October 1, 2014

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High school football preview 2011: Wellington’s Clay Wright doesn’t miss starts, or tackles

Matt Stoll racked his brain, yet couldn’t think of a single play or any one incident in the football career of Clay Wright that would be indicative of the kind of player Wright is.

“Maybe if he ever completely misses a tackle,” said Stoll, the Wellington coach. “I guess if that ever happened I’d be shocked.”

It hasn’t happened yet, according to Stoll.

Wright has been a starting player since opening night of his freshman year. Stoll has had a few four-year starters in his 22 seasons as coach the Dukes. He could name four off the top of his head. That isn’t many in two decades, even at a smaller school like Wellington.

Wright’s fellow seniors on the Dukes can’t come up with a good story about Wright, either – at least not a football story.

“I remember a scrimmage we had our freshman year,” said Nathan Gray, a tight end and safety. “He was tearing it up, just hitting everybody hard. The coaches took him out after only five minutes. He might have hurt somebody.”

Added Zac Gilbert, a wide receiver and safety: “They said, ‘Clay, just go practice with the varsity.’”

Wright has been with the varsity ever since. Today, he’s a running back and a middle linebacker. He was a freshman safety when he saw his first varsity action. He remembers it well.

“It was in the Western Reserve scrimmage,” Wright said. “I’d never played safety, but I told myself I can’t be nervous. I have to prove I can play. On this one play I smashed this kid.”

“I knew he would be a solid, hard-nosed football player from the first day I saw him when he was a freshman,” Stoll said. “He has never been the biggest kid (5-foot-11 and 210 pounds) but I’d put him up against anyone. He isn’t the fastest kid, but he’s tough and smart and keeps making plays.”

Whether it was that one good lick the ninth-grader put on his opponent that stamped Wright’s ticket to a starter’s role on the varsity is unclear. But there he was, in the starting lineup on Aug. 22, 2008, as the Dukes faced Norwayne.

“That first Friday night, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been,” Wright said. “I had so many butterflies in my stomach. After kickoff it was all OK. I was like, I just have to play football.”

It was an auspicious beginning. Wright came up with an interception.

“It was an out pattern,” he said. “I jumped the route and stepped in front of the pass.”

Plays like that frequently result in touchdowns. Wright, however, was caught from behind. It cannot always be a fairy tale ending.

Three years later Wright is the undisputed leader of the Dukes. In 2010 he gained 677 yards rushing (5.5 per carry) with 10 touchdowns. He led Wellington in receptions with 16 (one for a TD) and had 11.4 yards per catch.

It was his play on defense, however, that earned Wright a Division IV All-Ohio third-team selection.

He registered 142 tackles (66 solo) and had an interception. Appropriately, Wright was listed on the all-state team as “athlete.”

“He’s going to open some eyes this year,” Stoll said.

Clearly, he has already done that. Wright said he has been fielding inquiries from a host of Division II and Division III colleges. Even one Division I program, Robert Morris, has asked about him. He is undecided, as to what school he wants to attend and what sport he’ll play when he gets there (Wright is also an outstanding catcher for the baseball team).

As for now, Wright would just like to go out of high school a winner. The Dukes were 4-6 last year and have won only 13 of 30 games over the past three seasons. Wright didn’t play in a victory until Week 5 of his freshman season.

“We’ve struggled over the last few years, but Clay still refuses to quit,” Stoll said. “Very few times has he missed tackles.”

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played with,” Gilbert said. “He has been the hardest hitter since the eighth grade.”

“Even before that,” Gray added.

What he isn’t is some savage who needs to be caged up six days a week and turned loose on Friday night. He’s anything but that, say those who know him.

“Clay is a good person,” Stoll said. “He leads by example, but he gets excited when he has to. He is the guy who calls our defense, so he has to be vocal half the time. But he never brags about himself. You hardly ever hear him talking about himself.

“He has that nastiness, but he’s not negative. I have never heard Clay complain about anything, not even when things go really bad for us. He’s steady and even-tempered.”

Wright’s teammates echo the coach’s assessment.

“Clay’s a quiet leader,” Gray said. “He leads by example. He doesn’t yell or get up in anyone’s face.”

Never?

“If someone makes a big stick (good tackle), Clay will be the first one to congratulate that person,” said Nick Sutherland, a senior guard. “He will pick him up and cheer him on when someone makes a great play.”

“It’s always positive reinforcement,” Gilbert added.

Wright’s job as a leader is all the more important because the Dukes have just six seniors. Only five were lettermen last year. Wright sees no lack of leadership on the roster.

“We have a good group here,” Wright said. “We’ve been together a long time and we want to have a winning season and win the division (Patriot Athletic Conference, Stars Division).”

“Our senior class is so tight,” Gray said. “We’re like a family, and Clay is the heart of our family.”

Contact Steve Byrne at 329-7135 or stephenbyrne@att.net.