The microphones and recorders bounced in his face, jockeying for position. When the camera lights came on, Mike Wright's face warmed in the glow of the media's attention.
"Hey Mike," said a voice from across the locker room. "Mike, can your face get any redder?"
As it turned out, his face could get redder, and it did, but Wright didn't lose his concentration. He kept speaking despite chuckles from the press.
"It felt pretty good to go out there and be a part of the first team and players that good. To be a part of those guys really means something," said Wright with a smile.
"It's time to be one of the big boys," said the voice across the locker room.
At 6-4, 295 pounds, it seems safe to say that Wright has been a big boy for quite some time now. What the voice was referring to was the fact that Wright had his first career start this week.
Wright started Sunday's game against the Jets along side three first-round picks on the Patriots defensive line, which was shifted from its usual 3-4 to a less common 4-3. Wright was not a first-round pick, however. In fact, he wasn't picked at all in the 2005 NFL draft. The Patriots signed him as a free agent.
"It does feel great [to start with the first-rounders]. But it was also a feeling of, 'I want to show what I can do.' I want to show everybody in New England that I can help this team even though I came up from the bottom."
For Wright, the road to Sunday's start certainly seems to have started at the bottom. Wright began his college career at Ashland University, a Division II school in Ohio. After a year, he transferred to Cincinnati where he was redshirted as a walk-on, eventually working his way to the top of the Bearcats linemen tackling charts.
Before that, he started two years at Purcell Marian High in Cincinnati, the same school attended by Hall of Famer Roger Staubach. In today's NFL, Wright is an exception to the rule that valuable defensive linemen are selected early in the draft, their accolades already ringing in the ears of coaches for years and their paychecks reflecting it all. In truth, anyone with a mind for football can see them coming a mile away. They're usually big and fast when they're still young. Genetics play a big role.
Wright certainly fits the size requirements and has showed good speed and athleticism for his size – he's been a contributor on nearly every special teams unit this year and is abnormally big to be on the kickoff team, though his speed makes him effective there. He's also learned all the positions on the defensive line in order to stay on the team.
"I knew to make this team that I would have to play as many positions as possible. For them to give me the opportunity, it's great to help the team in all those aspects," said Wright.
In his press conference today, coach Bill Belichick said Wright has made a big jump since last year. "The normal first to second-year jump that you would like to see a player have, I think Mike's had. He had a great offseason program. I think he learned a lot last year – our style of defense and the techniques and all that. Pepper [Johnson] has done a good job with him, Mike's worked hard in the offseason. He had a real good training camp. Played well in the preseason. He's moved his game up and he's fighting for playing time – and he's getting it. You know, He's earned it.
"He was pretty strong coming in last year. I think his strength was his strength last year. I think what he's done more than anything is he's improved his techniques and his recognition – he read things quicker. Uses his hands better and plays a better position with better technique."
Wright has come a long way so far. He's shown the value of hard work, and that it can carry you a long way. Even in today's NFL.
Quote of Note:
"Scrutinize it all you want. Knock yourself out. Look I'm just trying to coach our team. I'm just trying to coach the Patriots and make them a better football team and I've got a lot of work to do. That's really all I care about. It's just not that big a thing for me. Thinking about the game. Thinking about our team. Thinking about what we need to do to win, that's what my job's about. That's what I care about. … Let me know the next time you see two coaches kiss out there." – coach Belichick in response to questions about the media's scrutiny of his post-game handshake with the Jet's head coach, Eric Mangini.
Notes: There was no practice today. Players just watched film. … Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was seen wearing a Boston Red Sox t-shirt in the locker room. Dan Koppen wore a Red Sox hat. … RookieLe Kevin Smith wore an Atlanta Braves hat in the locker room. Richard Seymour also had a Braves hat in his locker. Seymour played college football at Georgia and Smith was raised in Macon, Georgia.