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K.J. Wright’s emotional retirement as a Seahawk: A most genuine event, befitting the man

Weeks after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in a Minneapolis street, as social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement gained unprecedented momentum across the country, K.J. Wright had a request.

It was the summer of 2020. Wright and his wife had just co-led a march across the Interstate 90 floating bridge from Mercer Island to Seattle to raise awareness for racial equality.

Wright asked a white journalist he’d known for 10 years in Seattle to have a conversation. A real, honest conversation, one white people should have been having with Black people for the last 400 years. He wanted his white friend to ask questions of him. Ask him what it’s like to be a Black man in America, to be a Black man who grew up in Mississippi.

The words were earnest. They were in search of progress. Of growth. Of decency.

That is K.J. Wright.

So is this:

Wednesday, he signed a contract to return to the Seahawks for just one day. That was so he could retire with the team where he spent his first 10 seasons, won a Super Bowl, made a Pro Bowl and earned $45.8 million. After one last season with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021, he wanted to be back in Seattle. His wife Nathalie is from here. She and their two children stayed back in Seattle while Wright played in Nevada last year.

Wednesday, Wright went out a way few do in the NFL: His way.

The Wright way.

He walked into the main auditorium of the Seahawks’ Virginia Mason Athletic Center, a giant room with cushioned, black, leather chairs and a stage. He’d had so many raucous team meetings with the Seahawks in there. Thursday, he had his mother, father, grandmother, wife, two children, about a dozen other family members — seemingly all of his native Olive Branch, Mississippi — come up to the stage to join him for a joyful, thankful picture.

Then the co-anchor along with Bobby Wagner of Seattle’s championship defenses of the 2010s began his official retirement announcement after 11 NFL seasons.

He was crying, as were many others in the room.

Blitz knew. The birded team mascot passed out tissues to all before Wright began speaking.

K.J. Wright gets emotional while thanking his team, coaches, friends and family during his retirement press conference on July 28, 2022 at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Wash.
K.J. Wright gets emotional while thanking his team, coaches, friends and family during his retirement press conference on July 28, 2022 at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Wash.

‘I am truly blessed’

“The legacy I tried to leave is, just, first off, be a good person,” Wright said.

“It’s great to see y’all here. The people that I love. The people that helped me to get to this point,” Wright said, his voice breaking.

“My teammates...”

His motioned to many of them packed into the back of the auditorium, and to coach Pete Carroll, assistant coaches, staffers, equipment and nutrition and dining-room personnel — pretty much everybody in the room.

“My wife and kids... It’s a beautiful day, man,” Wright said.

“I’m so thankful that I laid it out on the football field. I am truly blessed in my life.”

Then he began reading from a script from behind the podium.

“I’m here to announce that after 11 fantastic seasons that I’m retired from the NFL,” he said.

The room erupted into cheers.

He nodded. He smiled.

He thanked Carroll for being the coach everyone should have, for taking the time to stop football and engage his players, his men, in matters off the field that they cared for most. For having the Seahawks leaning forward in Black Lives Matter, in equality, in family and friendships.

“I love you, man,” he said, motioning to Carroll.

The 70-year-coach nodded back from the rear left of the room.

“We kicked some serious ass together,” Wright said.

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talks with outside linebacker K.J. Wright during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talks with outside linebacker K.J. Wright during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Love for Norton

His most emotional thank you to a coach was to Ken Norton Jr.

Carroll fired Norton in January from his role as coordinator of a defense that without Wright in it last season fell to 31st-ranked in the 32-team league. Norton was Wright’s first NFL position coach, after Carroll and the Seahawks selected Wright in the fourth round of the 2011 draft out of Mississippi State.

Wright thanked Norton, a former Super Bowl-winning linebacker, for turning him from an out-of-shape college kid to an NFL man. He thanked Norton for putting bands around his ankles to improve his mobility and strength. For teaching him how to command a huddle.

