Leadership Defined

This feature originally appeared in the Oct. 11, 2008 edition of Army Football Gameday vs. Eastern Michigan.

By Mark Brumbaugh

It is the night of October 6, 2007, and you are at Michie Stadium, the home of the football team composed of cadet-athletes of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Unfortunately, the home team is in a bit of a predicament. Trailing by seven, the Black Knights are 80 yards away from the end zone with no timeouts and only 29 seconds remaining in the game. The first-string quarterback, senior David Pevoto, was not able to play at all due to injury. His backup, junior Carson Williams, was knocked out of the game earlier in the quarter. Senior Kevin Dunn is now the man. He has never run the two-minute drill in practice, nor the less-than-half-minute’ drill for that matter. The first drive tonight under his command, which started in Tulane territory, went 12 yards on eight plays and burned 3:59 off the clock, ending with a field goal.

It’s late, and it’s a little chilly. Army probably isn’t going to beat Tulane tonight, so you can probably beat the traffic if you head out now.

However, the people around West Point have a knack for making history. West Point is all about building leaders that overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. You never know who might step up. Dunn might come through. Wide receiver Jordan Trimble has had a great game. Mike Wright has not caught a ball all night, but you never know who will step up when the game is on the line.

There is no guarantee they will come through, but there is a reason they have those quotes all around about a general wanting a football player for a dangerous mission and learning on the “fields of friendly strife.” This situation defines a West Point moment like the view from Trophy Point defines a Kodak moment.

You might want to stick around.

*   *   *

For Michael Charles Wright, being a leader was nothing new to him when he first set foot in the scenic Hudson Valley. The all-state football star from Hoover High in Des Moines, Iowa, captained both the basketball and football teams and was the president of the student council while leading charity and community service projects. He was even the homecoming king.

“My brother won homecoming king the year before and came back to our little celebration and handed the crown off to me,” recalled Wright. “Growing up in Des Moines was cool. I lived in the same house with my family, so I had never moved until I came out here.”

While Wright can barely remember when he started playing football, he certainly remembers when he fell in love with the game.

“It had to be when I was real young, but I didn’t start playing organized football until fourth grade. I definitely fell in love with the game starting to play flag football and throwing the ball around. Flag is just 7-on-7 throwing the ball all the time so as a receiver it is pretty fun. I played flag up until eighth grade, and then I started playing tackle football.”

Wright paved his own way for the most part when it came to playing football, as few in his family played the game. He never really considered playing in college until he received a recruiting letter during his junior year.

His high school coach, Brian Tate, sent film of Wright to schools across the country, including West Point. Wright received a few letters from Army, but did not think anything would come of them at the time. It was a visit to the prestigious Academy that eventually swayed Wright to select Army, just in the nick of time.

“It was coming down to crunch time senior year. I took a visit to West Point a couple weeks before signing day and took a couple visits to some other schools. After seeing how much the Academy had to offer in terms of my post-graduation opportunities, West Point kind of blew everybody else out of the water. I’m happy with my decision now.”

Wright had little difficulty deciding to enroll in a school that includes military service upon graduation, despite never previously considering the military or having any close family members enlisted.
“It was crazy. I hadn’t considered a career in the military because I didn’t know too much about West Point beforehand growing up in the mid-west. After I came out for my visit and got a chance to talk to different people, and then went home and saw the love and respect I got from everyone there, it was a pretty easy decision.”

*   *   *

Before coming to West Point, Wright spent the 2004 season at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School under then head coach Dan Baranik. The prep students only attend the school for ten months, so it is hard for anyone to stand out and take a leadership role.

Guess who did?

“It’s hard initially for anyone to step out, but Wright did with his tremendous work ethic,” said Baranik. “We noticed that right away.”

Wright left his mark on USMAPS history in the final game of the season against the Naval Academy Prep School. The teams were playing for the Little Commander in Chief’s Trophy, and Wright came through and scored the game-winning two-point conversion. However, he scored not as a wide receiver, but as the fumbling holder on the game-tying extra point attempt. Luckily, Wright was able to stay calm under pressure.

“We had just scored a touchdown so we were losing 14-13, and I actually dropped the snap,” recalled a smiling Wright. “I just took off running and I ended up making it to the end zone, so we ended up winning by one. All the guys joked that I took off with it on my own.”

There are two sides to every story though, and it appears that Wright is much too modest to tell the full story. In discussing Wright’s career at USMAPS, Baranik described the chain of events a bit differently.

“We were going to kick the extra point to go into overtime,” began Baranik. “There was a bad snap on an extra point and he picked it up, made two guys miss, and ran over a third guy to get the ball across the goal line for the two point conversion.

“Mike would say the snap was perfect. I’m not so sure about that. The bottom line was that the ball was on the ground and Mike had the presence of mind to pick it up and make a play.”

