In the beginning, general manager John Schneider made the first call.
K.J. Wright was a young, hungry linebacker from a small town in Mississippi, angry that 98 names were called before his at the 2011 NFL Draft. Schneider phoned to let Wright know his wait was over; he was about to become a Seahawk.
Eleven years later, Wright made the final call.
By then, Wright had made Seattle his home. It’s where he became a husband, father, Super Bowl champion, Pro Bowler, locker-room leader, a fixture in the community, the team’s Man of the Year and one of the franchise’s best and most underrated defensive players. Wright phoned Schneider to let him know his career was over, and he wanted to sign a one-day contract to end it as a Seahawk.
“It’s a beautiful day, man,” Wright, 33, said on July 28 while standing before a packed house inside the auditorium at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “I’m here to announce that, after 11 fantastic seasons, I’m retiring from the NFL.”
Wright played 10 seasons in Seattle before a stint with the Raiders in 2021. He formally hung up his cleats last week before an audience that included Seahawks executives, coaches, athletic staffers, cooks, public-relations personnel and more than a dozen former teammates. And, most importantly, a front row full of Wright’s friends and family.
“Y’all truly a blessing to my life,” Wright said, holding back tears.
This is the story of Wright’s career, told by those who knew him best on and off the field, from interviews held in 2021.
K.J. Wright: When I first got there, I was long-legged, out of shape.
Malcolm Smith, former Seahawks linebacker: He had this super-wide stance. (Coach Ken) Norton was making fun of him.
K.J. Wright: They said I was like Bambi coming out when I first got here. (Norton) was like, “I’m going to put these rubber bands on your ankles to keep your feet tight so you’re not stepping all over the place.”
Ken Norton Jr., former Seahawks defensive coordinator and linebackers coach: I have a certain style about how your feet have to be and how important they are to have good balance, to tackle and take on blocks, to be able to shuffle and get places you have to be in the pass and the run game. His legs were just kind of all over the place, like a baby deer. Just imagine a deer’s legs all over the place learning how to walk.
Rocky Seto, former Seahawks defensive assistant: Kind of like a bungee-cord type of thing to strengthen his stance. It was a little wide. Kind of working it out so he shuffles instead of crossing over. It’s all footwork stuff.
Wright: I was like, “What the heck is this? What’s wrong with my legs?” I felt like I didn’t need it.
Norton: He would have it during practice, he would have it before practice, he would keep them on during special teams. He would take them on the walk out to practice and then — you can imagine being in the locker room and watching everybody see this rookie with these bands on his legs. Everybody is ridiculing him, laughing at him. “You can’t do that. You look like you’re dumb.” It’s just a big ol’ ridicule.
Seto: Guys are giving him a hard time, but he just did it.
Smith: It made his feet even better. Just took his natural talent and accentuated it, made it premier and special.
Wright: It definitely helped. I’m truly appreciative that he did come up with that idea.
Norton: He knew that in the long run it was going to help him become a better football player and he trusted me on that. That’s when you know that a guy has a really strong mindset and he’s not going to be deterred by any outside noise. That was the beginning of his direction and his career to get to where he is now.
Wright has always been admired for his responsibility with his finances. As a rookie, he signed a four-year, $2.25 million contract. He drove a white 2009 Chevy Impala, a gift from his father. He drove it the entire year, even though the windows weren’t tinted.
Smith: We pulling up to places and it’s like, “Dude, they can see everything we got going on in here.”
Kenneth Wright Sr., K.J.’s father: Some of the guys would laugh at him or mess with him, but it’s OK, you good.
K.J. Wright: Then I bought the Escalade when I went home the following offseason.
Smith: There was another draft pick at the time, Lazarious Levingston, and the new body style of the Escalade had just come out or something like that. He was like, “Damn, K.J., you went and bought the old-style Escalade when the new one just came out?”
Wright: He was making fun of me because the new body style was about to come out and I would have had the old one.
Smith: He was like, “Yep, this is the one I wanted. This is what I always wanted.”
Chris Francis, Seattle television reporter: It’s Super Bowl week. They put all the media members in a hotel ballroom. K.J. is milling around and nobody is talking to him. I’m doing this story on the money and bonuses they got for the playoffs and the Super Bowl. I was like, “Hey K.J., you got a few minutes?” He was like, “Yeah, sure.” I launched into this story about what I was doing and I said, “What are you gonna buy, you got extra money coming in?” He was like, “No, no, no, I’m saving all my money. You never know how long this is going to last. I don’t know what the other guys are doing, but I’m saving all my money.” I was like, “All of it, you’re not spending a thing?” He’s like, “I’m not spending a dime.”
