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Rayfield still has the eloquent "Wright" stuff

It was December 1967.

The Dallas Cowboys has just announced plans to ditch the Cotton Bowl and relocate to Irving.

The City of Dallas quickly responded with a promise of renovations to the Cotton Bowl, including chair-backs instead of bleacher seats.

But it was too late. Sound familiar?

That same December 1967, Cowboys’ future Hall of Famer Rayfield Wright was finishing up his rookie season as a backup tight end (later appearing in five Super Bowls and six Pro Bowls — all at right tackle).

Money was a big deal then, too. But it seemed to buy more.

The Cowboys’ new home in the ’burbs was going to cost $35 million to build — hole in the roof included.

Wright, a seventh-round pick in ’67, was earning $15,000 a year.

“I’ll never forget the first time I walked into that place — man, I thought I was in heaven,” Wright said of Texas Stadium, which opened four years later in October 1971.

“But still, to me, the Cotton Bowl was a very special place.”

That’s how most of the old Cowboys remember the Cotton Bowl, which was where the franchise cut its teeth ... and where plenty of tears were shed.

This is where Don Meredith and the ’66 Cowboys lost a chance to be the NFL’s first Super Bowl representative. But Green Bay intercepted Meredith in the end zone to make a 34-27 Dallas deficit stick, and the Packers advanced to Super Bowl I.

“I’ll never forget that Jethro Pugh and I bought tickets to send 100 kids to every Cowboys home game at the Cotton Bowl, said Wright. “It was $1 per ticket in the end zone, which meant Jethro and I put up $50 apiece.

“These kids were from the inner-city who really admired the Cowboys, but probably never would’ve gotten a chance to see us play otherwise.”

Regrettably, Wright (earning about $27,000 at the time) and Pugh had to stop funding 100 kids when the team moved into Texas Stadium.

Cowboys ticket prices sky-rocketed. Sound familiar?

“Back then, we didn’t make the kind of money that NFL players make today,” Wright explained. “Jethro and I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Wright was making roughly $25,000 a year at the time.

The road not taken

It has been 26 months since Larry Rayfield Wright delivered one of the most compelling induction speeches in Pro Football Hall of Fame history.

If induction speeches had titles, this one would’ve been The Road Not Taken, a Robert Frost poem that Rayfield used as a hook for how he got all the way to Canton, Ohio, from tiny Griffin, Ga.

His 2005 book Wright Up Front, with Jeannette DeVader, is nearing the end of its third printing.

Still, hardly a week goes by that somebody doesn’t stop him to acknowledge something he wrote or recall something he spoke on that Aug. 6, 2006, HOF induction day.

Or perhaps something from his presenter, L.J. “Stan” Lomax, Fort Valley State coach and father figure to Wright all those years ago.

“Rayfield had two admonitions,” said Lomax, espousing the spiritual quality of football. “Thou shalt not touch Roger ... [and] thou shalt not impede the progress of Calvin [Hill] or Tony [Dorsett].”

Wright uses his gift as an eloquent speaker to travel the country and tell young people what matters most in life — and what doesn’t.

“It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, where you come from, how you came — both parents, single-parent, no parents — you are still special, significant and important.”

His hope is that his autobiography ends up in the hands of some young boy or girl who may have thought all hope was lost.

“Children, that’s where my passion is,” Wright said.

It’s the same passion he brought to the podium on that scorching hot August afternoon in Canton, Ohio, two years ago when he outlined his life story — as it can pertain to anyone and everyone — in 22 heartfelt minutes.

He blew past the recommended limit by 10 minutes. But HOF officials didn’t understand. Rayfield Wright’s message can’t be wrapped up in 12 minutes.

“I’d waited 22 years to get in,” Rayfield said, with a smile.

Bob Hayes got next?

The late “Bullet” Bob Hayes is a seniors nomination for the Class of 2009.

It’s Hayes’ second time in five years to get to this stage in the voting process.

