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Volunteer coach not confined by wheelchair

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    Volunteer coach not confined by wheelchair

    November 18, 2002
    'I feel like I'm playing with them'

    * Volunteer coach not confined by wheelchair
    By Mark Alexander
    Antonio Wright grew up dreaming of playing football at Jackson State.
    "It's all I ever wanted to do from the time I was a toddler; I wanted to be a Tiger," he says.

    Just a month before realizing his childhood dream, it was taken away in a matter of seconds, in a car accident that left him paralyzed.

    Wright and a friend were returning to Jackson from Memphis on Feb. 2, 1997, two days after he had been cleared academically to participate in spring practice at JSU. His friend was driving; Wright was asleep. The back tire on the passenger side blew out. The vehicle flipped over eight times.

    "If I didn't have my seat belt on I wouldn't be here," Wright said. "The last thing I remember inside the truck was the dashboard becoming the floor. I blacked out. When I woke up I remember seeing something green coming toward me, not knowing it was grass. I landed right on my face and chest."

    His friend escaped unharmed.

    Wright wasn't so lucky. The collision ripped his insides apart. His large intestine wrapped around his spinal cord. All of his organs shifted from their original position. His spinal cord twisted. Worst of all: One lumbar disc was completely shattered, another was fractured.

    Wright, then 22, was left an L2 paraplegic, paralyzed from his upper thighs down, destined to use a wheelchair the rest of his life.

    Wright will never play football for Jackson State. But in his mind he's doing the next best thing.

    Wright is now an unpaid volunteer assistant coach for the Tigers. He works on defense, mainly with the linebackers, the position he first played at Provine High and then later at Hinds Community College and Mississippi College.

    On Saturday, when Jackson State faces Alcorn State in the Capital City Classic, Wright will be in the press box atop Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. If form holds true, Wright, who is as energetic and passionate about football as he is life, will be into the game just as much or more as the other coaches in the booth, yelling and slamming his hand down when something goes wrong, cheering enthusiastically when things go right.

    "I still feel like my dream has come true in a way," said Wright, 27. "It's funny how my life has come complete circle. I don't have the opportunity to play with my legs, but I can play through about 85 different sets of legs. When they're playing, I feel like I'm right there playing with them."

    Wright recently came across a highlight tape of his playing days at Hinds - a video he hadn't viewed since his accident.

    "I watched it all week," Wright said, as a big smile came to his face. "I couldn't stop smiling. It was so exciting seeing myself out there on the field. I miss the game so much . . . I miss playing."

    At 5-feet-11, 190 pounds, Wright wasn't big or strong for a junior college linebacker. And with a 40-yard dash time in the 4.8-5.0 range, he wasn't overly fast. But he was tough, and he played with a lot of heart.

    He started at Provine as a junior and senior before moving on to Hinds, where he tried out four times before eventually making the team.

    "He wouldn't quit," Hinds coach Gene Murphy recalled. "He was determined to make the team."

    Wright played on special teams in his first year and became a defensive captain as a sophomore on a defense that featured several future NFL players, including Grady Jackson of the Saints.

    Hinds won the state championship that season, mainly because of its defense, and Wright played a big role.

    In the 21-14 championship game victory over Itawamba, Wright played with a broken thumb, broken nose, severe ear infection and a shoulder that kept popping out of place. Murphy kept taking him out of the game. Wright kept putting himself back in.

    In the waning minutes, Wright returned a blocked field goal 76 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

    "All of a sudden the ball popped up, and there was 'ol Antonio," Murphy said. "The kicker had the angle on him, and all I could think about was Antonio's 40 time. I didn't think he would ever make it to the end zone, but he did. It was a miracle, really. Looking back, it's one of those moments that's divinely ordained."

    Murphy gets emotional every time he talks about Wright.

    "He was the glue that made our team stick," Murphy said. "He brought so much spirit to the field. His attitude now is no different than it was then. He's spoken to our team a few times. I tell our kids if they could just have a little bit of the outlook on life that Antonio has, they wouldn't have any trouble.

    When you look at all that he's been through, and the way he's handled it, he helps people see the big picture."

    Wright says he never got depressed about the accident. It wasn't in him.

    "It changes things not only for you but everybody around you," Wright said.

    "Everything changes. . .putting your clothes on, the way you get around, the way you have to use the bathroom, your whole life.

    "But, it's like (former Provine coach Stanley) Blackmon always told me: Tough times don't last, tough people do. I take that with me to this day."

    Wright's tough times didn't end with his accident. A month later, his younger brother was murdered.

    Said Wright: "Losing him, that was tough. That was tougher than being in a wheelchair."

    Through it all, Wright has kept a bright outlook on life and a smile on his face. He is an inspiration to the JSU players and coaches, as well as to many of the students and faculty who know him.

    "He's one in a million," JSU defensive coordinator Greg Johnson said. "His motivation and desire supersede anything I've ever seen."

    Said JSU coach Robert Hughes: "He does more in a wheelchair than most people do outside of a wheelchair."

    Getting around in a wheelchair can be difficult; coaching from one is even tougher. On more than one occasion, Wright has fallen out of his wheelchair during a practice.

    "Sometimes I literally forget I'm in a wheelchair, I really do," Wright said. "I'm so intense and so high strung, I have so much energy, that I get to jumping around and forget.

    "It's a challenge," Wright said. "It's so irritating not being able to go over there and grab a player, and show him how to do something by walking him through it like most coaches. That's the tough part of being a disabled coach in a wheelchair. I have to be able to articulate that so that they can visualize that."

    Although Wright is still taking classes at JSU, he already is a certified personal trainer and has a long-range goal of becoming a head football coach.
    His immediate goal is to become a full-time strength and conditioning or position coach. He's thankful for the opportunity Hughes has given him at JSU.

    In the spring, he designed and implemented JSU's strength and conditioning program.

    "That was the first time I felt like a part of the staff," said Wright, who has given fiery motivational speeches after several practices. "That was the first time I felt accepted as a coach here. They realized I knew what I was doing.

    "I'm just as much as a coach as any of the other coaches. I work just as hard.

    They respect me just like a full-time coach, and I take that as an honor, a privilege and a blessing."

    Wright can't imagine his life without football. "I eat, sleep and drink it," he says. "Football is like breathing to me, it comes naturally."

    He also can't imagine life without his wife, Mahalia, whom he met three months after his accident and married a few months later. "Of all my blessings, she's the best," he says.

    Among Wright's hobbies is wheelchair basketball and weight-lifting. He can bench press 225 pounds 16 times.

    "Mostly upper body, no squats," he says, cracking a big smile and showing he's not afraid to joke about his situation.

    "I want for you to see my eyes, see my spirit, see the person that I am, not my wheelchair," he said.

    Wright shares his story frequently through motivational speeches to various groups.

    "Life ain't easy, life ain't fair," he says. "Nobody said it would be. But if you can open your eyes and see another day, then you can fulfill your dreams. I know I haven't achieved anything big yet. But everyday I'm chipping that mountain down where I don't have to climb it, I can just roll over it."