KENNY, DYING YOUNG

To be physical, to be in sports, was what mattered to Kenny Wright. Then, two years ago, the active life abruptly, freakishly, ended
March 09, 1981

September 27 last was a beautiful clear day in Connecticut, kissed by the first crispness of the early autumn. The leaves were only starting to turn, but in a couple of weeks the hills around Ledyard would be in full blaze. September 27 was a football Saturday. If the day had been warmer, in another season, the shooting would have taken place at the beach instead of out in the quiet woods, among the cedars and the pines.

Around one in the afternoon. Brian Taylor came by and picked Kenny Wright up at the trailer where Kenny lived with his divorced mother. Wright was 24 then, but still known for the fine and fearless high school football player he had been; he had set school records, and in his senior year, as a tight end. had made all-conference.

As the two young men departed, Kenny told his mother, Phyllis, that they were just going for a ride. Kenny knew this was a lie. He knew he wanted to stop first at his father's house to get a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, to use as a weapon, not for recreation. He and Brian picked up another friend of theirs. Billy King. And, even though Brian and Billy were far away from Kenny when he fired the awful shot a few hours later, they have been charged as accomplices in manslaughter two.

We overemphasize sport in so many ways. Colleges sell their souls to stock winning teams. Grown men take games they watch on TV more seriously than their wives and children. Every year so many little boys from the streets trade in their chances for an education to chase after the rainbow of play-for-pay. Say this for Kenny Wright: he never let himself be deluded by athletics. They were never a means to an end. He only dealt in them for love.

His father, the older Ken Wright, pleaded with him to go on to college, to buy a diploma and more childhood with four more autumns on the gridiron, but as much as the boy adored football, he knew that he couldn't take four more years of studying, that it was time to get a job.

But to be in sports, to be active—that was always what motivated him, diverted him from the less active pleasures of life. "My youngstah just lived for his sports," Phyllis Wright says. She always calls him that—"my youngstah"—in her native New England accent.

There are so many kids like Kenny. Even when he wanted to be by himself, to be contemplative, in his way, it had to involve sports. He could not sit and read or even remain long before the TV. He didn't watch a whole lot of television except for sports. Instead, he would take a gun and tramp through the woods, hunting small game, rabbits or squirrels or birds. His father had schooled him in that when he was still a young boy.

But it was never important to Kenny that he find something to kill. He wouldn't even consider going off with his uncle in the autumn to shoot deer up in Maine. In a way, the only shot that ever mattered, in the woods, was the one he fired on September 27. "He just liked being active so," Phyllis says. "Lots of times he'd never even shoot at all. He just liked it out there: life all around him, but still alone."

The other thing Kenny did by himself was build up his body. Brian remembers that Kenny started that at a very young age, before other boys got into weights. He bought his own equipment. He read body-building magazines and followed their guidance. Bill Mignault, the football coach at Ledyard High, says, "Kenny was very proud of his athletic ability. He was very proud of his strength. And he was very proud of his appearance."

When Kenny graduated in 1974, his classmates voted him Class Bod (male division), and he posed with Kathy Nason (female division winner) for the yearbook. In that old photo, there is a smile playing across Kenny's face, but in those jet eyes of his there seems to be an underlying sense of pride, too. Class Bod was not just a gag honor. Kenny Wright wore his body well, and it mattered to him in ways that were right. He was always a physical person.

Oh sure, he liked a lot of other things. He liked parties. He liked girls. He liked to go to the Brookside Inn in Preston and drink a few beers with his buddies and shoot some pool and play some electronic TV games or punch up the James Taylor and Neil Young numbers on the jukebox.

But he couldn't be happy long if he wasn't active. "He was such an aggressive-type guy," says Brian, the best friend Kenny ever had. "We were very tight." Brian says. Some people said Kenny could be too tough, could be a brawler. "No, he was never malicious," Brian says. "The fun, sports—that's what he lived for." That is almost exactly what Phyllis says.

Sports put a lot of structure into Kenny's existence. At Ledyard High his grades were invariably better during the football season, even though that was when he had to devote so much of his free time to practicing. His temper was contained during football. "Football kept Kenny involved and more active in everything," says Mignault.

And it is true that the only time Kenny really floundered in his life was after he finished school and there was no more football to point to in the fall. He had never been afraid of a fight, but now he grew afraid he might miss one. Fighting was fun for him, and nobody frightened him. Once, in a diner, he took on half a dozen sailors. And he started it. Another time, Kenny flailed out and hurt a cop who was trying to break up a fight. "He wasn't the goodest boy then," Phyllis says. Kenny cooled off in the slammer a couple of times for breach of the peace. It was a very exasperating time for everybody. In dismay, Kenny's father once said to Phyllis, "How can you still love him?" But it was mostly a matter of understanding. As Brian said, Kenny wasn't malicious. He just hadn't grown up yet, and liked to scrap. Everybody knew that, and that would be his bad luck.

