Adversity old friend of Wright

Ravens: Thrust into a starting role, the quarterback has faced tougher tests, dating to his days as the first black QB at South Carolina.

Ravens vs. Titans

September 18, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

When Anthony Wright steps onto a football field, he instinctively reminds himself to block out everything except the game.

He will say it today at The Coliseum in Nashville, Tenn., where a strong performance against the Tennessee Titans could begin a campaign to remain the Ravens' starting quarterback.

He will say it like he did so often at the University of South Carolina, where the pressure wasn't from breaking into the starting lineup but from breaking down a color barrier.

A decade ago, Wright did what was once unthinkable, becoming the first black starting quarterback in the school's then-104-year football history.

For most major football programs, the issue of race has long been passe. At South Carolina, Wright essentially played in the shadow of a statehouse that had the confederate flag -- a symbol of hatred and slavery to some -- flying above the capitol dome.

It was a burden that challenged his courage and shaped his resolve, one that has spurred him to beat the odds time after time.

"When you think about South Carolina, you think about a lot of negative things that you don't want to really deal with," Wright said. "I wanted to show my abilities rose above all the chitter-chatter."

Wright can't remember hearing any derogatory remarks. "If I did, I blocked it out," he said.

But he knew what all the chitter-chatter was about.

It was the 1990s, yet the stereotypes of the past still existed.

He had to prove he could be a pocket passer. He had to prove he could read defenses. He had to prove he could lead a team.

"Being an African-American quarterback in the South, I think you learn to have a lot of inner strength because that's what you have to build on based on some of the external pressures around you," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who played tight end for the University of Alabama in the 1970s and still knows the landscape of Southeastern Conference football.

As Wright replaces injured starter Kyle Boller today, the strain of college has long since faded. The attitude has not.

Unlike his mellow demeanor in the locker room -- Wright is known for quietly listening to his iPod -- he brings an air of defiance whenever he commands the offense.

There's that smooth saunter coming out of the huddle. There's that cockiness in the pocket that he's going to make plays no matter the type of defense.

This is the mind-set that allowed him to persevere when he had every reason not to do so.

With the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1999, he went from the fourth-string quarterback to the backup before getting cut. With the Dallas Cowboys in 2000, he went from the practice squad to the starting lineup before getting cut again.

"Being a young African-American quarterback, his whole life he has been told, `No, you can't do it at this level,' and he does it," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Growing up with that mentality has given Anthony the confidence and resolve that says, `You know what? I'll determine what I can and can't do.' He has had a lifetime of that and has overcome it in every instance."

Wright's six-year, journeyman career has reached another crossroad.

If Boller takes longer than expected to recover and Wright performs well during that period, it's possible that Wright could finish the season as the starter rather than the backup.

"If things get rolling and things start happening with this offense, I think they have enough confidence to keep me in," Wright said. "This team believes in me. All it takes is for one team to believe in you."

If Wright fails to impress, he could have squandered his last significant chance to start in the NFL. Wright turns 30 at the end of the season, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

"Anytime you're in there, you've got to make the best of it," Wright said. "You never know when you're going to get another one."

Shades of 2003

In many ways, Wright is picking up where he left off.

The last time Wright started was the 2003 playoffs against the Titans. His first start in 20 months just happens to be against them as well.

"You think about fate," Wright said, "and this is how it's supposed to be."

Everything fell into place for Wright two years ago. He stepped in for an injured Boller in the 10th game and finished 5-2 as a starter, guiding the Ravens to their biggest comeback in franchise history and their first ever division title.

In the 44-41 overtime victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Wright threw for a career-best 319 yards and four touchdowns as the Ravens wiped away a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit. It was the turning point of the season for the Ravens and an emotional moment for Wright, whose wife was induced into labor just hours later.

Then, in a 20-17 playoff loss to the Titans, Wright passed for 214 yards and hit tight end Todd Heap for a 35-yard touchdown that tied the game at 17 with less than five minutes to play.

"A lot of things that happened that season I can't explain," Wright said. "Like I can't explain how I'm starting so early in the season now."

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