Jim Dey: Wright finds success in helping others find success
Between training dogs and training people, it's a busy life for John Wright Sr.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I feel if a person doesn't have a purpose in his life, he's going to go downhill fast," said Wright, whose busy pace belies his age of 68.
The former Fighting Illini and NFL player is retired as a managing director of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. But he continues work as a life-skills coach, motivational speaker and corporate trainer. In his spare time, he trains bird dogs, hunts with them and maintains his obvious fitness with almost daily workouts (349 days out of 365 in 2013).
From his family and business compound located off I-74 near St. Joseph, Wright wages a daily campaign to bring out the best in himself and others. He radiates enthusiasm, energy and ambition for all concerned.
"I feel that we have a responsibility to be all that we can be," said Wright, contending that a well-rounded, enthusiastic approach to life is key to success and happiness.
That kind of self-improvement sales pitch may be off-putting to some. But Wright has a legion of followers in the sports and corporate worlds who visit him for lessons on how to become better people, teammates, co-workers, managers and leaders.
Virtually all of the University of Illinois sports teams have visited Greyfield, the name of Wright's compound, for a combination of recreation and reflection. Corporations book two-day retreats. Individuals call Wright to ask him to become their life coach.
"My first question to them is, 'Why?'" Wright said.
Some who cross his path become close friends, even though they might appear on the surface to have little in common.
A couple weeks ago, Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman visited Wright. With his daughter in tow, Tillman attended a UI women's basketball game at the State Farm Center with Wright. The NFL veteran said their relationship dates back to 2003, when Wright hosted a life-skills session for all the Bears draft choices that year, including Tillman.
Describing Wright as "a good friend, mentor, second dad, family," Tillman stays in close touch with him.
How did Wright get to be a life coach? He said he started out in life with two great coaches of his own — his mother and father.
"I was blessed to have two super parents," he said. "They gave me supreme confidence. They convinced me I could do anything I wanted to do."
Wright's father, Bob Wright, was a high school track coach. His mother, Mary, was a homemaker.
"They helped people," he said. "Maybe it's little (help). Maybe it's big."
After coaching high school track in the suburban Chicago area, Bob Wright served as the UI's track coach from 1965 to 1974, and John Wright Sr. competed on his father's track team as well as in football.
John Wright said he wanted to be a sports coach like his dad, but learned from his experience in the NFL that "you don't control your life in coaching." So after an Achilles tendon injury ended his NFL career, Wright went into the insurance business, excelling as an agent and, ultimately, as a managing director for Northwestern Mutual.
Along the way, Wright said, he studied and learned the keys to success and became dedicated to spreading the message. To say he is Messianic would be to understate Wright's belief in self-improvement.
Even today, he laments his own lack of awareness about the keys to success in his early adulthood.
"Nothing significant is ever accomplished without confidence and hope," he said. "... I wish I had had that confidence as a player in the NFL."
Wright was a guest speaker at NFL Rookie symposium for six years. It was after that when he convinced former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo to send the team's 2003 draft choices for a two-day seminar. Wright said he found that behind the bravura of young athletes are insecurity and inexperience that are ripe for exploitation by people who do not have the athletes' best interests at heart.
He noted that the average NFL career lasts 3.2 years and that 75 percent of the players are broke, divorced or unemployed two years after their career is over.
"These kids need help. They need life skills," Wright said.
But so do other people. Wright said he schedules anywhere from 30 to 50 speaking engagements a year, before crowds large and small and audiences young and old.
He particularly enjoys speaking to young people. (Third-graders are among his favorites). Wright emphasizes what he calls "true north principles."
"Kids love enthusiasm," he said.
Married with two children (son John Jr, played football for the UI), 11 grandchildren and nine dogs, Wright said he has a great life.
But, of course, it's not one in which improvements can't be made. He concedes that, like everyone, he has flaws to improve and goals to achieve.
Wright has two book ideas on the drawing board. As to his personal qualities, he grades himself high when it comes to "zest" but was surprised to learn that his wife graded him quite low on "emotional flexibility."
"I'm getting better," Wright said. "I've worked on that. I try to work on a lot of things."
Words of wisdom
"Becoming a champion is tough," John Wright writes on his website, greyfieldlegacies.com, "but the good news is YOU CAN BECOME ONE!"
It's all about mastering what the motivational speaker calls the 5 Cs of leadership:
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.