Jacqueline Wright, K.J.’s mother: My parents always talked about education and money. Being raised from a military father and my mother, they were just always talking about money and saving. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
K.J. Wright: My mom, she drilled it in my head. “Son, save your money for a rainy day. Don’t count your eggs before they hatch.” She would always preach to me about money. Have your money work for you.
Jacqueline Wright: I didn’t know K.J. was actually paying attention.
K.J. Wright: My mom was like my finance coach. Her mom taught her a lot about money. Those old, basic sayings. She drilled it in my head and I followed it ever since. I remember when I was in high school, I had won county player of the year and they gave me $2,000. And I made that $2,000 last for a very long time.
Perry Malone, longtime friend: We will go to McDonald’s and everybody will get two double cheeseburgers and he’ll get, like, a small fries. He’s just always like that. He counts his coins, always. If he did get any kind of money from his mom, he wouldn’t go and buy clothes, he wouldn’t go buy the fresh sneakers, he’d more so save his money up to buy PS4 games and stay in the house and play Madden.
Nate Nash, longtime friend: Dodge’s Chicken, that’s where we would go. It’s a gas station. None of us would have much, but we may have $2 to $3. Me and K.J., it was always like, “You got a dollar today?” If one of us didn’t have one, we would split it in half. We’d get two pizza sticks apiece. He would never bring it up later. He’ll do it out of the kindness of his heart. I learned brotherhood through him because it made me more comfortable doing stuff like that.
Smith: He had a one-bedroom (place) and I got a two-bedroom (as rookies). The difference in rent was probably $200. I’m like, “Why don’t you get the two-bedroom?”
K.J. Wright: Looking back at it, it was just me. I didn’t need two bedrooms. I do remember my family came up here and that was rough. Couches, blow-up mattresses — I didn’t take that into account. When the family did come in town, that was kind of bad.
Wright Sr.: We were still happy. As long as we get up there to see him, be with him, spend some time with him, we were just fine.
Ali Samuel, longtime friend: He was trying to buy pants for a meeting or something (in 2011). This man, he picked out some John W. Nordstrom pants and the only people who buy those pants are dads. Dads buy those pants. Some baggy pants — but it was because he had big thighs, so those were the only ones that could fit. I asked him, “Are you sure you want those pants?” Yeah, I want these pants. He’s so cheap. Those pants were like $57 or something — cheap dad pants. He was like, “Yup, these are the ones.” I’m like, “You sure?” He was like, “Yup, I don’t want to spend no more money than this, this is the one.”
Nash: K.J. was frugal growing up and K.J. is somewhat frugal now.
Malone: I remember Bruce Irvin, back in the day we would go bowling and to a Halloween event one time and he was like, “Man K, you just so K.J. You so strict, man. Why you don’t do much? You don’t be buying nothing.” I was like, “Man, K.J. been like that. He been cheap.”
Samuel: When we went to Japan, this man — I think the Uber ride was maybe $30. He divided it by four and said, “All right, you guys got to Venmo me $5.” I’m like, “Are you serious? You can’t be serious.” He said, “Nah, everybody Venmo me $5.” I was like, “Ah, damn.”
K.J. Wright: You know on Uber they got a “split fare” thing on there? I used to always send it to dudes — even if you wasn’t riding with me, I’d just always send it to people and see if they’ll accept. But heck yeah, if you’re riding in the Uber with me, we got to split this.
Samuel: He’s still the same old person, still cheap as hell.
Nash: K.J. will not be one of those guys you hear five, 10, 15 years from now that has spent all their money. He’s making sure he makes the right moves, and that rubs off on everybody around him.
Smith: He’s not walking around flashing this persona of the NFL player. He’s a human being. He cares for people. He legitimately wants to make a difference in people’s lives. He wants to leave things in a better place. I learned that from him: It’s about using your influence in the right way, having a voice and being able to say, “I may not know everything, but I know what’s right and wrong and that’s what I’m going to dedicate myself to.”
Nash: He spends money on things that matter to him.
Bobby Wagner, former Seahawks linebacker: He spent on people. Sometimes he wouldn’t spend on himself, but when it came to his family and his friends, he would spend for them. That shows how caring of a person he was, because he would put others before himself.
