This year more than ever, Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright has been a difference maker off the field, both locally and globally. And just as Wright has long been an unsung hero of a star-studded Seahawks defense, he quietly has made a huge impact in the community despite often doing so with little fanfare. For those reasons, Wright is the team's 2018 nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service activities off the field, as well as excellence on the field. Each of the league's 32 nominees were announced Thursday.
"I'm thankful that they voted me to be the Walter Payton Man of the Year," Wright said Thursday. "It's always been a goal of mine since I stepped in the building, I didn't know what it was and then I found out about it and I was like, 'man, I want to be that guy one day.' So I'm very excited that the community voted me, the people in the organization. I'm pretty proud to represent."
During the offseason, Wright traveled to Kenya where he delivered books and helped teach English to children in Kenya's Maasai Mara region.
"I believe that where ever you go, anyone you help, whatever you desire to do that you should go do it," Wright said of the trip. "However, to help someone understand the English language, which is like the universal language, that's really special. So we just had to find a way to help educate those kids, so what we did was we had a book drive."
When Wright returned from a knee injury earlier this season, he continued making a difference in Kenya, with every tackle he records in 2018. Wright, who plans to return to Kenya in 2019, has pledged to donate $300 for every tackle he records this season, with the money going to the construction of a fresh-water well for the primary school in Maasai Mara. The campaign will also include a fundraising platform that allows fans to donate to the cause.
Wright also joined Seahawks Legend Cliff Avril on the former defensive end's annual trip to Haiti where he is building a school in La Chanm. In addition to helping lay a foundation at the school, Wright also assisted in coaching a youth football camp in Port-au-Prince.
A trip to Haiti to help a former teammate is just one example of Wright's willingness to always step up to help someone else's cause. Wright also serves as a mentor for Future Leaders, a program of former Seahawks and current Chargers tackle Russell Okung's Greater Foundation. As a mentor for Future Leaders, Wright works with selected inner city youth to help them learn basics of entrepreneurship and technology to solve problems in their community. Wright also spent a day with 200 underserved youth for a transformative outdoor education experience at Camp Orkila as part of former teammate Cooper Helfet's The Nature Project.
Wright also mentors area youth through Rainier Athletes, a local program to support and motivate students to achieve their greatest potential.
Wright has been known to not only step up to help a teammate or former teammate, but also to be inspired by a quick interaction and turn that into a more lasting and meaningful encounter. After meeting representatives from Sawhorse Revolution following a mini-camp practice, Wright spent a day later in the summer building tiny homes for the homeless.
"I believe I'm in the position to where it's my job and my duty," Wright said. "It's very important, because you know I have some people ask me, you know, we have people in our own community, why don't you just help them?"
And using his platform to make a difference is nothing new to Wright, who has been a supporter of a number of initiatives led by teammates and former teammates dating back several years. He also champions the team's Legion of Youth program, which seeks to empower youth in Washington by providing Seahawks tickets to community organizations that serve kids throughout the Northwest. The Legion of Youth program's partnership with Boeing led to Wright hosting at Boeing a group of youth from the Black Pilots of America through the Renton/Skyway Boys & Girls Club.
Legendary UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden was known to say "the true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching," and that quote fits Wright as well as anyone in Seattle's locker room. Ask anyone around the team, be it a fellow player, team employee, fan or media member, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone to utter a negative word about Wright's character.
Take, for example, the visit Wright made in the offseason to Olive Branch High School, where with little fanfare he surprised his former school with a check to cover the cost of championship rings for the boys basketball team that had recently won a state championship.
It's no surprise then that Wright was selected to work with area youth through the NFL's Character Playbook, which teaches middle school students how to build healthy relationships and make good decisions.
As Wright told a group of local middle schoolers in 2017, "You have to be a champion and have good character off the field. You have to be great in school, you have to respect your teachers, have good manners, be good to the people around you. Ever since I was a kid, my parents instilled those things in me, and those things will carry you a long way in life. Good character will take you a long way in life, people will always notice it."
Of course Wright has also long been a difference-maker on the field as well as in the community. Since arriving in Seattle as a fourth-round pick, Wright has been a key piece of a defense that eventually became one of the best in the NFL. A sign of his versatility and high football IQ, Wright began his career starting at middle linebacker, later moved to strongside linebacker, then eventually settled in at weakside linebacker where he and Bobby Wagner formed one of the NFL's best linebacker tandems.
With Wright right in the middle of everything, the Seahawks defense enjoyed a historic run from 2012-2016, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in points allowed for four straight years. The 2013 Seahawks allowed the fewest points, yards and passing yards in the league and led the NFL in takeaways, helping lead the team to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Wright recorded more than 100 tackles for four straight seasons from 2014 to 2017, including a 2016 season in which he had career bests with 126 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks to earn Pro-Bowl honors for the first time. Wright added 108 tackles, a career-best six passes defensed and one interception in 2017. Wright's on-field instincts led former linebackers coach and current defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to give Wright the nickname Spider Man early in his career.
"He deserves a lot more respect, a lot more attention than he has been getting," Wagner once said of Wright. "He's definitely one of the best linebackers in this league. He just makes plays. Every time you watch film, you see number 50 shooting his spider webs. He has been amazing."
"I'm so happy for him," Wagner added of Wright on Thursday. "This guy does it all. If you see some of the work that he does in the community – this offseason, I'm watching him build houses, I'm watching him go to Africa and build libraries, he's trying to help kids in the community, he's trying to help adults in the community, and then comes and gives that same energy in the building trying to help younger guys. Even last week, when he was down in San Francisco, he was FaceTiming Austin (Calitro) just to check on him and making sure that he was doing good with the playbook and things of that nature. I think it just shows his personality, shows he's a caring person who wants to give back and wants to see everybody around him do well. I'm super happy for him, I'm excited for him and it's a pretty dope moment for him."
In addition to making a difference in the community and on the field, Wright has also emerged as a key leader in the Seahawks' locker room, even while battling a injury through much of this season. Despite heading into the final year of his contract in 2018, Wright was present throughout voluntary offseason workouts, providing valuable leadership for a young defense in transition.
"What more could you ask from a guy than his mentality and his approach to the game and how he's trying to work to get better, and all that he stands for," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said in June. "That's just so valuable to a team."
Wright also made it a point in the offseason to take rookie Shaquem Griffin under his wing even though Griffin plays the same position as Wright, meaning the fifth-round pick could someday be an option to take Wright's job.
Asked if it was at all awkward to mentor a rookie playing his position, Wright said, "Not at all. It's my job to give everything that I have in me. … I'm going to share everything that I got. It's the circle of life because if no one taught me, I wouldn't be in the position that I am. It's not a competition where I'm not going to share anything, because I'll be fine. Even if something were to happen, my career would still be OK."