Mike McCartney can vividly recall when and where he was the first time he heard Jason Wright speak. He didn't know a thing about the charismatic running back from Northwestern and had no idea he would even be in attendance that day at the annual Big 10 luncheon in Chicago. But McCartney, a Chicago resident, became almost instantly fascinated by him.
There were roughly 2000 people in the ballroom, every coach in the conference gave a speech and three players from every team attended as well. Only one player spoke, however, representing all of the Big 10 student athletes, and this particular July it was Wright, who was about to begin his senior season for the Wildcats.
"I wasn't recruiting him at all," McCartney told me. "I don't even ever really remember watching him play to that point. And he gets up to speak and I sat in that audience and I was truly mesmerized. I said to myself, 'I need this kid in my life.'
"I called around and got his number at his apartment ... and then I started recruiting him and learning who he was. I remember the first time he came over to the house he was on the floor wrestling with my three boys, who were young at the time, and you could just tell then that he was really special."
Wright is, unquestionably, unique, with the world beginning to learn this week what his longtime agent recognized instantly. Wright shared his seven-year NFL journey with McCartney, with the agent marveling at the kind of player, person, husband and parent Wright became, and is equally impressed by his scholarly and professional pursuits, earning a degree from Northwestern, then an MBA from the prestigious University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the precursor to a rapid rise as a top exec at McKinsey, a leading management consulting company.
And Wright, 38, returned to his football roots this week in an unprecedented manner, becoming the first person of color to hold the title of Team President of an NFL franchise when Washington owner Dan Snyder announced his hiring on Monday, which launched an international media blitz including an appearance on "Good Morning America."
He joins that storied but troubled franchise at what is unquestionably a unique moment in time, with it in the process of changing its nickname -- a nickname considered racist by many for decades -- while three prominent minority owners are seeking to sell their stake in the team amid the Covid pandemic, on the heels of the firing of a host of prominent execs and employees amid a sexual harassment investigation.
All of this, of course, coming as this country deals with issues of racial inequality and police brutality amid ongoing demonstrations in cities from coast to coast and as the NFL prepares for a 2020 season that will likely feature more sweeping and widespread player and coach protests than ever before, which will undoubtedly be a polarizing issue in the upcoming presidential election.
Fair to say we have never seen anything quite like this before, and the Washington Football Team was certainly at the vortex of much of it. Snyder had already hired one of the few Hispanic coaches in NFL history -- Ron Rivera -- early this year, and hired Julie Donaldson last month in the immediate aftermath of the sexual harassment scandal, making her the first woman in league history to have a full-time role in an NFL team's game-day radio booth. The times, they are a-changin', particularly in Ashburn, Virginia, with Wright's hiring being heralded throughout the football and business community for good reason.
"This is easily one of the top moments of my professional career," said McCartney, a football lifer and the son of esteemed college coach Bill McCartney. "I've been in the NFL for 29 years, and Jason is arguably the most impressive person I've ever been around. He's got it all; there are not enough superlatives for this guy. He has great character. He has great poise. He's as smart as anybody you'll ever meet. He truly cares about people and he is totally inclusive. He wants to build a community. He is truly special. He is the total package.
"I think it's a tremendous hire with great insight by the Washington Football Team to pair Jason with Ron Rivera, who I also worked with for a few years (McCartney was a pro and college scout for the Bears for six years while Rivera coached there). I have high hopes for the team from Washington now, and the leadership has changed pretty dramatically there. So to answer your question -- I'm just beyond thrilled and beyond happy and beyond proud of Jason."
Turmoil and turnover have been constant during Snyder's tenure owning the team, which dates back 20 years now. And winning has been shockingly infrequent. A tall task, indeed.
McCartney knows the organization well; you might recall he represents quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose long and messy public saga in Washington ended with him leaving as a free agent after playing out two franchise tags then signing a record three-year, fully-guaranteed, $86M deal with the Vikings, a contract unlike anything the NFL had ever seen. Wright did confide in McCartney through the process with Washington, knowing his long-time friend would be an honest confidant with a unique perspective into his prospective employer. Wright has lived in the Washington area since 2013, so he had a sense of what he was getting into as well given the recent history of this franchise.
McCartney declined to go into any specifics of his conversations with Wright, but did say he "shared everything he knew" of the organization and "this was an unbelievable opportunity, and there is no chance that I would try to talk him out of it."
