Jason Wright passes up NFL contract to attend business school

In late December, Jason Wright(notes) reached a career crossroad, one flush with two amazing opportunities.

Jason Wright was a special teams captain for the Cardinals. He played in Arizona in 2009 and 2010.
(US Presswire)

Down one path was a full scholarship to the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business that would prepare him to empower inner-city children, perhaps someday allowing him to open a charter school. Down a second path was a contract with the Arizona Cardinals - worth more than $1 million a season - that would financially help his family and continue the dream of many to play in the country's most popular sport.

After agent Mike McCartney informed the Cardinals that Wright was retiring, general manager Rod Graves insisted he would improve on the running back's previous contract, which was for two years at $2 million. But in making the decision, the Northwestern graduate questioned himself.

"That was the thing that was on my mind, the biggest hiccup," says Wright, who spent seven seasons in the NFL. "What's the motive behind me playing longer? What is it in there that draws me? So people would know my name?

"For me, it was superficial. For me and my family, and our belief in God, it wasn't a good enough motivation."

Even if Wright felt differently, his wife, Tiffany, was ready to move on - with or without him.

"I was done with football," says Tiffany, who gave birth to the couple's first child, Gabrielle, four months ago. "No offense to the Cardinals, but I think there's better things ahead. I know Jason is more capable of things outside of football.

"I told him, 'You can go back, but I'm moving.' "

Wright, 29, doesn't know what his future holds, but he may work with disadvantaged youth, an inclination inspired by his and his wife's work in the past couple of years with three young women, including a homeless one they invited in their home.

"They cared for me and loved me," says Karissa Lockwood, 20, a student at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College. "People ask me who my family is. They're my family now."

Leading by example

During his NFL career, Wright registered 633 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns. His best season was with the Cleveland Browns in 2007, when he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and finished with 277 rushing yards, a career-high.

In two seasons with the Cardinals, despite playing in 31 games, Wright ran the ball just nine times for 45 yards. But he was a special teams captain, and the clear-cut leader of the running backs, even if he was fourth on the depth chart last season.

Jason Wright, and his wife, Tiffany, met on a blind date in 2005.
Photo courtesy of the Wrights

As a testament to his leadership, Wright would call running back and special teams only meetings Friday afternoons, and he'd answer any questions the young players - including first-round pick Beanie Wells(notes) - might have, ones they might be too embarrassed to ask a coach.

"He was the most unselfish guy I've been around," Cardinals running backs coach Tommie Robinson says. "He knew every position, and he made sure the guys in front of him knew everything.

"When you say Jason Wright, the vast majority of fans wouldn't recognize the name. But he brought intangibles you just can't coach. Either you got it, or you don't. Kids like that come along once every blue moon."

Added special teams coach Kevin Spencer, "When you walk out of the tunnel with him, you're a better football team."

Five-time Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald(notes), whom the club signed to an eight-year, $128.5 million contract in August, says Wright was beloved and respected in the locker room.

"He's one of the best teammates I've ever had," Fitzgerald says. "But Jason has a higher calling, and he goes by the Lord's plan. As a friend and a Christian, I admire his courage.

"Going back to school, and having his first baby; all this is brand new. But it takes a lot of courage."

Wright, who plans to get his MBA and a degree in public policy within the next three years, made about $4.5 million while playing in the NFL. But the Wrights lived modestly, spending about $12,000 on their wedding and passing on some staples of the NFL life, including expensive purses and luxury cars.

"I get sticker shock," says Tiffany, who was set up on a blind date in February 2005 with Jason while she was attending Northwestern, "and I think that's a good thing."

But the only cause for pause when the Cardinals made the final offer was the World Vision pamphlet laying around their three-bedroom home in Arizona.

"We could give away two or three wells instead of one," Tiffany says, referring to water wells.

Family redefined

While Gabrielle is the Wright's only biological child, their family already included three young ladies.

Two of them are teenagers from Cleveland whom Tiffany met while teaching at an after-school program through a non-profit organization, City Mission. She connected with Jamie by writing her a poem, and she was cast as the "godmother" by Jamie's mother.

But Jamie was a package deal with her friend Aiesha, and the two sometimes spent six days a week at the Wright's home.

The Wright family includes, from left, Tiffany, Aiesha, Jason and Jamie.
Photo courtesy of the Wrights

While the grades of both girls improved, Tiffany wanted to empower them, highlighting Jason's actions as a man and husband.

When the couple informed the girls they were moving to Arizona, Jamie and Aiesha cried for 20 minutes. But Tiffany promised them that she would continue to guide them, setting up conference calls with their teachers and flying them to Arizona for a visit during the summer.

"We're committed to them," Tiffany says.