And, anyway, he found another, healthier outlet soon enough. He began to scuba dive, to spearfish. Ledyard, where Kenny lived, is in from the water; colonial rural. There are stylish riding horses here and there, but also, as one sees out in the wide-open spaces, the road signs have been dimpled by sharpshooters and there is a Grange Hall. Yet the sense of the sea is great, even in the hollows. Ledyard lies near the Thames River, and 10 miles downstream, toward where it flows into Long Island Sound, are New London and Groton, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the nuclear submarine base. The college boys from Harvard and Yale race their shells on the Thames, just south of Ledyard, every June.

A few miles up the coast to the east of the Thames is Mystic, a restored whaling town, and it was there, where the Mystic River pours out toward Mason Island, that Kenny did most of his diving and fishing. There was no stopping him once he had mastered it. He would put on his wet suit and go in no matter how cold it was. Even if there was a thin layer of ice, he'd sometimes go under. He had confidence that he would break out through the surface if it came to that.

He loved to pop up out of the water like some briny monster from a Japanese movie, over near a bridge in Mystic, where a lot of old black fellows fished. They'd be sitting there, all cold and gray, all empty lines, and Kenny would appear out of the deep, brandishing a whole line of fish. "Hey, you've got to go after 'em," he'd call to the old gentlemen, and then he'd climb into his pickup and go home.

"There were a lot of happy times," Brian says. Kenny had usually worn a beard, going back to when he was in school, but now he wore only a trim mustache. It was almost debonair, and with his ebony eyes he was handsome; with his powerful physique, he was a striking figure of a man. He had a pretty girl friend, named Karen, whom he loved, and he had a good job where he'd always wanted one, working for Pfizer, the drug company, down in Groton. Around southeastern Connecticut, Pfizer is known as an especially fine employer—good people—and for three years Kenny had driven there, week after week, applying for work. He had a relative who worked there, but Kenny was determined to be hired on his own hook. And finally he was, as a chemical worker, in the spring of 1979. He and Karen celebrated. "He was happier'n a pig in slop," Phyllis says. Everybody was pretty sure that in time Kenny would marry Karen and start a family. "It sure was starting to jell for him," Brian says. "Everything was going in the right direction."

Kenny even took up boxing—with LAA gloves—and had a couple of amateur bouts. And a semipro football club named the Sea Hawks had come to the area, so he made up his mind that even though he hadn't played in five years he'd go back to the gridiron.

At Ledyard High, Kenny had carried about 180 pounds on his 6'1" frame, but now he had filled out more, to 200 at least, maybe 225. And the extra weight was muscle. It was common for people around Ledyard to characterize him as "strong as an ox." But tough as he was, Kenny had gentle hands. He was a tight end, he could block, but he could also catch the ball so well that Mignault put in a special pass play for him.

The other receivers would stay in, as if it were going to be a running play—except for the back on Kenny's side, who would come over the line and cut in a little, taking the defender with him. Kenny would delay a count, as though he were going to block, too, and then he would go down and out, and the quarterback would look for him over by the right sideline. The play was so successful that Mignault kept it in the Colonels' playbook even after Kenny graduated and lesser lights took his spot. In fact, the last time Kenny went to his old school for a game, he asked, "Coach, you still got my special play in?"

Ledyard High was opened in 1963. The school colors are navy blue and white, but when Mignault fielded his first varsity, in 1966, the Green Bay Packers were big, so he designed the football uniforms after Green Bay's—with blue where the Packers' green would have been, only touches of white, and heavy on the gold. The gold catches your eye much more than the blue or the white. Mignault's teams have been strong year after year. They have had only one losing season in their 15 years of football, but Kenny is still second in career passes caught and third in touchdown receptions and total yards receiving. As a senior, he was voted to the All-Eastern Connecticut Conference team. He wore big No. 86.

So he was pretty sure he could make the Sea Hawks, even after the long time away from the game. The only problem was that he had a shoulder that dislocated easily, so he decided he would have a pin inserted. He was going in for the surgery around Memorial Day of 1979, so he'd be fully recovered for the football season, but during his final checkup the doctor found some kind of boil on Kenny's left shoulder, where he was going to operate, and thought it would be unwise to cut into this infected area. There was no great rush. But that was too bad. If Kenny had had the operation, he'd have been in the hospital on June 3.