Smith: K.J. led us by example.
Seto: He doesn’t scream for attention. As a player, he was perfect for us. As a guy, he’s even better.
Smith: He was always like, “I’m going to be early and I’mma be ready for tomorrow.” I was trying to be out like, “Where we going? What’s up?” He’d be like, “Nah, I’m good.” That was the separating factor between him and a lot of other young players. He was really dedicated from Day 1. He was going to bed, I was trying to be out. No jokes about it, he was serious. He didn’t want to go see anything on Saturdays before the game on the road. He was like, “Nah, I’m locked in.”
Seto: He’s ridiculously prepared. He’s like a coach on the field.
Wright Sr.: It started when he was a kid. When he was at Mississippi State, I had one of the guys ask me, “How is K.J. doing in school, he’s not getting in trouble, is he?” Well, you don’t see me down there, do you?
Seto: His professionalism taught incoming people — not just linebackers — how to be as a pro. It’s a whole lifestyle.
Jacqueline Wright: I am totally disciplined. K.J. and I are carbon copies of each other.
Nash: When you refer to Ms. Wright, you don’t refer to her by her first name. We had a teammate of ours who called her Jackie. He made a horrible mistake.
Malone: His mama didn’t play, that’s for sure.
Jacqueline Wright: I stayed as a police officer in Olive Branch (Miss.) for five years. First Black female that served in Olive Branch.
K.J. Wright: I had to make my bed every day before I left the house. I had to have those dishes clean. We had pine needles, I had to rake them up. Mow the lawn. It all transferred. Listening to authority — she was a cop, so just listening to your elders, things like that — it transferred onto the field and my lifestyle today. Just being disciplined, being about your business.
Jacqueline Wright: The only time I can remember is once he left the house with the bed not made.
K.J. Wright: I told her, “I’ll make it up when I get back.” She said, “Go in there and make your bed.”
Jacqueline Wright: I told him I would come wherever he was. If he was on the basketball court, on the football field, I’m coming to get you. Make the bed up and then you can go back.
K.J. Wright: That bed got made and I went to practice after that.
Wright Sr.: I never had to lose an ounce of sleep wondering if he’s going to do the right thing. His mom and I instilled in him: Do the right thing.
Ian Furness, Seattle radio host: He’s the most accountable athlete I’ve ever been around. Win or lose, he’ll always have a few minutes for you. He’ll answer the questions, he’ll answer hard questions.
Nash: I try to pattern myself after him because that’s just the type of guy he is.
Malone: He definitely is a role model. Back in high school, I was always asking him questions. What would K.J. do? I’d call ’em “K.J. Life Lessons.” To this day I still call ’em that.
Nash: K.J. for me is the brother I can always bounce things off of. I’m not getting a BS response, I’m not getting what I want to hear, I’m getting someone who truly cares for me and wants the best for me.
Malone: He gave me a chance to live with him for a little while, get on my feet. I was kind of struggling down here (in Mississippi), and he just thought it would be a good idea to bring me out there, get a fresh start and see a different world other than being in the South.
K.J. Wright: I look at success as, me personally, how impactful am I to those around me? Am I making those around me better? Am I uplifting my people? Am I teaching people how I got to where I am? To me, success is outside of myself. I’m looking at how can I uplift the next person to get where I am.
Malone: I was down here (in Mississippi) getting in minor trouble here and there, just not on the right path. He helped me out — I’ve been doing good ever since. Now I’m married, have two beautiful children, beautiful wife. He was a part of that. He helped me see what I was missing.
Wagner: He’s a great example for anybody to see how to go about life in the right way.
Malone: K.J., man, he’s smart. I never seen nothing like it. He got a lot of that from playing Madden, I swear. The same way he can dissect film is the same way he will play Madden.
K.J. Wright: The concepts on Madden are in real life. Coaches are predictable. You take that, all those years as a young kid, and now you watch film, well, now I got it in the palm of my hand.
Norton: K.J. is like the perfect player.
K.J. Wright: Rookie year, Norton is like, “Meet me at the VMAC at 6 in the morning.” This is during training camp. I get to the indoor facility and he has five bags laid out, five short little dummies. He set up trash cans.
Norton: The trash cans stand as offensive or defensive linemen. We don’t have everybody there, it’s just me and K.J.
