By Michael Baca
Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle Rayfield Wright passed away Thursday, the Hall of Fame announced. He was 76 years old.
Wright had been hospitalized for several days after a seizure, according to the Hall of Fame.
“Over the past few weeks, it has become abundantly clear the love that so many Hall of Famers and others around the NFL felt toward Rayfield, his wife, Di, and the extended Wright family,” Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said in a statement. “His gentle nature away from the game belied his commanding presence on the field. All fans, especially those of the Cowboys, will remember fondly his dominance on the offensive line in the 1970s and how he took protecting Dallas quarterbacks as his personal mission.
“We will guard his legacy in Canton with equal tenacity. The Hall of Fame Flag will fly at half-staff through Rayfield’s services next Friday as a tribute to the many lives he touched.”
Wright, a Griffin, Georgia, native, was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2006 and inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2004.
Those accomplishments came after Wright played all 13 of his NFL seasons in Dallas for a grand total of 182 games before his retirement in 1980. He earned the first of six straight Pro Bowl nods and three consecutive first-team All-Pro honors in 1971. Wright was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1970s.
Wright was the backbone of the Cowboys’ offensive line during the franchise’s rise to glory in the 1970s under legendary Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry. Wright appeared in five Super Bowls and won two (VI, XII) amid the franchise’s decade-long run of excellence which led to the famous moniker “America’s Team.”
Nicknamed “Big Cat” for his size and athleticism, Wright was a heralded right tackle during an era when the position was typically paired with the opposing team’s ace pass rusher. He was the main protector for the extent of Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach’s Hall of Fame career. Wright also anchored a line that produced the Cowboys’ first five 1,00-yard rushers in the franchise’s history.
Wright was drafted by the Cowboys in the seventh round after graduating from Fort Valley State University in 1967 and was found by HOF scout Gil Brandt. A multi-sport athlete in college who had been drafted by the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals, Wright was initially brought in as a tight end before Landry tabbed Wright to play for injured right tackle Ralph Neely during the 1969 season. His first start at right tackle famously came against HOF defensive end Deacon Jones, and Wright’s performance went so well he was the team’s starter the following season.
“Deacon Jones lines up across him and says, ‘Hey, does your mama know you’re out?’ And he kind of reared back, and Deacon knocked him on his ass,” Brandt said, remembering that Wright was named the team’s player of the game. “He didn’t allow a sack; he didn’t allow Deacon to do anything.”
“Rayfield Wright was the epitome of what it takes to be a Hall of Famer,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. “His grit, his agility, his passion, his charisma and his love for football, the community and his family always shined through. The original “Big Cat” helped shape the future of the Dallas Cowboys through his illustrious 13-year playing career. Rayfield was a champion on and off the field. He remained an important part of the Cowboys family long after his playing days ended, and he will be deeply missed. Our love and support go out to his wife, Di, and the entire Wright family.”