Fast Track

He ain't the biggest waste of talent in NFL history.

But he is the fastest.

At this point in his afterlife, Alexander Wright was supposed to be kicking back and cashing in on a star-studded career adorned with Super Bowl rings and supersonic highlights. The NFL's fastest player in the early 1990s and the zesty spice to a Dallas Cowboys offense surging into dynasty behind four future Hall of Famers, Wright faced a path to fame and fortune paved with simple tasks like running precise routes and--uh-oh--catching the football.

"I didn't accomplish my goals," Wright says. "No Super Bowl rings. No Pro Bowls. I thought I'd be a lot more productive. It's still disappointing. You try to forget it and learn from it and move on, but, yeah, it bothers me."

After retirement some players stroll into their own businesses, high-profile speaking jobs or million-dollar gigs as TV analysts. Others plow straight into the abyss.

While former teammates like Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston and Troy Aikman remain marketable money-makers in the media world, Wright is slowly climbing the coaching ladder--one five-figure salary at a time.

Jokes Alexander, the new offensive coordinator at something called Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, "Coach Wright still gotta work."

How does this happen? How do high draft picks with adequate size, superior strength and unprecedented speed not make a positive impact on the Cowboys?

The sad, simple truth: Alexander Wright played football, but he was never a football player. You could tell by the way he ran like Secretariat and caught like Mr. Ed.

"I can't argue with that," Wright admits with a boyish, contagious giggle that belies his underlying disappointment. "I was never a polished package."

The Cowboys selected Wright with the 26th overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, an aerial complement to co-rookie Smith's running. In an offensive philosophy built around Aikman, Irvin, Smith and future lineman anchor Larry Allen, Wright's job requirements were minimal, almost remedial.

Run. Fast. Catch.

In '90 and '91, Wright won the NFL's Fastest Man competition, and in May '91--swear--he clocked consecutive 40-yard dashes of 4.14 and 4.09 seconds on the Cowboys' Valley Ranch track. And you thought the Wright Brothers could fly?

Three events in my life proved there is indeed a God: shaking hands with Anna Kournikova, seeing autistic high-school basketball manager Jason McElwain hit six 3-pointers in a game, watching Alexander Wright run.

"Two years ago, I ran a 4.38," says Wright, now 38. "I still have my moments; it just takes me three months to recover now instead of three hours."

But other than kickoff returns, his speed rarely translated to the field. On December 22, 1991, against the Falcons at Texas Stadium, Wright took a kick and zoomed 102 yards for a touchdown that remains the longest play in the Cowboys' storied history.

"Most of the time I took a knee in the end zone," remembers Wright, whose No. 81 will be shoved further from Cowboys consciousness by Terrell Owens' arrival. "But it was the last game of the season, and we decided to take some chances. I brought it out and just kept on running."

It was one of only two touchdowns in a 34-game Cowboys career of just 21 catches for 274 yards. Wright often made poor adjustments to the ball. Never mastered the nuances of route-running and space-creating that epitomized Irvin's career. And, with neither a hard nose nor soft hands, never gained the trust of Aikman.

"I never blossomed as far as mental toughness," Wright says. "My learning curve was just too slow."

Like Mavericks coach Don Nelson and his eternal infatuation with Shawn Bradley's 7-foot-6 height, Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was initially tantalized by Wright's speed. But in '92 he finished with fewer catches (0) than offensive lineman John Gesek (1) and was traded for a fourth-round draft pick to the Raiders by a team that went on to win Super Bowl XXVII.

Though he played in more than one-fourth of the 19 games that season, Cowboys players and management didn't award Wright a Super Bowl ring.

"It didn't really hurt my feelings," says Wright, who these days keeps in touch regularly with only Jim Jeffcoat. "I tried to put it in perspective."

After stints with the Raiders and Rams, Wright finished his seven-year NFL career in 1996 with more yards returning kicks (1,681) than catching passes (1,597). A bulging disc in his back finalized his untapped potential.

"I'm sad to say, I got scared," Wright says. "Two surgeries on my back was enough."

Goodbye, Canton. Hello, Waxahachie?

Upon retirement Wright fast-forwarded his search for a life after football. A devout Christian, he served as a youth minister and started a business rehabbing and reselling houses but, somewhere between the doughnuts with deacons and the rifts with roofers, found himself missing football.

"It's the only career I've ever known," he says. "The only one I've ever loved."

Funny thing about passion: It sometimes leads you to drag your wife, Veerle, and four children through the most unknown of outposts. In the past six years, Wright worked as interim general manager for the obscure Show Me Believers of the cleverly disguised National Indoor Football League, coached high school football in such bustling Missouri metropolises as Valley Park, Chesterfield and O'Fallon and coached at small-college hideaways in Canyon, Texas; Greensboro, North Carolina; and, finally, Waxahachie.

Ah, home, sweet home?

"It's time I grew some roots," says Wright, who in '00 quit a job as a scout for the New England Patriots because he didn't like the constant travel. "I never thought I'd wind up in any of these places."

One-year wonders at Division II West Texas A&M in '04 and Division III Greensboro College in '05 begat his latest stop at SAGU, an evangelical Christian school 30 minutes south of Dallas on Interstate 35. Athletically speaking, the Lions reside in a hell known as NAIA Independent, never sniffing the big time and boasting a rich football tradition of 13 wins in 10 seasons.

It's not exactly Irvin's ESPN limos or Aikman's NASCAR partnership with Roger Staubach, but...

"I'm happy, really happy," Wright says, again accompanied by the giddy chuckling. "Football's always put food on my plate, and I'll always love it; I'd love to get back in the NFL someday and teach young guys from my experience. Who knows? That's down the road. Right now I feel like I'm still learning myself."

Sometimes the fastest people endure the slowest progression.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt