By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Mike Wright had to fight back tears last year when the University of Cincinnati football team took the field to face TCU in its season opener at Nippert Stadium.
Just a few weeks earlier, he had been slated to start at defensive tackle as a walk-on transfer from Division II Ashland (Ohio) College. But he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in a pre-season scrimmage and was lost for the season.
On Monday, the Bearcats will storm the Nippert Stadium turf again to begin their 116th season of football against East Carolina and Wright, a 2000 graduate of Purcell Marian High School, might have to fight back tears again, but for a different reason this time.
All his perseverance over the past three years, the pain he endured in the weight room, the quiet moments of uncertainty, will have paid off. Wright will be starting at defensive tackle.
"I'll probably have to pinch myself," he said. "It's too good to be true."
Wright, a 6-5, 291 pound junior, was, by his own admission, an average player with so-so grades at Purcell. He accepted a partial scholarship to play at Ashland, but his plan was to play there for a year or two, improve his grades, bulk up and then transfer.
It didn't take long for Wright to realize that even a short stay at Ashland wasn't in the cards. He quit after one semester, figuring that he was finished with football.
"That school kind of drained me," Wright said. "It wasn't really like I thought college would be."
He transferred to UC, still thinking his football career was over until he walked past Nippert Stadium one day, saw the Bearcats working out in spring practice, and realized that he still wanted to play.
UC coaches agreed to give Wright a look. He sat out the 2001 season under NCAA transfer rules, then last summer barged his way into the starting lineup, moving from defensive end to tackle.
The day after he learned he would start in a scrimmage at the Higher Ground Retreat Center, he was executing a stunt on a pass rush and hyper-extended his knee, but continued to play.
"Two plays later, I got my foot caught up in a pile," Wright said. "Kirt Doolin rolled on me and it just popped. I could hear it. I went down and that was it."
Later that day, while talking outside his room with Bill Walker, UC's associate athletic director for sports medicine, he wondered if it was time to give up on football again, this time for good.
"I asked him, 'Is it really worth it to come back?' " Wright said. " 'Am I going to be as effective as I was?' He said, 'You can be just as effective, if not more.' "
Wright underwent surgery immediately after the injury, but it wasn't until last January when he realized he would make it all the way back. That's when the swelling in his knee finally subsided.
"My biggest thing with Mike," Walker said, "which is a credit to his work ethic, is that I had to be more controlling getting him to slow down."
Wright's long odyssey not only resulted in a starting position at defensive tackle, it finally led to that scholarship he has coveted for so long.
He calls it "another dream come true."
"That's one we proudly give out," said UC coach Rick Minter. "There's no better success story of how you can come back home again and have your dreams come true if you stick to it and set your goals high. He was set to do it, got knocked down one more time and came bounding back a year later to start."
Bengals drop Dugans, Armour
Bengals' secondary work in progress
Notes: Cuts leave team wondering who's next
MORE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
Manning passes Colts to victory
Testaverde set to get to work
Daugherty: Clarett epitomizes stud-athlete, not student-athlete
UC's Wright achieves dreams, one by one
Focus finally back on field for OSU, UW
Cardinals set to come out winging
Reds' fire sale continues with Heredia
Brewers 10, Reds 6
MORE BASEBALL HEADLINES
Closer Gagne works on a perfect season
Royals bolster rotation by acquiring Anderson
NL: Expos hammer Phillies' Wolf
AL: Pedro and Bosox sweep
Colerain passes Elder into No. 1
Reading's Pike gets good news
Prep sports schedule
U.S. OPEN TENNIS
Sampras says goodbye
Davenport's foot is fine in easy win
Fish story takes new turn at Open
Erring Rubin is stunned
Penske taps Hornish to replace de Ferran
Yzerman returns for 21st season with Detroit
ON THE AIR
Tuesday's sports on TV, radio