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Steven M. Sipple: Once a relentless Blackshirt, Toby Wright embraces role as son’s ‘navigator’

May 13, 2019

Toby Wright played football at a high level in high school, college and the NFL.

Now, he says, he’s a navigator -- his son’s navigator.

Javin Wright, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound defensive back from Chandler, Arizona, will arrive on Nebraska’s campus early next month hoping to carve out the same type of career as his father, a hard-hitting safety for the Huskers in 1992 and 1993 who went on to play six seasons in the NFL.

“I tell Javin, ‘I’m the navigator of your ship. You’re driving, and I’m just pointing out things before they come up,’” the elder Wright says in a booming voice filled with joy, pride and passion. “It’s like, ‘Be careful, son, this situation might be over there.’ I just told him last week, ‘I don’t know why you don’t come to me more about certain things just to get some high insight.’

“I told him that if I was a carpenter or some math extraordinaire, you would damn sure know how to do that. But right now, what I’m thinking about is everything I went through in football -- all the life skills I learned and people I met -- and I tell him, ‘Man, I’m going to give you everything I have learned the best way I can.’

“But I always tell him he’s still the one who has to go through it all. It’s his situation.”

One of four defensive backs in Nebraska’s scholarship class of 2019, Javin Wright says he regards his father’s wisdom as a “big advantage.” After all, he hones techniques he learned from his father. If he has a question, his dad is always there with answers.

Toby Wright’s six years in the NFL suggests he understands what’s required to perform at a high level.

“I don’t compromise, either,” the elder Wright says flatly. “I can’t.”

His own father, Tommie Wright, was an All-America wrestler and runner-up in the Olympic Trials. Toby emphasizes the urgency with which high-level athletes must approach their craft.

“You have to be able to turn your light switch on -- on command -- every time,” he says. “Maybe you’ve made eight good plays. On that ninth time, if you don’t make it, that could be your career. You could be done. It’s a performance business.”

During Javin’s sophomore season at Hamilton High in Chandler, he sometimes squared off in practice against one of the team’s best wideouts. In one particular practice, Toby recalls, the star receiver caught pass after pass, and Javin’s energy dipped.

Toby’s undergone 14 knee surgeries. He arrived at Nebraska in 1992 with an ACL issue, and blew out his other knee in his sixth NFL season. So he doesn’t move particularly well. But he made his way down the sideline that day in practice until he was within shouting distance of Javin “just so I could help his spirit.”

“I told him, ‘This is where you win! This is where you win!’” says Toby, enthusiastically recalling the moment Javin picked off the next pass thrown and held the ball over his head in triumph.

“As a father, that was the greatest thing to see,” Toby says. “That’s the game within the game.”

Those type of moments often are defining in nature. They might even be moments that nobody else remembers.

For Wright, as relentless a defender as you’ll ever see, one of those moments was Tom Osborne approaching him during a practice and saying, “Hey, Toby, why don’t you slow down a bit.”

“Or how about this one: We were doing 9-on-7 one day, and (6-foot, 230-pound fullback) Cory Schlesinger came at me on a play,” recalls the elder Wright, who was a 6-1, 200-pounder in his playing days. “I can’t say I got the best of him, and he can’t say he got the best of me. We clanked heads, and coach (Charlie) McBride was screaming at us. Cory lines back up (for the next play), and coach McBride yells to the defense, ‘OK, bring in the second unit.’

“I was like, ‘OK, thanks.’ I didn’t say it out loud, but that’s what I was thinking as I went off the field,” he says.

More than a quarter-century later, one of the hardest hitters in Nebraska football history chuckles at the recollection. A transfer from Phoenix (Arizona) College, Wright was a second-team All-Big Eight selection in 1993 following a season in which he made 79 tackles, including eight in the 18-16 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State -- a loss that in many ways was the impetus to the Huskers capturing the national championship in 1994.

The Rams drafted Wright in the second round, and he started 44 games from 1994-98.

When Javin watches his father’s games on video, he sees the trademark physical nature. He sounds immensely proud.

“My dad was a different player than most,” Javin says. “He really didn’t stop no matter what was in front of him. I want to have that same tenacity in my game.”

Says Toby of Javin: “It’s crazy, his growth pattern. He’s getting bigger by the day. I’m like, ‘What the hell are you?’ As he’s doing that, my knees are hurting and my back is hurting even more. I’m getting more gray hair, so I’m going the other way ...”

Toby’s planning on moving to Lincoln in time for the fall. He wouldn’t miss this stuff. His son hopes to play corner but would enthusiastically play safety.

“I at least want to get into the rotation,” Javin says. “I want to get some playing time. But my goal is to start.”

That will be a challenge because Nebraska features battle-tested corners and safeties. But Husker secondary coach Travis Fisher hasn’t been shy in saying that he expects the quartet of incoming freshmen — Wright, Quinton Newsome, Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates — to provide an immediate challenge for the veterans.

“We’re a special group,” Javin says. “I feel like we can change the DB group. We can become the stars of the defense.”

Maybe they’ll become as proficient as the 1993 Nebraska secondary, which helped the Huskers finish 12th nationally in both total defense and pass-efficiency defense on an 11-1 team.

“Yeah, maybe we’ll be that good,” Javin says. “Or maybe even better.”

That’d be fine by his navigator. It would signify a job well done.