Former football pro Wright now teaching music in Worland

Mar 11, 2012 The Associated Press

WORLAND (AP) -- At 6-foot-3, Willie Wright towers over his South Side Elementary fifth-grade music class.

However, his easy demeanor tempers his intimidating physical presence.

And he needs his demeanor today, as he walks his students through Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." After he explains the piece and the notes are understood, he has the students pick up their green plastic recorders and they fumble their way through the piece.

Wright, 43, is a contradiction of stereotypes. He looks like he would be just as comfortable wrapping his arms around a quarterback as he is wrapping his fingers around the holes of a recorder. Both generalizations are believable. Before earning his music education degree from the University of Wyoming -- PHOPH and before hiring on in Washakie County School District No. 1 as a music teacher and middle school and high school band director -- he played football professionally.

Passing up scholarship opportunities from smaller schools, the 1986 Riverton High School graduate walked on at the University of Wyoming and became a bruising outside linebacker and defensive end. But in the classroom, he was a whiz on the alto sax.

Music wasn't really a Plan B option for Wright if his football career didn't become long-term. He had worn both hats simultaneously for most his life. He had declared music education as his major his freshman year at UW.

"I was into being a performer," he said. "I really enjoyed performing music and being in a jazz band."

Wright left UW in 1991 to pursue his football career as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. He spent two years on their roster while also spending a year playing for the Frankfurt (Germany) Galaxy in the World League of American Football and playing a partial year in the Canadian Football League.

In all, Wright spent parts of six years as a professional football player.

While on the Arizona practice squad his first year he made the conversion from linebacker to tight end, where he made the roster in his second year with the squad. During the 1993 season the Cardinals made a late decision to go with one less tight end -- and Wright was the odd man out. The next year he found himself back at the Arizona camp playing for famed defensive guru Buddy Ryan.

"I don't know if I ever really got a shot with Buddy," Wright said with a laugh.

Without giving up on his football career, he decided to go back to UW in 1994 to complete his degree. By this time they had changed the graduation requirements for music education and he was faced with another year-and-a-half of school. One of the requirements was to march during halftime performances as a member of the UW marching band -- a strange experience for a 27-year-old who had spent halftimes in front of chalk boards and screaming coaches.

During this time he began a relationship with a graduate assistant in the music program who would eventually become his wife, Amy. She had known Wright casually before his return but became close after the two began visiting between band practice sessions.

Amy Wright says that it wasn't always easy for her husband to be both athlete and musician, but the adults in his life did find ways to help him combine the two.

"There were conflicts sometimes," she said.

"Do you play the game or do you play music? Often Willie would do the music because the games happen every week and the special (music) festivals didn't. He talks about how his (high school) coach would often drive him to the music event."

Willie Wright said he remembered one particular conflict when his basketball coaches went to Casper to watch him and two other teammates perform at the Casper Jazz Festival then drove them to Green River to play a game later that night.

"To have that kind of support from the band teachers and the coaches to allow him to serve both loves is just awesome," Amy Wright said.

Willie Wright's last training camp was with the Cardinals in 1996.

"I had a pretty good camp that year, but when we got to the preseason games I wasn't getting any reps," he said. "If you can get on film, you can get picked up off the waiver wires by another team. If they don't let you get on film then nobody else will pick you up. Then (your team) can pick up later in the season if someone gets hurt."

There never was a definitive moment with he decided it was time to hang up the cleats and pick up the conductor's baton.

"Even when I was playing down in Arizona, I would go home and practice my saxophone at night. We had Tuesdays off, so on Monday night I would go to this jazz club called the Melody Lounge and I got to know some of the musicians there. I would actually go and sit in sometimes. I always kept up with my music because it was a real passion of mine."

Willie Wright's first job after graduating from UW was to start a band program in a new charter school set up in an abandoned courthouse in Brighton, Colo. After a few years, he and Amy taught music in Paonia, Colo., before moving to Worland with their 9-year-old son, Trey, before the school year.

The two continue to teach music, as Amy Wright teaches at Cloud Peak Middle School in Manderson and Laura Irwin Elementary in Basin and Willie Wright teaches music to elementary, middle school and high school students in Worland.

The transition from football player to band director wasn't always easy. Willie Wright says that being a high school band director can be a tough gig.

"There are just so many details. You have to know how to teach drummers, brass, woodwinds. Not only that but you have to know how to organize everything and get it to run the way it should. To get good at it takes a long time," he said.

"It is such a big job," he continued. "I finally got to the point where I realized that becoming a good teacher is a whole other form of musicianship. You have to take your musicianship not just to the next level, but way above just being a good player. So, once I understood that I was able to work at being a better teacher."

Although he looks back on his UW football days and his professional career with fond memories, he's comfortable with the transition from quarterbacks to recorders.

He says he knows that not too many people get the opportunity to make a living doing the things they love -- twice.

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Former Riverton High School and star University of Wyoming football Willie Wright is now teaching music in Worland. Photo by Bob Vines/Northern Wyoming Daily News

Former Riverton High School and star University of Wyoming football Willie Wright is now teaching music in Worland. Photo by Bob Vines/Northern Wyoming Daily News

Former Riverton High School and star University of Wyoming football Willie Wright is now teaching music in Worland. Photo by Bob Vines/Northern Wyoming Daily News

Former Riverton High School and star University of Wyoming football Willie Wright is now teaching music in Worland. Photo by Bob Vines/Northern Wyoming Daily News

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