Keith Wright’s life is a cliché. He grew up in a depressed inner-city neighborhood. His father abandoned him. His mother was addicted to crack. He became a drug dealer, robbed convenience stores and wound up in a juvenile reform facility.
Eventually, he straightened his life out. Today, he has a wife, an 11-month-old son, an opportunity to play for the Arizona Cardinals and a dream to build a group home, where he’ll help kids who are living the life he once lived. It’s a story you’ve heard a million times, but as our senses are bombarded with the less appealing side of sports, the labor stoppages, the steroid suspensions, Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds, why not hear it once more?
Wright, a 6-foot-2, 275-pound defensive tackle, is a long shot to make the Cardinals’ roster.
He’s already been signed and released by three teams since being selected in the sixth round of the 2003 draft by the Houston Texans.
His NFL career likely will be defined by starts and stops, a job here, a practice squad there. Stardom isn’t in his future.
That’s OK with Wright. The destination isn’t as important as the journey.
"I have come a long way, a very long way," Wright said. "I don’t think anybody on this team (Arizona) has been through what I’ve been through as a child."
Wright, 25, grew up long before he was supposed to. He was 9 years old, living on Meadowview Drive in Sacramento, when his mom asked him to walk to the street corner to buy a $20 rock of crack cocaine.
Wright was robbed before he could make the purchase.
"That’s when I really lost my childhood," he said.
Wright soon figured out where to buy the drug safely, and it wasn’t too long before he was selling it.
The money he made as a drug dealer he gambled with in the school hallways, rolling dice for as much as $400 daily.
At the age of 12, after multiple arrests, he was confined to a Sacramento reform home. He spent two years there, got out and promptly was arrested for transporting drugs across the state line.
Authorities gave Wright two options: The California Youth Authority or a place called the Arizona Boys Ranch in Oracle, just north of Tucson.
Wright chose the Boys Ranch.
"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.
At first, Wright viewed the Boys Ranch as a necessary evil, a place to do his time before he could get back to his life.
He hated the strict regimen and the tough-love philosophy. Students were up at 4 a.m. for two hours of physical training. They laid tile. They did electrical work. They answered every question with "yes, sir" or "no, sir."
"Sometimes they had you move a pile of sand 10 feet for no reason," Wright said.
As Wright’s body hardened, something unexpected happened: His anger and bitterness softened. He was getting the discipline he never received at home, and he inhaled it with every deep breath.
"It built pride in me," Wright said.
Wright eventually was transferred to the Boys Ranch in Queen Creek — now known as Canyon State Academy — because school officials thought he could play for the football team.
There was just one flaw in the reasoning: Wright had never played a down of football, and he had no interest in the sport.
The coaches at Boys Ranch made a persuasive argument, though. Wright was forced to sleep on a thin mattress on the floor until he changed his mind.
After two weeks of discomfort, Wright was on a football field for the first time in his life.
"I was lost," he said. "You’d think it’s so simple to put shoulder pads on or slide pads in your pants. But I didn’t know how to do any of that. Kids were laughing at me."
They weren’t laughing long. By the end of Wright’s junior year, he was a starting lineman on the varsity squad.
"He had the most natural pass rush I ever saw in a kid," said Canyon State athletic director Jay Reichenberger, who was Wright’s line coach in 1997. "But the biggest thing was he was a respectful kid. We had kids who were emotionally out there and would fly off the handle at the drop of a hat.
"I’m not saying Keith wouldn’t get a little obstinate at times, but he did things when we asked."
A year later, his high school diploma in hand, Wright headed to Arizona Western College to play football. Five of his Boys Ranch teammates joined him. Two others went to Scottsdale Community College.
Wright was the only one to play four years of college. And the only one to leave college with two degrees — one in criminal justice, the other in psychology.
"Keith will tell you this place saved him, but we didn’t change him," Reichenberger said. "He changed himself.
"It’s incredible. I keep in contact with him, and I’ll say a cuss word and he’ll say, ‘Coach, you really shouldn’t say that.’ It’s been a pleasure to watch him grow."
Wright’s journey has not been without its challenges.
At Arizona Western, he and his Boys Ranch classmates got into a fight on a trip to Mexico. The other Boys Ranch kids left school — "they were running scared," Reichenberger said — but Wright stayed through his freshman year before a dispute with the head coach led him to transfer to Sacramento City College, where he recorded 14 sacks as a sophomore and earned All-America honors.
Wright then enrolled at Missouri, playing for former University of Arizona coach Larry Smith, but after a junior season in which he had 68 tackles, he was arrested for using a stolen credit card to purchase gas.
Wright said it was his roommate’s card, but he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and received a suspended sentence.
"When he hit those bumps I told him, ‘You have to get your crap together,’ " Reichenberger said. "You’re not playing games any more as a juvenile. They’re playing for keeps."
Wright took Reichenberger’s advice. He earned his two degrees. He married his girlfriend, Laurie, in 2001.
And after collecting six sacks and 92 tackles his senior season at Missouri, he signed a three-year, $925,000 contract — including a $42,500 signing bonus — with the Texans.
A year later, Wright’s son, Keith, was born. The first time Wright held his baby in his arms he knew what he was — and what he never wanted to be again.
"He’s changed every year since I’ve met him but especially now that he’s a father," Laurie said. "He’ll be the first one to change Keith’s diaper or to feed him. He caters to his son.
"It’s so important to him. What he saw growing up he didn’t want to repeat in his adulthood."
Wright used some of his rookie money to buy a house in Sacramento for his family. His next big purchase — if he strikes it rich in the NFL — will be land for a group home.
Wright wants to counsel troubled kids. He knows their fear and desperation. He understands, better than anyone, what crack can do to a family.
"I’ve seen the effects of it," he said. "People will sell the food from their house or the clothes off their back. They’ll sell their bodies for a rock."
Too often, we judge an athlete by what he does rather than who he is.
Keith Wright might be unemployed in a month. But his job doesn’t define him. His life does.
"Keith’s biggest accomplishment is not playing football," Reichenberger said. "He survived. He’s not selling crack on the street corner."