TUCSON, Ariz. — Down the hallway comes Scooby Wright III with a gauze pad wrapped around his right pinkie finger.
“Just casually bleeding,” he deadpans. He had been doing squats in Arizona’s weight room on this summer morning. As the Wildcats’ All-America linebacker set the bar back after a final rep, his finger caught on the rack. So he is at once a little exasperated and a little embarrassed, as he now has an interview in the football offices, and he’d prefer not to be wounded during it.
There is also the matter of the large cut across his nose. This one is about a week old. Wright had moved into a new apartment and put a key in the door to open it. It was not the correct key. But he was reasonably sure it was, and that the door was being stubborn. So a 246-pound man who recorded 163 tackles last fall set to work, crouching down and putting some torque into getting this portal to oblige—“I wasn’t going full King Kong on it,” he notes—when, basically, he ripped the door off and it hit him in the face.
“It’s actually healing pretty well, because it was pretty big,” Wright says of the resulting laceration. “I almost went to the hospital because I thought I needed stitches. I called a trainer, sent him a picture of it. He said, ‘Nah, you’re good.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’”
Of course this is how Philip Anthony “Scooby” Wright III appears before us: battle-scarred, hands literally bloodied by a day’s work, a former two-star recruit turned national defensive player of the year by violent conviction. It’s how you might imagine him as an action figure. It’s also insufficient, a simulacrum that only hints at the determination that drives him.
He has been indifferent for a while now to the business of avenging himself to doubters. The questions they have don’t interest him anymore, and the weekend mornings alone in the football complex and the visits to a boxing gym aren’t meant to answer those particular queries anyway. They instead feed an obsession with different questions—the ones about what comes now, about what’s next and about the pursuit of something he can never be.
In case you missed it, Scooby Wright was a peripheral prospect out of Cardinal Newman High in Santa Rosa, Calif., drawing interest from the likes of Cal, Boise State, Sacramento State and Cal Poly. Two years later, he was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year. Wright also won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award, both given to the nation’s top defender, following a 2014 season in which the Arizona linebacker ranked in the top five of all FBS players in tackles (163), tackles for loss (29), sacks (14) and forced fumbles (six).
He gave banquet speeches and sat next to Jim Kelly and Andre Reed at the Walter Camp All-American dinner and watched them pluck Hall of Fame rings from their coat pockets. He is, additionally, an SI.com preseason All-America honoree for 2015. Were Wright still seeking to prove people wrong, part of the challenge would be locating individuals oblivious to his immense success.
“We can find ways to motivate him, but more than anything, he finds ways to motivate himself,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez says. “Now it’ll be, ‘Are you worthy of all the attention you’re getting?’”
Wright’s career is indeed now about what comes next. And what consumes him now—what probably always has—is a chase without end. He will not be satisfied until he is perfect, which will be never because he will not permit himself to believe he has achieved perfection.
“People say I had a good year. I don’t think I had a good year,” Wright says. “I mean, I watch a game, I watch the missed tackles, the missed sacks, plays I could have done better on. The bad angles I took. That’s the way I look at it. That’s probably the last thing I’ll do, is look at myself and say, ‘That was a great play by me.’ I’ll never say that.”
Some of that can be contextualized as Things Athletes Say; there are players preaching mistake-free performance on every team, though surely they concede the futility of that quest at some level. Wright, with utter sincerity, seems to make no such concession.
This owes in part to what he witnessed in his own backyard in a cage roughly 70 feet long and 13 feet wide. The structure, built by his father, Phil, and situated steps off the back deck, contained a softball pitching lane. There, Wright’s older sister Ashley whipped 60-mph fastballs to her father or her sister or other catchers imported for practice on a daily basis. “My daughter was religious,” says Phil Wright, who has been the head softball coach at Santa Rosa Junior College since 2011. It was pitch after pitch after pitch, delivered with ferocity and without pause. Ashley threw so much and so diligently that, at one point, doctors commanded her to stop upon finding cartilage damage in her shoulder. She acquiesced to some time off but nevertheless recovered and returned to twice earn first-team all-state honors at Ursuline Catholic High before pitching at Illinois from 2007 to ’10.
That backyard, Scooby Wright says, is where he learned what it meant to work. If you wanted to be good, he concluded, that’s what you had to do. “Coming through every time, she’d have bruises the size of pancakes from pitching,” Wright says of his sister. “She was a beast.”