On that Sunday night, going on two years ago now, Kenny left the party early. He had to work at Pfizer the next morning, so he wanted to go home and get a good night's sleep. Friends called him names and what-not, urging him good-naturedly to stick around and have a couple more drinks, but Kenny was firm and laughed back at them, and climbed into his Ford pickup. He had a good job now.

But there was a big guy there, an acquaintance of Kenny's, and he knew Kenny liked to tussle, and so the big guy opened up the truck door and yanked Kenny out. Playfully, they scuffled, full of whiskey and youth. Then Kenny was down, trying to catch his breath, sort of half sitting up, his head bent forward some, between his legs, and the big guy took a flying leap onto him, right onto his neck.

A lot of people were laughing, and it took them a while to realize something might be wrong with Kenny. Even at the hospital, it didn't seem to be much: the skin wasn't broken; no bone was broken. All it was was a bruise. Isn't that something? All it was was a goddamned bruise. Or, officially, a cervical cord contusion. C-7. All the football, all the wrestling, the boxing, the fights, all that he'd done for his body. And then a bruise: henceforth and forever, Kenneth W. Wright would be a quadriplegic.

When he was released from the hospital he tried living with Karen at first, but, in many ways, living with her made things more difficult for him. So he moved into his mother's trailer. Mr. and Mrs. Wright had been divorced some time before. Phyllis does private duty work in a nursing home. She was more than qualified to tend to her son, but she had to quit her job to manage him properly. "I told my youngstah: I will always take care of you, but I can't help you," Phyllis says.

And, at least, Kenny was not completely wasted. There was some movement in his upper body, and he worked with his hands so that, in a sort of gnarled manner, he could hold things and write his name. Once, he took an hour and a half to fix up a fishing rod. "I did it, I did it, Ma!" he cried. But, as we know. he was never much for that sort of sedentary stuff. He began to work out, though, building himself back up again as best he could. At his worst, his weight had gone down to 143. But soon he was as powerful across his chest and shoulders as he'd ever been. People could see it. But that was small consolation. "My youngstah always needed his legs to live his life," Phyllis says.

He told her, "Ma, I know my body. If there's one thing I know about me, it's my body. And I know I'll never walk again." Soon he began to talk about suicide.

The 1979 football season came and went. He got taken to see a couple of the Colonels' games, and once or twice he was also carted over to St. Bernard's High where the Sea Hawks played their home schedule. Some of his old friends carried him in to see the closed-circuit telecast of the first Duran-Leonard fight, too. So Kenny at least tried, the best he could, to divert himself with sports from the pain and the depression.

By now, though, a lot of his old pals had stopped coming by; they couldn't deal with this Kenny. Only a few never stopped sacrificing for him. Billy, who is employed by the maintenance department in the nearby town of Stonington, was one; Brian, who works for a plumbing-supply company, was another.

Brian is 25 now, an uncommonly good-looking young man. He has difficulty talking about his old friend; after all, they were so close. They had known each other since they were nine, in Little League baseball. Brian would try to carry Kenny around. He even took it upon himself to transport Kenny down to New London for his haircuts. Or he'd come around in his truck and drive Kenny and his wheelchair out to the woods, where Brian would park and then push Kenny along the paths. In better times, they had hunted a lot of these places together. Brian was never a scuba diver but. like Kenny, he loved hunting. "The best is being out there by yourself, nobody bothering you," he says.

But possibly Kenny was happiest when someone took him fishing, because that was a thing he could do, even if he couldn't do it at all the way he used to. Buckled into his wheelchair, he could hold the rod in his twisted hands and even reel in some of the snapper blues he hooked. One time he got hold of a big fish and it yanked, and just then he had one of his muscle spasms; somehow he held on, kept on fighting, and pulled in the fish. But it embarrassed him to almost lose control. Phyllis says, "He just couldn't cope. He was an athlete."

It was hard for Phyllis and Kenny to get by, too. Pfizer's medical insurance had paid a lot of the bills, but Phyllis couldn't leave Kenny to go to work, and they had hardly enough to live on. Soon, Phyllis began to sell off his scuba equipment, item by item—his fins, his wet suit, his spear gun and so on. She used this money mostly to buy one thing: Old Grand-Dad for Kenny.

In their wisdom, the doctors wouldn't prescribe any effective pain-killing drugs for Kenny, because they didn't want him to become addicted. "Fine, he'll become an alcoholic instead," Phyllis would yell into the phone at them. Three stiff shots of bourbon, cut with a little cola, and Kenny could at least get some respite from the pain.

By now, Kenny was talking about suicide a lot, and each piece of his equipment his mother sold seemed to symbolize the draining of hope. "This isn't living, this is existing," he said. The 1980 football season approached. "Don't worry, Ma," he told Phyllis, "I'll never do it here, where you'd have to find me. It'll be at the beach or in the woods. My two favorite places."