Then they met Karissa at a church in Mesa.

A leader in the youth group, Tiffany was introduced to Karissa through another young woman from the church. A few weeks later, Tiffany discovered that Karissa was going to be homeless in a week.

"It was one of those moments, where, 'Why wouldn't I let her come live with us?' We had the resources, the time and the space," Tiffany recalls. "So I told her, 'If you can't find a place in one week, you can come live with us.' "

The truth is, though, that Karissa had been homeless for months, living in a neighbor's car port - one without a garage door.

Karissa and her older sister have been in and out of the foster care system. Karissa also claims that she and her sister have been mentally, physically and sexually abused by previous caregivers.

When she became homeless, Karissa had her backpack, an oversized purse, a box that included a yearbook and a black suitcase with some clothes. An ex-boyfriend and some neighborhood kids would bring her food once in a while, but, in her desperation, she prostituted herself for money.

"I only did it a few times," she says. "But it was enough to really hate myself."

So, not surprisingly, Karissa was more than reluctant when Tiffany offered her a place to live - no strings attached.

"I was really surprised. I was like, 'This is crazy.' I was freaking out because I didn't know what their motive was," Karissa says. "They were older. I didn't know if they would touch me.

"But I needed a place to live."

Karissa Lockwood, left, was homeless before the Wrights took her in. "They were the first people in my life that I felt actually loved me," Karissa says. "They were my big brother and sister, but they're pretty much the only parent figures I've ever had."
Photo courtesy of the Wrights

This was all news to Jason, though, since Tiffany hadn't checked with him first. But he fully supported his wife.

"I love the God adventures that pop up in life," he playfully says.

Besides, Jason and Tiffany came from families that stressed serving people.

Tiffany grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, where her father was a drug and alcohol counselor who always pushed for rehabilitation over jail. Jason's parents opened up their home in Diamond Bar, Calif., to others, including an older woman and a younger one, too, for upward of a year.

"My parents were that way," says Susan Wright, Jason's mother. "They always opened their home to people in need, so I didn't have any fears, because that's what I was used to.

"My husband is very generous and has a good heart. We just adopted a dog because of him."

But Susan says she was somewhat concerned that Jason and Tiffany might have been too young to bring a person of need into their home.

"They weren't established," Susan says. "But they felt comfortable, and they both have good hearts and a lot of faith."

But that doesn't mean Tiffany didn't have concerns.

Inspiring change

Initially, the Wrights didn't give Karissa a key or provide her the security code to their home.

"I'm just not a really trusting person," Tiffany says. "I feel anyone would have the usual reservations about, 'Can we really trust this person? What if she screws us over?'

"I locked my [bedroom] door at night."

Quickly though, the Wrights discovered Karissa's story and slowly trusted her. They recited scriptures to reinforce God's view of her.

Karissa says she appreciates that the Wrights never judge her.

But Karissa needed some nudging, with the Wrights pushing her to fulfill her household chores.

"They were the first people in my life that I felt actually loved me," Karissa says. "They were my big brother and sister, but they're pretty much the only parent figures I've ever had.

"People who actually wanted me. That put me at ease."

Then Karissa flourished.

Before she lived with them, Karissa had graduated from high school. But the Wrights encouraged her to continue her education, helping her enroll at Mesa Community College and driving her to and from classes every day.

The latest addition to the Wright family: 4-month-old daughter Gabrielle.
Photo courtesy of the Wrights

The Wrights also paid her tuition.

But in June, after a year of providing Karissa a home, the Wrights had to move again, this time to Chicago's South Side. Karissa would need to find another place to live, but she was repeatedly assured she was always a part of their lives.

"I was scared I would screw up and they would abandon me. That was my fear, for a lot of the time I was with them," Karissa says. "But every time I voiced my concern, they always told me that I was family and families stick together.

"They've never faltered on that."

Before the Wrights left town, Jason and Tiffany purchased Karissa a green 1999 Honda Accord.

"I love it," Karissa proudly said.

She's completed more than a year of classes, and Karissa is debating whether to transfer to Arizona State University or another school for a completely fresh start. But she knows that the Wrights will always be there for her.

She's joined them at Jason's parents' home for Christmas and frequently receives pictures of her baby sister Gabrielle.

When they hear of Karissa's comments, both Jason and Tiffany are nearly moved to tears.

"Besides wanting to cry, I have to say that while we've obviously been a blessing to her, she's been as much of a blessing to us. And I'm not saying that in a superficial way," Tiffany says. "Karissa is such an amazing young woman, and I can't imagine not having her in my family."

Adds Jason, "I just say glory to God.

"There's no doubt he's working through us, because we're not that great."

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Updated Tuesday, Sep 20, 2011