The infighting within this organization has been an open secret in NFL circles, from Snyder chucking out Marty Schottenheimer after one year in favor of Vinny Cerrato, to his clashes with Mike Shanahan to him sticking with team president Bruce Allen, a figure of extreme scorn to the fanbase, far longer than would be expected. There has always been a problem in that organization about who had the owner's ear, and what motives they had, to say nothing of the revolving door of top execs on the business side of the building.
Despite all of that, some in the NFL have continually viewed this franchise as a sleeping giant of sorts, despite serious attendance issues, and an ongoing stadium issue and with fan detachment there seemingly at an all-time high. While McCartney opted not to comment on any of that, keeping most details of his talks with Wright private, it's fair to assume they went over the entire landscape.
"I did tell Jason that I believe great leaders like you and Ron Rivera can turn an organization around quickly," said McCartney, one of the leading agents at Priority Sports And Entertainment. "Ron Rivera is a great man and you guys will be aligned. Now they'll have two tremendous people at the helm of that organization, and based on everything they said in the press release and all quotes from Mr. Sndyer, it says he's going to let these men run the organization. Mr. Snyder has said there have been some mistakes made there and they've talked about some issues, and he could not have put a better team together to help lead them forward."
McCartney was aware of this possibility for about a month, with Wright alerting him to some initial meetings. He did his best to advise and counsel his friend, and aid with his preparation in any way possible. "I didn't tell a soul for about three weeks, and then I wake up Monday and it's exploding on Twitter and he's on Good Morning America!"
McCartney could not help but recall when he spoke with Wright and his wife, who have been heroic in the charitable endeavors and adopted homeless siblings, at length when Wright was considering retirement from the NFL. He'd entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2004, and played for the Falcons, Browns and Cardinals before deciding it was time to go back to school in 2010 to focus on his MBA.
"We had an offer from (then Cardinals GM) Rod Graves to extend his career," McCartney said. "And Jason said his wife was done with him playing, so I called Rod again. And then he offered us more money. He said, 'I've got to have Jason back!' But they never wavered. He was ready to move on."
Graves said: "Mike was right. I can't tell you how disappointed I was. That was one free agent I really wanted to re-sign. But he had a plan, and think about it -- he goes to grad school and then is offered a partnership out of grad school, which I can't believe is routine. That's just another indicator of the extraordinary person we're looking at here."
Graves is as proud as McCartney, perhaps even moreso. After his tenure as a personnel executive, Graves went on to work for the NFL and is now head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works with the league to advocate for greater diversity in all facets of the game, particularly the coaching and management ranks. For Wright, someone he knows so well, to be the first black person with the title of Team President, is truly special.
"To give you a sense of who he is and the kind of dynamic person he is, we signed him in the offseason in 2009, right after our Super Bowl appearance, and in that short of a period of time before we started the 2009 season we elected him as a team captain," Graves said. "That doesn't happen very often in sports, period, and it just gives you an indication of how dynamic he is, how charismatic he is. He's a smart guy, he's sincere, he's well-prepared and he's got a great sense of his surroundings and how to help others around him. Those are some things that stood out about Jason."
Graves said that while he is obviously thrilled with Washington's hire, he had no role in the process whatsoever.
"We are all under the influence of today, and are aware of the circumstances of today," Graves said, "and I'm sure Dan Snyder is very well aware of that in his decision. And let's give him credit for pulling the trigger and selected the candidate he felt was best for his football team."
As Wright himself put it during an appearance on "Speak For Yourself" on Fox Sports on Tuesday: "If there's a white brother out there who played seven years in the NFL, got a top-five MBA, became a partner at a consulting firm and led businesses through transformations for the last eight years and I beat him out because I'm black -- I apologize."
Yeah, there is definitely a new sheriff in town.
As sad and bizarre as it is that it took 100 years for this to happen, Graves is hopeful it will lead to other organizations making similar decisions, hopefully, sooner rather than later.
"I'm sure that Jason's impact on the Washington Football Team will make it easier in that regard," Graves said, "and so I personally think - because I've had experience with Jason - that he will make that decision much easier for those down the road."
McCartney wholeheartedly agrees and believes that the sleeping giant in Washington is about to rise up in ways not seen in roughly 30 years.
"We had a group text going with eight Northwestern players I've represented about Jason, and everyone is elated and proud, but not really surprised," McCartney said. "One guy was like, 'I thought he'd be President of the USA by now.'
"Jason just has something special. He's a natural leader and he's a people person and he's going to change things there. I told him that the next 100 days, those are going to be the key days in that building, and you're going to see a metamorphosis there. You just are. Washington is going to become a destination place, I really believe that. I know that I may sound over the top, but his impact on that organization is going to be profound."