By fall the last piece of his scuba gear had been sold for Old Grand-Dad. "Summer was over, so it wouldn't be at the beach now," Phyllis says.

Brian came to pick Kenny up on the afternoon of September 27. As he took Kenny out the door of the trailer, onto the ramp that his mother had had built for him, Kenny called back to her, back to where she was pinning up some draperies. "Hey, Ma," he said. "See you later. Take care of yourself."

She started, holding the curtain tight for just an instant. Kenny was never very expressive. He wasn't "a kisser" at all. If he had kissed his mother, she would have known right away that he was going out to kill himself. What he did say—"Take care of yourself—was the most he could manage under the circumstances. He was just as relaxed with his father, when he dropped in to pick up the sawed-off 12-gauge. "Kenny was in real good spirits," the elder Wright remembers.

They stopped for Billy King, and then Brian drove his truck along Route 214, the old Pequot Trail, Indian territory. Out of Ledyard, on the road toward Preston, they drove by the high school. It's located at the top of Spicer Hill Road, and the Pequot Trail winds half a mile below. When Kenny passed by, at the bottom of the hill, the Ledyard Colonels, in their navy blue and white and gold, were playing a game. It was a fine football Saturday, a crystal-clear afternoon, the sun reflecting off the gold helmets. And the view to the northwest from that field, down Spicer Hill, was so glorious that not even a football game on a football Saturday had any business intruding. The whole sweep, as far as one could see, was thick and green, touched with fire colors, hiding everything below the foliage. The Pequot Trail was obscured from sight, as was the old Western Reservation—and the place about 3½ miles away where Brian pulled his truck off the road, just before the turnoff to Preston and the Brookside Inn. Brian and Billy wheeled Kenny into the woods for what he knew would be the last time.

While they were there, under cover of the trees, the Ledyard Colonels won their football game, 20-0.

By late afternoon, Phyllis was through with the curtains, and she sat down and started to crochet. A large clock ticked loudly in the trailer, and, suddenly, she looked up and it dawned on her. Out loud she said, "Oh my God, Kenny's gone. He's never coming back."

She knew, even though he hadn't told her. That was the point: not to tell anybody. The reason for his shooting himself was that his body didn't belong to him anymore, and he was tired of troubling other people with it. But for what Brian and Billy did that day, for no more than driving Kenny out to the woods and standing their friend to a few beers—for that, under Connecticut law, they face the possibility of 10 years for assisting in the commission of a suicide.

At about the moment when Phyllis realized what Kenny intended to do, he asked his two friends to go get some more beer. They were gone only a few minutes, half an hour at the most. When Kenny heard them drive off, he took his gnarled fingers and unbuckled his seat belt so that he could bend his torso forward and make a better target for himself. Then he aimed the 12-gauge up at his heart and pulled the trigger. It was a difficult thing to manage, physically. But then, Kenny had always been capable, physically. The last things he saw were the-bright trees of autumn and an azure sky the shade of the sea.

The athlete now rests in the Elm Grove Cemetery, on the banks of the Mystic, very near to where he used to go spearfishing. At first Phyllis went to the grave every day, but she doubted that was good for her, so now she mostly just visits on Sundays. Sometimes she says a prayer over Kenny's grave, but other times she stands there and looks down and snaps at him. "Oh why, you bugger?" Phyllis says. "Why didn't you fight longer?"

She glances up now, in the trailer, as she talks. The clock is ticking louder. "Oh why? I think if he'd been a bookworm, he...."

He what?

"He'd have adjusted better." Phyllis shakes her head. "You know, I don't really get mad at Kenny when I shout at him. You see, even if there had been a miracle, if he'd somehow been able to walk with braces and crutches, I don't think Kenny would've been happy. Not my youngstah. Not the way he was."

At the head of the grave there is a small marker, set flush in the ground. Phyllis has ordered a larger, upright one. There's no hurry on its delivery, though, because the earth by the Mystic is frozen now, and the stone couldn't be set in place till the spring thaw. It will be specially engraved. In one corner of the stone there will be an outline of a football and a jersey, No. 86. In the other, there will be fins, a mask and a snorkel. Phyllis explains, "These are the things, my youngstah loved the most," which is why she is having them cut in the stone, to go with Kenny's name and the dates he lived and played, 1956-1980.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSDANIEL MAFFIA ILLUSTRATIONDANIEL MAFFIAKenny loved to go spearfishing, loved to pop suddenly up out of the water like a briny monster from a Japanese movie, startling some old fellows fishing there.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)