The three Wright siblings—Ashley, Scooby and Alexis, who played softball at Sierra College and at Santa Rosa J.C.—were wired for this as a birthright, essentially. Phil Wright played football at Long Beach State and illuminated a path of blue-collar toil for his children. He was far from imperious against reason; when Scooby soured on baseball because pitchers consistently walked him and he played catcher just to get any action, well, that was the end of Scooby’s career on the diamond. But if the Wrights were invested in an activity, it was a total commitment. “If you want something, go get it,” Scooby says. “No one is going to spoon-feed you.”
Nor would they sugarcoat a thing. Scooby smiles when he recalls the interactions between Ashley and his father—“I’d always hear them bickering at each other,” he says—but it wouldn’t be long before debriefings after football games took on a similarly exacting tone.
“Our ride home was always about what he did wrong, what he missed,” Phil says. “He remembers the same exact thing.”
That hasn’t changed. On Sept. 20, Arizona used a 36-point fourth-quarter to stun Cal in a 49–45 comeback win. This is Wright’s personal catalog of the night, nearly nine months later: He missed a sack, another two tackles in the backfield, and he should have had an interception. On one of the missed tackles, Wright remembers going just a bit too fast, and a mere head nod from Cal quarterback Jared Goff threw him off. On another, he took a chance, shot a gap and more or less surprised himself, failing to wrap up the ballcarrier when he had an opportunity.
Everyone else might have a different recall of Wright’s output in that victory: 18 tackles (no one else on either side had more than eight) with four tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble. “It’s embedded,” Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel says of Wright’s penchant for self-criticism. “I would be surprised if he ever changed from that. I don’t think he’s ever going to be comfortable where he’s at.”
The approach to 2015 is, similarly, a tactical assault on the faintest of flaws.
Even in a 10-win season last fall, with a defense stoked by an All-America selection, the Wildcats surrendered 28.2 points per game. To limit opposing offenses in 2015, Arizona must limit the ways they can scheme against Wright. The first component to that involved Wright honing his coverage skills during spring practices, though in Wright’s estimation, the criticisms of his ability to blanket receivers is a bit misguided. “I never was really asked to cover,” Wright says. Working on drops and building his confidence in space should open up Arizona’s options. Casteel’s premise is that the better Wright covers, the better blitzer he will be because he can be a threat from more spots.
“He has outstanding short-area quickness,” Casteel says. “He can get from spot to spot really well, and I think he’s a natural blitzer and pass rusher. He has a knack for being able to turn his pads and make people miss. He’s violent with his hands and he’s going to continue to improve in those things. We just have to continue to find ways to make sure we’re utilizing all his abilities.”
Wright, meanwhile, will continue to find excuses for self-improvement. He was one of the best defenders anywhere a year ago, but did you know that Wright played too upright when fatigued? Or that his flexibility could have been better, particularly in his hips? You likely didn’t notice these issues because you are a rational human more focused on his incredible talents than his perceived faults. But Wright noticed, and it bugged him. Thus he set off-season priorities to stay low and enhance his pliability.
Around 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday in February, Rodriguez arrived at the football offices in part to exercise in solitude. His Wildcats work out five days a week in the off-season, and maybe 40 to 50 will show up on a Saturday for voluntary extra conditioning. But Arizona’s coach reasonably expected the building would be empty early on a Sunday. He was wrong. “Six-thirty a.m., there’s one guy in the weight room: Scooby Wright,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t know if he was just doing curls to look stronger or what, but there he was Sunday morning, in the off-season, at 6:30 a.m., working out.”
The impetus for this actually wasn’t abnormal—Wright missed a weekday session while on the banquet trail—but the impulse against idleness might be. Rodriguez notes that Wright will linger after practices in the Tucson heat for 45 minutes, working on solo pass rush technique on a sled. When quarterback Anu Solomon aimed to improve muscle mass this off-season and worried he’d have to cut rice, pork and ramen from his diet, Wright offered counsel: Eat Hard, Train Harder. “I like that method,” Solomon says.
“I don’t think he will ever stop working out until he turns 95 years old,” Arizona safety Will Parks says of Wright. “And around that time, he’ll probably have died or something.”
Parks is complicit in this, having introduced Wright to another outlet for his obsession. In January, Parks began regular visits to Undisputed Fitness and Training, a gym less than two miles from campus. The Philadelphia native boxed in eighth and ninth grade, and he wanted to return to the ring to sharpen his agility, hand-eye coordination and anticipation instincts. On a Saturday morning this summer, Parks mentioned his visits to Undisputed. It was a conditioning week, and neither Wright nor Parks really wanted to run, but they needed a viable alternative for cardio work.