Considering Wright’s leadership abilities, it is easy to reconcile the difference in accounts. Wright probably felt that as long the ball reached him, it was his job to put it down for the kicker. Leaders are not ones to make excuses or celebrate the flashy details of their individual efforts. A two-point conversion is worth the same whether you just “ended up making it to the end zone” or if you actually made a highlight reels worth of plays to get in.

Wright and Baranik were reunited at West Point the following year as Baranik became the Black Knights’ wide receivers coach. There, Wright did not see any game time his freshman season.

“Mike was patient,” said Baranik. “He never complained and just worked hard whether it was one play in practice or 25, you knew he was going to give it everything he had. He did that and continues to do that.”

Wright worked his way into the receiving rotation during his sophomore year, appearing in all 12 games and earning one start. He finished the season with nine receptions for 65 yards and continued to play a significant role for the offense in 2007, totaling 160 yards on 12 receptions. But none were as memorable as the two he had in the sixth game of the season.

*   *   *

Little did Mike Wright know, after being held without a reception for the first 59:31 of the game against Tulane on October 6, 2007, he was about to play a starring role in one of the most memorable nights in Army football history.

Dunn and Wright got the Black Knights rolling with a 27-yard play to start the last-chance drive. Dunn rocketed the ball to Wright, who made a tough catch going out of bounds along the sidelines. After an incomplete pass, Dunn was able to connect with tight end Mike Evans for a 17-yard gain and stop the clock by spiking the ball. With thirty-six yards to go, there was time for just one play: the Hail Mary.

“When that play was called, I just tried to hustle and get down to the end zone,” recalled Wright. “I saw the ball get batted up in the air and I just stuck my arms out and found a little something in the end zone,” recalled Wright.

That “little something” was the ball firmly in his hands, representing not only the first career touchdown for the players on each end of the play, but the tying points to keep the hopes of an Army victory alive. In overtime, senior Owen Tolson sealed the dramatic win with a 25-yard field goal.

“Wright was in the right place and he made the play,” explained head coach Stan Brock after the game. “It is concentration and believing. You see these plays all the time. If Mike didn’t believe he would have had the opportunity to make that play, he could have jogged down the field, or been a pace off, or not concentrated. That was total concentration for the whole play.”

Of course, no one would have expected any less from Wright.

“Typicial Mike, he’s a person you can count on,” said Baranik. “If he’s supposed to go 18-yards on a route, he’ll go 18 yards, period. He executed that play. On that assignment, he came from the far side of the field and did exactly what was asked of him. That is how he plays.”

When recalling the glory of his individual accomplishment, Wright cannot help but mention others.
“It definitely would be the highlight of my career because it came at a time midway through the season where everyone needed to see something. The team, our coaches, the Corps of Cadets and also the troops and other families watching games all needed to see a win.”

*   *   *

Wright faced one of his toughest leadership challenges this past spring when Brock announced that the Black Knights were going to use a run-based option attack on offense. The new scheme meant that Army’s game plan was going to be the polar opposite of the flag football game Wright fell in love with as a child. In fact, Army is averaging just 10 passing attempts a game so far this season.

The situation has only highlighted Wright’s character and leadership abilities.

Brock decided that the election of the team’s four captains for the 2008 season would take place at the end of summer training camp instead of during the spring season. This allowed the incoming plebes to have a say while giving the rest of the team more time to decide. When the ballots were counted, Mike Wright was voted one of the two offensive captains. Surly if Wright developed a bad attitude because he did not like blocking or wanted the ball more, his teammates would have found someone else to lead the way.

Explained Baranik, “He’s got a great work ethic. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s fun to be around, he’s fun to coach, and his personality is contagious. Everybody wants to be around him. He’s a great leader and I think our players recognized that right away. It’s no surprise they elected him captain this season. In my opinion, he’s one of the hardest working guys on the team. One thing that started back at the prep school that he has carried through to the Academy is that he has maximized his full potential as a player and as a person. He’s gets the best or the most out of any situation.”

While Wright’s career for the Black, Gold and Gray is nearing its conclusion, his impact on the program will be felt for years to come, as he continues to lead by example and mentor the team’s younger players, pulling individuals aside if necessary.

“I’m kind of a people person,” said Wright. “When  take charge I’m not a Mr. Know-It-All’ or anything like that. I think I’m able to work with people at different skill levels.”

*   *   *

After today’s game, five will remain. The final game will take place at Lincoln Financial Field on December 6 when the Black Knights take on their arch-rival Navy. Army has gone through the growing pains of learning a new offense early this season, but with leaders like Mike Wright on the field, it would be foolish to miss a snap. He led Army past Navy in his final prep school game and he has shown that he is more than capable of making the big plays at the collegiate level. Will Wright leave one more stamp on the Army history books?

Only time will tell, but he is a talented, hard-working, leader among leaders. You are asking for trouble if you count him out before there are four zeroes on the clock.

Mark Brumbaugh is the Athletic Communications Assistant at West Point.

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