 32 teams nominated a player for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. The winner will be announced in Atlanta on Feb. 2, the night before Super Bowl 53.