Eric Wright’s journey to the NFL nearly ended before it began.
It was 1993. Skinny, eight-year old Eric had barely survived his first Pop Warner practice. It was a far cry from the touch games he was used to playing on the sidewalks of his San Francisco neighborhood.
“The first day, you get pads and then you get hit,” he recalled, chuckling. “I wasn’t really soft, but I’d never played before. You have more experienced players. I’m getting hit by 10-year-old kids who had been playing for a few years. They kept teeing off on me.”
That night, Eric told his father he wanted to quit. Talim Wright’s response was simple.
“We’ve got to be tough,” he told his son. “It’s going to be like this at times, but you’re going to get better. You’re going to learn how to protect yourself. You’re going to learn how to hit.”
Eric remained unconvinced, but persisted. Several weeks later, he entered a game for the first time. It was late in the fourth quarter, and the score was tied.
“They gave me a pitch, a little sweep play,” he said. “I took it to the house.”
The moment gave Eric the confidence he needed to keep playing, and then some.
“I was a big-headed eight year-old from then on,” he said, laughing. “You couldn’t tell me anything.”
Born on July 24, 1985, Eric grew up in Hunters Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco. The best thing about it, he recalled, was the weather; it was one of the sunniest spots in the city.
It was also home to Candlestick Park, the stadium of Eric’s favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers. It was a good time to be a fan. Led by Steve Young, San Francisco was a perennial playoff contender, and in 1994, aided by the presence of cornerback Deion Sanders, the 49ers won the 1994 Super Bowl.
The team’s success fueled Eric’s excitement about the game, and he dreamed of playing in the NFL. But the fantasy of professional football was a far cry from the reality of life in Hunters Point. It was a rough place, particularly for a young boy.
“I remember seeing used condoms in the drain or a needle on the ground, walking on the way to school,” he said. “It wasn’t all the time or every day that I had to step over drugs or condoms, but on one occasion I saw it, and it was enough for it to stick out in my mind and to vividly remember that to this day.”
For many, eviction, having the electricity turned off, or not having enough money or food to eat dinner were routine threats.
“We were poor,” said Eric. “My mom had a job and my dad had a job, so we didn’t deal with some of the things that some of my other friends were dealing with. We just didn’t have any money for anything once we paid all our bills.”
Still, Eric was luckier than most. Though his parents, Talim and Mia, divorced when he was seven, he was their only child, and they were heavily involved his life. Both were good athletes. His father had been a running back, his mother a track star.
“Both of my parents were fast, but my mom is the fast one,” he explained. “Fast enough to play with the guys, she swears up and down.”
What was more important to his parents, however, was that Eric did his best in school. And as his athletic ability began to make itself shown, his parents were even more insistent that his studies needed to come first.
“They lived for Saturdays or Sunday’s when I played, because that made them very happy and proud that I was doing as good as I was,” he remembered. “But from the time I was little, I couldn’t go outside and play until my homework was done. I was a student athlete with the emphasis being on the student.”
Eric’s mother, Mia -- who he lived with -- also struggled with bipolar disorder. She was diagnosed when Eric was 11, introducing challenges that most young boys never have to face. At the same time, her battle left a lasting impression on Eric. She never gave into her illness, and in fact, continued to work as a dental assistant despite it, doing everything she could to give her son the best life possible.
“Looking back is really different than when I was going through it,” he said. “I realize now how much we’ve been through, and I’m so appreciative of my mom for all that she had to endure. I know people that are in similar situations and their kids unfortunately miss out on a lot, and experience a lot more trauma because of it. She did her best to make everything as regular as possible and it was.”
Eric’s awareness of his mother’s sacrifice was acute, and even as a child, she was one of his role models. His other was his father. Talim, a good student, had foregone his own opportunities as a young man, dropping out of high school to support his mother and their extended family. When Eric was born, he showed the same kind of commitment.
“He is a man I respect and a man of a lot of integrity,” said Eric. “He always instilled the right values in me, and even though things didn’t work out between he and my mother, nothing ever came close to skipping a beat.”
With the support of his parents, Eric excelled in school and on the football field, emerging as a star running back, defensive back and safety at San Francisco’s Archbishop Riordan High School.