Wright: Walking through how to stand in front of a huddle, how to call the defense, how to use my arms to set the front, how to go from A gap to B gap. That was life-changing for me. If I ever become a coach, that’s mandatory for me to do. That just showed me how much he cares.
Norton: Lofa (Tatupu) was hurt going into the (2011) season, so K.J. had to start at Mike linebacker. Then Aaron Curry was out, so he would start at Sam linebacker. Each week I’m teaching him this position, then this position. Later on, I think K.J. and I both knew he was a natural Will linebacker where Leroy Hill was playing, so it was like so many different spots he was learning. He started all three spots at the linebacker position — something that no one has done since he’s been around.
Wagner: He knows every position like the back of his hand.
Seto: He will be known as one of the all-time great Seahawks, easily.
Norton: He is smart. He is passionate. He comes to work every day. He practices really hard. He cares about what he’s doing. He asks questions. Usually the smart people, they don’t study. The really good athletes don’t study. This kid has the whole package.
Wagner: He’s one of the smartest teammates I have ever been with.
Words can’t describe what this man meant to me and my career. Changed a lot of lives including mines. Special person and masterful career! Cheers to my brotha, an All Time Great in every way ! https://t.co/VttqbUXLBr
— Bobby Wagner (@Bwagz) July 28, 2022
Norton: He has this uncanny ability to transform, to master, to learn, to passionately make everything OK. When you know K.J. is on the field, when you know K.J. is playing, you got this warm feeling that everything is going to be all right.
K.J. Wright: Being instinctive is my game. I’m not the strongest, I’m not the fastest, but I got to find ways to get a step ahead of the competition. That’s K.J., that’s who he is and that’s who he represents.
Danny O’Neil, former Seattle radio host: They played a game in Tampa Bay. It was a god-awful game. The Buccaneers are getting close to being in field-goal range and the half ended on this simple little dink pass that Tampa Bay was trying to get more yards to help their field-goal attempt. K.J., he read it and just obliterated the dude. I’ve never seen a player with a better sense for screens.
Norton: The year he broke his foot (2013), he missed four to five weeks, and during that time it allowed Malcolm Smith to start playing a lot. But during that time, most players feel like they can’t contribute, so they feel like they’re not being a part of the team, so they stay in the training room or they go straight home.
Smith: He wanted me to do well and hold up that spot for us and bring respect for our room as a linebacker corps.
Norton: K.J. comes to every meeting, comes early, leaves late, comes to every practice, does every quiz, comes to every night-before-the-game meeting, does everything that he would be doing if he were still playing. He shows up and he coaches Malcolm on how to play the position, he coaches Bobby on different communications that he’s going to be having with Malcolm, and then Malcolm goes on to have this Super Bowl MVP year because K.J. is out, but no one knows K.J. was there helping Malcolm become the player he became at that time.
Smith: He gave me the feeling like, “You can make an impact at this position, you can play really well, you can make a name for yourself.”
Samuel: A lot of players, they carry a flight-or-fight mentality — you should, your job is on the line. K.J. knows his job is on the line as well, but what K.J. does is he does the best that he can, then he helps out those next to him because he wants them to do well, too.
Wagner: I truly believe there would be no Bobby without K.J.
Smith: When you talk about Ring of Honor, I don’t think there’s any better example of somebody you want to put attention toward than what he has done for the franchise.
Furness: I don’t think Bobby would be a Hall of Famer without K.J. And I think anybody who watches the game knows that. He’s probably about as unselfish a player as there is.
Wright: I knew how much I meant to him as far as the way we train together, the way he asks me, “What are you looking at right here?” Just to see his success with his Pro Bowls, his All-Pros, I felt connected to that.
Wagner: We were around the same age when I first came in the league. We’re playing the same position, to an extent. It could have been a competitive thing, but he took me under his wing and we learned the game together. He saw the game differently than I saw the game. We were able to bounce ideas off of each other and communicate with one another.
Wright: Whenever you hear Bobby’s name, you hear K.J. and vice versa. I’m glad that he acknowledges that because he meant a lot to me as well. I watch him all the time and how he trains, studies, and I admire what he does off the field. We’re forever connected.
Wagner: Not too many people are lucky to play with someone like K.J. I definitely wanted to acknowledge that, acknowledge him as a person and a teammate because I feel like sometimes a lot of the credit comes to me, but he deserves equal credit that I get.
(Top photo: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)