“Bob and I got all the way down to the final six in 2004,” Wright recalled. “There was room for all six of us to be voted in, but Bob and I ended up being the only two who didn’t make it.”

Rayfield’s 22-minute induction speech now has another meaning: He carries the torch for the Cowboys’ first star player to wear No. 22.

“I hope and pray that this is Bob’s time, I really do,” Wright said. “He changed the game, there’s no question about it. He’s overdue. He’s been overdue for a long, long time.”

Hayes retired after 11 NFL seasons — 10 with the Cowboys (1965-74). He forced the use of zone coverage because defenders couldn’t stay with him man-to-man.

He also averaged 20.0 yards per catch for an entire decade, as well as a touchdown per every 5.2 receptions.

Wright used his own induction to plead to the HOF election committee to open the doors to Bob Hayes and Harvey Martin, both posthumously. Martin has yet to be a HOF finalist.

If you saw Wright speak on TV two years ago, you may recall those emotional moments when he mentioned his late grandmother, Big Mama, and his mother, Opal, both of whom raised him without a father.

“Mom, you are my rose garden,” Rayfield said that day. “Your soul is so beautiful in spite of all the painful thorns that life has put in your way.”

Opal Wright will celebrate her 90th birthday next week.

An improbable journey

The Cowboys signed him to a three-year contract — $15,000, $18,000 and $22,000 — with a $10,000 signing bonus, which Wright immediately used to buy his mother and grandmother a new home.

“[The team] also gave me a car,” recalled Wright, still with an air of excitement in his voice 41 years later.

It was a gold ’67 Pontiac Bonneville with a black top.

“It was clean, man. Do you remember those eight-track tape decks? I had to have one of those,” he said.

And Rayfield’s reason in asking for a car?

His family didn’t own one.

“Mr. Brandt, we walk everywhere,” he told Cowboys personnel man Gil Brandt, who added “one ’67 Bonneville” to the contract, then had the car delivered by train to Macon, Ga.

Lomax — Wright’s presenter all these years later — drove young Rayfield from Fort Valley State to pick it up.

Appreciation for elders

The Cowboys’ new $1 billion stadium is scheduled to open for the 2009 season opener.

Conversely, Texas Stadium didn’t quite make Opening Day. The Cowboys played their last two games at the Cotton Bowl on the first two weekends in October 1971.

They lost to the Redskins 20-16 and beat the Giants 20-13 in that order.

“The Cotton Bowl had regular grass, so the jerseys got dirty, muddy, and so you couldn’t see the numbers on the back,” Wright recalled. “To me, that was real football. The game is so cleaned up today for TV.”

Wright is all for progress, but there’s something inside the man that makes him appreciate stadiums or people with a little age on them.

“I was never one to question the authority of elders,” he told us in August 2006.

“Even today,” Wright said this past week, “I love talking to the elders. They can share a lot of wisdom ... [although] the system kind of pushes them aside.

“Whereas we should call on the older people for advice, because they didn’t get to that age being a fool.”

Epilogue

Today’s game has changed. Ditto for the players involved.

Aretha Franklin once sang, “R-E-S-P-E-CT, find out what it means to me.” Apparently, some players have stopped trying to find out.

Well, Rayfield (who knows a little something about Motown music — he had the Temptations perform at his 2006 HOF party) is a stickler about respect.

He believes, if you’re a Cowboy, it starts with the star on the side of your helmet, moves up and down both sidelines and through the crowd, then ends up at the star at midfield of Texas Stadium.

“Absolutely ... the star is cherished by the fans as well as by the players,” Wright said. “It’ll always be there.”

Even when the Cowboys move into their new $1 billion digs in Arlington.

This franchise didn’t win a Super Bowl (’71 season) until it got to Texas Stadium.

But it reached its first Super Bowl (’70 season) while still playing at the Cotton Bowl.

That’s why Larry Rayfield Wright has a healthy regard for the old, as well as the new.

NEXT: Daryl "Moose" Johnston remembers how the '90s Cowboys dealt with their distractions.

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