“Everybody has the best intentions for their children,” Eric explained. “But they seemed somewhat fanatical about it, making sure that I did everything I was supposed to do, making sure that I grew up the right way and did the right things. They were determined for me to be great or be successful, not just as it relates to football.”
By his senior year at Riordan, Eric was one of the most sought-after recruits in the Bay Area. He was listed on Rivals.com, a scouting service, as simply an “athlete,” a testament to his wide-ranging physical skills. A 2002 feature in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed the lengths Eric had taken to prepare for his senior season.
“Wright's success cannot be attributed to natural ability alone,” it read. “[His coach] credits Wright for his tireless work ethic. Wright passed on playing for the basketball team (which won a state championship) last winter so that he could get stronger and gain muscle by weightlifting. In the spring, he worked on his speed and agility with the track and field team. Wright recorded personal bests in the 100-meter dash (10.7 seconds) and long jump (23 feet, 4 3/4 inches) and qualified for the state meet in both events.”
Because he had a slighter build, Eric expected to play either wide receiver or defensive back in college, and that was how programs recruited him. Suitors included Berkeley, Washington, Oregon, Nebraska and Illinois, but eventually, he chose the University of Southern California. After a redshirt 2003 season, Eric began 2004 as a backup defensive back.
That would change by the end of the year. He started the Trojans’ last four games, and had a crucial interception in the national championship against Oklahoma, helping to catapult USC to a blowout 55-19 victory and the NCAA title.
“I was playing on the No. 1 team in the nation, preparing for another season where you’re going to be ranked No. 1 in the nation,” he remembered. “NFL scouts were already looking at me, and I was projected to go in the first round when I came out.”
It would turn out to be his last game for Southern California.
In the fall of 2005, Eric faced sexual assault charges that were subsequently dropped by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, but the damage to his reputation had been done. It was made clear to Eric that with all of the negative publicity, he would not return to the field for the Trojans anytime soon, perhaps ever.
On many levels, the experience was earth-shattering.
“Growing up in a single parent household, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and my mother,” Eric explained. “I have tremendous respect for women, so it was extremely hard to be accused of something so serious as that, when it’s not even close to being who I am. To be falsely accused of that was devastating to me, especially as a 19 year-old kid.”
In the interest of continuing his football career, Eric transferred to the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He sat out one season in compliance with NCAA transfer requirements, then played his junior year. At season’s end, he became the first Running Rebel football player to leave school early to play professionally.
The route Eric took to reach the NFL was not the one he had planned on, but by 2007, he was considered one of the country’s top corners. On April 29th, in the second round of the NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns selected Eric with the 53rd overall pick.
“I was at my house in Vegas with my family, my wife and some friends,” he recalled. “I worked really hard during that offseason, put up some really good numbers at the combine, had good workouts and pro days. It was just a relief to get that part over with, and start that next chapter.”
By the time he reached the NFL, Eric had become a student of his position, and a fan of many of the top corners of all-time. After being drafted by the Browns, he enjoyed learning about Cleveland’s epic backfield of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, and following in their footsteps.
“That prompted me to go back and watch a lot of film on those guys,” he said. “That was the dynamic duo. They had a lot of ability, but they also played the game really physical, and locked guys down out there. Being in Cleveland was a great opportunity to turn me on to some of the things that they accomplished in the league. I really appreciated that.”
In his four seasons in Cleveland, Eric collected 225 tackles, 46 pass defenses, nine interceptions and a pick six, which he took back 94 yards against the New York Giants in 2008.
The Detroit Lions signed Eric to start the 2011 season, and he had one of his best years of his career. He recorded 67 tackles, 19 pass defenses and four interceptions, and Detroit reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
“I loved Detroit,” said Eric. “It was a great football town, a great sports town and I made a lot of good friends over there. I was able to be a part of something special, getting the Lions back to the playoffs. It had been a long time. I just enjoyed my time there.”
Due to salary restrictions, Detroit was unable to bring Eric back, and he signed a five-year, $37 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the 2012 season. He was excited to be part of Tampa Bay’s revival, and to join a backfield that included a defensive legend like Ronde Barber.
“I looked at Ronde when I was in high school and especially when I got to college,” Eric explained. “It's been great to play with someone that you looked up to for so long. He's a future Hall-of-Famer and a living legend. To get that type of knowledge and have this type of experience is something I couldn't have dreamed of.”