Within a couple hours, Wright was driving to the boxing gym with his friend. “He went in there,” Parks says, “and he went through the workout like he’d done it for three years straight.”
One-two punch combos. Three-two comeback dip-slides. Hands and feet, hands and feet, as Parks put it—the almost subliminal choreography that translates from the canvas to the turf on Saturdays. There was shadow boxing with five-pound weights for five minutes at a time. There was jump rope, abdominal work, even some sparring with Parks.
“What’s that quote? ‘If you strive for perfection, you’ll land among excellence,’” Wright says. “In any sport, I think that’s what you try to be. If you’re not trying to get better every day, you’re getting worse.”
There will always be flaws, especially as opponents do everything they can to ensure Arizona’s star linebacker does as little as possible. And there will always be a new way to fix the problem. Another half-hour on a sled. Another squat. Another hour in the ring.
Wright, then, is on a cycle of improvement he cannot complete. He will find an advantage, but there is always a counter, and another advantage to find after that. This happens to be fine. He is someone satisfied by the idea of endlessness in the search itself.
Rich Rodriguez is a huge Clint Eastwood fan, and he is reminded of one his favorites, The Outlaw Josey Wales. Eastwood portrays the title character, a Missouri farmer whose past as a member of a Confederate Army guerilla unit catches up to him. Naturally, Wales is a deadly gunfighter, one of the best of his time. But there was a specific reason he was so great, Rodriguez explains. Josey Wales, in any fight, always looked for an edge.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as having his back to the sun,” Rodriguez says. “Make the other guy squint.”
After one of the best statistical seasons for a defender in memory, Scooby Wright’s existence is not substantially different. He does have a dog now, a boxer named Riggins, a stray that a friend couldn’t look after anymore. He also has become an unwitting addition to Arizona’s recruiting tours; Casteel says one of the first requests a group had this summer was meeting the team’s star linebacker. “The Legend of Scooby Wright,” Rodriguez says with a smile. “They look at him like, ‘I thought you’d be taller.’”
But Wright still visits the Safeway without anyone recognizing him, though he attributes that to the lack of a beard and eye black. His face and name still aren’t on the tarp honoring All-America players at the Arizona practice facility, even though they technically could be. Uncomfortable at the thought—“That would probably give me anxiety, not going to lie,” Wright says—he asked Rodriguez to wait until he leaves school before being feted that way.
Wright still speaks with his mother and father just about every night, which means somewhere in him is the grade-schooler who crafted an art project that Phil recently unearthed: a white plate on which Scooby wrote, in part, “I really appreciate everything you have taught me, for giving me that extra push in my football.” Below his signature, he drew a jersey with the No. 33 on it.
“Most guys get that type of notoriety and they start to get cocky, they start to think they’re bigger than the world,” Parks says. “A guy like Scooby? The way he came in is the way he still is now.”
And yet in the ways that most matter to Arizona in 2015, Wright cannot abide sameness. He cannot allow himself to be who he was a year ago. He may be exhausted by the two-star recruit stuff, and, yes, it is a tiresome storyline marginalized by his achievements. “It’s to the point where I think people have this misperception that I do it to prove people wrong,” Wright says. “I do it because it’s a passion. I love football, I love playing the game, I love my teammates. I don’t do it for me.”
But the history from which he distances himself is, actually, useful. Fanatically refusing to believe enough is enough—it’s a psychology that defines both then and now. What comes next for the Wildcats’ star, at least in part, is remembering precisely how he navigated the reality he has left behind.
There is a hill just above the football field at Cardinal Newman High, an incline of maybe 65 or 70 yards before it flattens off near a building that once was a convent. When Wright is home in California and his mind roils with thoughts about all the things he should be doing, he drives to his old school and sprints the hill. He has done this for years, at all hours. It might be 10 o’clock at night and the family has just finished watching a movie; Wright will put on his gear and tell his parents he’s going for a jog. He might even make it to bed, only to feel too wound up to sleep. So he leaves. He treks the 20 minutes to Cardinal Newman and then returns after an hour or two, tired and satisfied that he has outrun his restlessness.
People can believe that Scooby Wright is one of the best defensive players in the country. The hill isn’t going anywhere.
|Sept. 12||at Nevada|
|Sept. 19||Northern Arizona|
|Oct. 3||at Stanford|
|Oct. 10||Oregon State|
|Oct. 17||at Colorado|
|Oct. 24||Washington State|
|Oct. 31||at Washington|
|Nov. 7||at USC|
|Nov. 21||at Arizona State|