There was a time, not too long ago, when Patriots defensive lineman Mike Wright seriously considered walking away from his dream.
Wright was a junior in college with one season of Division II football on his resume and two full seasons missed due to an NCAA transfer rule and a serious knee injury.
"I almost quit before my senior year in college," Wright recalled. "I kept thinking, 'Why would this year be any different? I'm probably going to get hurt again and then I'll have to go through all that stuff again.'"
Patriots coaches and fans are glad Wright decided to stick with it.
Several years earlier, Wright was a 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound defensive end at Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati. He was big, but he was considered slow and was thought of as an average athlete. He didn't receive any offers to play for a Division I college program. But, wanting to continue his football career, Wright accepted a scholarship offer from Ashland University, a Division II school located in a small town in Ohio.
"I visited a couple of big schools that sent letters, and I went, hoping to get noticed, but I didn't," he recalled. "Ashland was the only school to give me an offer, so I took it."
Wright played in seven games at Ashland, mainly contributing on special teams. After the season, he returned home to Cincinnati thinking that his football career may be over. He enrolled in criminal justice classes at the University of Cincinnati for the spring semester of 2001.
On the way to class one afternoon, he passed the Bearcats football team, which was running through spring practice drills. The sight of the Division I team preparing for its upcoming season re-ignited his passion for the game.
"I saw them practicing and felt like I still wanted to play a little bit," he said. "I went into the coach's office and asked if I could walk-on and asked them what my chances of making the team would be. They told me that they would get back to me during the summer."
Wright waited all spring for a call to come from the Cincinnati coaching staff, and finally, two days prior to the start of summer practices, he received an invitation to attend camp. He quickly accepted, and after a strong performance over the summer, was asked to join the team for the 2001 season.
Before he had time to celebrate his accomplishment, reality set in. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Wright was forced to sit out the entire season. That wouldn't be his only disappointment. After his hard work in practice had earned Wright a spot in the Bearcats' starting lineup a year later, he injured his ACL in the preseason and was forced to miss the entire 2002 campaign.
Despite his continued frustration, Wright worked hard to return from the knee injury, finishing his rehabilitation in time to attend spring practices in 2003. Almost immediately, he tore the labrum joint in his right shoulder. Again, he rehabbed to get back on the field, and yet again he got hurt. Early in the 2003 campaign, he severely sprained his ankle, which hampered him for the entire season.
With the injuries mounting and the physical and mental pain becoming too much, Wright allowed thoughts of quitting the team to enter his mind.
"I had doubts about playing after suffering injury after injury," he admitted. "But I decided that I had to get through it. It was my senior year. I had to give it one more shot."
As a senior in 2004, Wright enjoyed his first complete season in good health. He stood out at defensive tackle, leading all Bearcats on the defensive line in tackles. Finally able to play to his full potential, Wright's thoughts of quitting had turned to thoughts of a potential career in football.
"I tried not to look at the NFL too much," he said. "I set short term goals for myself to get ready. Whatever I wanted to do that season I would focus on. I didn't let things distract me, and I avoided doing things that I didn't need to when I could be working to get stronger."
His year-round work was beginning to show in his body. He had bulked up and gotten faster. However, with just a season and a half of film to demonstrate his skills, Wright did not draw initial interest from the NFL. Fortunately for him, though, several of his teammates did.
Despite not being invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, Wright had the opportunity to work out in front of a large number of NFL scouts who were in attendance at the University of Cincinnati's Pro Day.
"I knew the opportunity that I had in front of me with all those teams there that day," Wright said. "I worked so hard to get to where I was at that point, and knew what I could do. That day couldn't have worked out any better."
Wright tested very well in front of the collection of personnel men, and his performance caught the eye of several teams, including the Patriots. Soon after the 2005 NFL Draft, Wright received an invitation from New England to attend training camp as an undrafted free agent.
Wright decided the invite to Patriots camp was his one shot, and he needed to make the most of it. "I was so worried about losing my job," he said. "I looked at it on a week-to-week, day-to-day, play-to-play basis. Every time I was out at practice I was worried that I would mess up and that would be it."
In their first preseason game, the Patriots played the team that Wright grew up cheering for, the Cincinnati Bengals. In front of dozens of cheering friends and family at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, Wright played well, even collecting a sack late in the game. At the time, he considered it the pinnacle of his football career.
"It was the biggest game that I had ever played in," he said. "To be in front of that crowd in my hometown and to show the coaches what I could do. The sack was the icing on the cake."
His strong play continued throughout the 2005 preseason, however, and the former Division II player earned a spot on the Patriots' active roster to start the season. It was an amazing feat considering how far Wright had to travel. He attributes the accomplishment to one thing: hard work.
"I've looked at this as the one opportunity to live my dream, to get everything that I've ever wanted and dreamed for," Wright said. "Why would I ever let that slip away by not giving my all every single day?"
And the dream has continued for Wright. A permanent fixture in the Patriots weight room,Wright was recognized at the start of the 2006 season with an award for his work in the off-season conditioning program. He has also found a niche on special teams and as a reserve on the Patriots defense, establishing a role that has allowed him to blossom into one of New England's most versatile players and a special teams playmaker.
He plays several reserve roles on one of the league's best defensive lines, backing up nose tackle Vince Wilfork and playing snaps at defensive end. Wright is also a key contributor on special teams. He plays wedge-breaker on kickoff, is in the middle of the kick return team and is a mid-line rusher on the field goal block unit. His abilities on special teams were in full view in recent weeks when he blocked a field goal attempt against the Miami Dolphins and partially blocked a punt against the Chicago Bears.
"I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't playing football," said Wright. "This is my life."