Hit the Ground Running
Admittedly, Wright’s hiring raised some eyebrows. After all, he’d never held any front-office position in the sport. Plus, he was a contemporary of some older players still in the league.
But Wright had begun building an excellent reputation at Northwestern, which he says pushed him to grow both personally and professionally. He came to the University as a heralded recruit from Los Angeles, who, in his own words, wasn’t “the most responsible or mature kid.” He credits late football coach Randy Walker as a critical figure in his development.
Jason Wright (18) with his fellow seniors and coach Randy Walker in fall 2003. Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics
“He helped me evolve as an individual and grow into a man,” Wright says of the former Wildcat coach (1999–2005), who died in 2006. “The evolution that needed to happen for me to become a person of substance came through Coach Walker, who was able to see through my b.s., my California bluster, all of that. He was intentional about investing time in me. I carry so much of his character with me in the work I do today.”
Wright learned, above all, to be adaptable, a hallmark trait that would lead to his success both in his Northwestern football career and in the pros. He was asked to shift positions, from running back to wide receiver, early in his Wildcat career, a move that stung at first but demonstrated his ability to think and maneuver on the fly.
“It was the first time I wasn’t the best of the best at something,” he recalls. “It was a blow to my ego, but it was also my ego that compelled me to say yes to the position switch. It helped me develop a more diverse skill set as a player.
“And now, with all the high-intensity topics in this role, the type of thinking I need to bring shifts from meeting to meeting, moment to moment. That mental and physical agility started at Northwestern.”
During his first two seasons, Wright didn’t see much action for the Wildcats. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t making an impact on the team.
“When Jason wasn’t starting, he and I were both on the scout team,” recalls former Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez ’05, ’06 MA. “He was so talented. We could have our way with the starting defense — and we had a lot of good players on that defense. Plus he was one of the smartest people at the school, not just in the locker room.”
Wright proved to be multitalented both on and off the field. The self-described nerd studied psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and considered a career as a pediatrician. He also sang the national anthem before a Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament game at the United Center and was president of the Northwestern chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Wright’s coaches eventually returned him to running back before his junior season, and his mental and physical acumen drew notice from all in the program, including a young assistant coach named Pat Fitzgerald ’97, who was working with Wildcat linebackers.
“He was incredibly intelligent,” recalls Fitzgerald, now the Dan and Susan Jones Family Head Football Coach. “It was amazing to me that he took the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] during preseason camp one year. So he was going down the road to medical school. To see him change gears and get into the business world and now football management is incredible. But he always exuded leadership, confidence and the amazing ability to make everyone better.”
Wright became captain of the football team in his senior year and twice earned first-team Academic All-American honors.
But when asked what the most important part of his collegiate experience is, Wright says there’s no contest: It was meeting Tiffany Braxton ’07, a School of Education and Social Policy student whom he married in 2008. Wright also credits the student-athlete experience and the Black community at Northwestern for helping to shape his worldview.
“The Black community was especially vibrant, thoughtful and formative for me, especially my discussions with fellow Black students at the Black House,” Wright says. “Just being around other brilliant Black folks is always energizing. I don’t think I really understood the value of those experiences at the time. That network of folks has helped me get on my feet as a first-time chief executive.”
Wright’s professional success came as no shock to his friend and fraternity brother Michael Blake ’04. “Northwestern put Jason in a scenario where excellence in academics and sports and the professionalism of business all intertwined,” says Blake, president of Next Level Sports and Entertainment and former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “It perfectly prepared him for this moment. Remember, he wasn’t just some random guy. He was the star of team. I always said Jason was the coolest nerd I ever knew.”
Obviously Jason is a superb individual, leader and caring human being. And now an active "player" in the generation of leaders so badly needed now. Now it's your turn, Jason, to help lead a nation.
—Robin Pendergrast Salt Lake City, via Northwestern Magazine