Wright was Seattle’s inside linebacker as a rookie in 2011. The Seahawks drafted Wagner a year later. Wagner and Wright, who moved to outside linebacker, became bonded with the Seahawks for a decade, and for life.

“To calling me at 6 in the morning and saying, ‘Hey, I need you to meet me’ and it’s just us spending one-on-one time together. And you teaching me how to play linebacker,” Wright said addressing Norton, who is now coaching at UCLA and was not present Thursday.

Wright bowed his head, rubbed his eyes and cried some more.

“You had my family over for every, single Thanksgiving,” Wright said of Norton. “You praised me when I played well, and you got me right when I needed to be fixed.

“You taught me how to be a pro. ...You are the best coach in the world, in my eyes.”

Seattle Seahawks’ K.J. Wright runs with the ball after recovering a Minnesota Vikings fumble during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle Seahawks’ K.J. Wright runs with the ball after recovering a Minnesota Vikings fumble during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Why not play for Seattle again?

Wright wanted to play last season for the Seahawks, an 11th in row for Seattle. The team did not offer him a contract or a starting role. They transitioned to Darrell Taylor and Jordyn Brooks, their young top draft choices the last couple years, as their new outside linebackers.

Wright signed with the Raiders. They were the only team that called. He hated being away from Nathalie and their kids. They stayed back in her native Seattle while he played in and commuted from Las Vegas, whenever he could.

He decided during last season that he would only play back in 2022 in Seattle for the Seahawks. If that didn’t happen, he wasn’t playing for anyone. He would retire.

That’s how he got to Thursday.

Carroll and general manager John Schneider loved Wright, but not for their new defense. It is going from Wright’s and Wagner’s 4-3 Carroll has used for 50 years to a 3-4 this year. Plus, Wright turned 33 last week.

Why did the Seahawks not offer him a playing contract last year or for this season?

“It was time,” is all Carroll said about that Thursday. “It was time.”

Carroll said he and Wright have talked extensively about Wright staying involved with the team in variety of ways. Wright said he believes he has unique skills in teaching and relating to younger players, of which the remodeling Seahawks have many.

Coach Wright?

“Not coaching. Let’s just get that out there,” Wright said.

He said he’s not going to miss his kids volleyball and Little League games, or the birthdays and events and gatherings he’s missed every summer, fall into winter for the last 11 years. He can’t — just won’t — commit the time required to be a coach of an NFL team.

But are you going to attend Seahawks home games this season at Lumen Field, near his family home?

“Damn right!” Wright declared.

“I’m going to be at most of the games -- in the suite, sippin’ tequila. Me and Lofa (Tatupu, former Seahawks linebacker), having a great time.”

As he greeted teammates, Carroll, other Seahawks coaches such as former defensive teammate DeShawn Shead, now a defensive backs coach for the team, Wright kept answering their calls of Mr. Wright with his usual retort: “Never wrong.”

On his final day as a Seahawk, his last day in the NFL, Wright was absolutely never wrong.

In the middle of the most genuine press conference you can find in professional sports, Wright called up to the stage his mother. Jacqueline Wright was like most of the other 15 or so family members attending. She was wearing a 50 Wright Seahawks game jersey.

“This is the woman right here who had me in check growing up,” Wright said, holding his mom with his right arm. “She kept me grounded. ...

“You stayed on me for going to school. And you were the reason I graduated college, because I knew how important it was for you and Grandma.

“You continually pour life into me. I love you.”

Then he called his father, Kenneth Wright Sr., onto the stage with him. He also was wearing a blue Wright 50 Seahawks jersey.

“He’s struggling more than I am, I can promise y’all that,” the younger Wright said of his dad.

“You were at my first everything: first Pee Wee game, high school, college and pros. ...You showed me what it’s like to be an awesome dad.

“Thanks for showing me the way, man. Thank you for showing me the way. You taught me. You taught me the definition of love and support.”

Wright began crying again.

So was Dad when his son said as an ending: “I love you dearly.”