11/27/98 — Sheridan High football coach Bid Wright smiles as his team scores touchdown in the second quarter during the class 1A IHSAA State Football Finals at the RCA Dome Friday afternoon. (Matt Kryger/Staff Photo) with BEAS story, File #34178
PHOENIX – After 392 wins and nine football state championships at Sheridan High School, Bud Wright is going to the Super Bowl.
Maybe you know the story. The Indianapolis Star wrote about it in November, when Wright was announced as one of three nationwide finalists in the NFL’s “Together We Make Football” contest. The contest is a celebration of high school coaches who have devoted their lives to football, and to the kids who play it.
Contest entries included a short video about the candidate, and Wright’s video was devastating. His three sons played for him, coached for him, became coaches elsewhere. His daughter became an assistant athletics director at Sheridan. His wife, their mother – Jayne – suffered from depression and in 2003 committed suicide. The family turned to one another, and to football.
This contest was made for Bud Wright, and sure enough he’s in Phoenix this week for the Super Bowl. He arrived Thursday night. He had a police escort to his hotel. There was a reception when he arrived. His two tickets were waiting. There are Super Bowl parties all weekend. He has invitations to three of them.
“I’m in disbelief,” Bud Wright was telling me after arriving in Phoenix.
It’s a great story. Maybe you knew it already.
You don’t know.
Because Bud Wright didn’t win that contest. How did he get here? That’s the real story.
Jim Irsay sent him.
* * *
This is what Irsay does. In Indianapolis, we know that side of the Colts owner. Around the country they know Irsay for other stuff, like his stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed and his offseason arrest and stint in rehab. Hey, we all have a bed we’ve made for ourselves. Nationally, that’s where Jim Irsay sleeps.
Locally? He’s more than that and we know it. There’s stuff that has been told and retold, the usage of his private jet for people (and a dog) in need, the money he has floated to local businesses to keep them afloat, the support he gave coach Chuck Pagano when Pagano was fighting leukemia.
And there’s stuff we keep finding out, like this tidbit I learned a few weeks ago from Bill Bickel, director of the Holy Family Shelter on North Holmes Avenue. A few years ago the shelter – which serves about 350 homeless families annually, including more than 400 children – was in financial danger. Irsay heard about it. He sent a check. The shelter is still around.
So anyway, Bud Wright. He’s never seen a Super Bowl. Never met Jim Irsay either. He’ll do one this week for sure. He’d like to do both.
“I’d love to thank him,” Wright says. “This is a great feeling, I’ll tell you that.”
The story. You need the rest of this story.
* * *
The story starts Jan. 5, when Bud Wright learned his family hadn’t won that NFL contest. That cleared his calendar for the final week of January, which is when he normally drives to the central Florida town of Astor with his second wife, Ellen, and their 18-foot Bass Tracker. There are bass in the St. Johns River, and every February for almost 10 years, Bud Wright has driven down there to catch some.
He and Ellen were near Valdosta, Ga., a few miles from the Florida border, when his cell phone rang Tuesday. It was ex-Colts safety Mike Prior, the team’s director of youth football outreach, and Colts marketing director Stephanie Pemberton with some news for Wright: You’re going to the Super Bowl!
With this caveat:
We need an answer in two hours. And the plane leaves in two days. From Indianapolis.
There in South Georgia, almost reaching Florida, Bud Wright didn’t know what to do. He hung up and told Ellen about the offer, and the timing. Ellen knew what to do.
“We’re going,” she said.
Logistics were the issue. How to get from Astor, Fla. – about 50 miles from Orlando – to Indianapolis? While Bud drove south on I-75, Ellen Wright pulled out her iPad and found a flight to Indianapolis on Wednesday, and then a flight back to Orlando and the St. Johns River on Monday.
Bud Wright started to smile.
“The whole thing put me in shock for a minute,” he says. “It’s just a complete surprise. Here we are, getting ready to cross into Florida, and it’s just a shock. But it means a lot. Coaching has been my life, and that’s a big ball game, and just the atmosphere of the big ball game – it’s going to be great.”
Bud Wright isn’t just any coach. He’s the all-time victories leader in Indiana, compiling a 392-177 record in 49 years, with season No. 50 coming up. After that?
“I’m taking it one year at a time,” he says.
He turned 74 in December, which makes this whole trip into the Super Bowl glitz a bit surreal. You know what I want to see? I want to see Bud Wright, humble and Midwestern and 5-foot-4, walking into one of the three Super Bowl parties the Colts gave him a ticket to attend. Bud Wright on the red carpet. What a sight that would be.
Already this trip has been more than he imagined. The police escort from the airport to the hotel – a resort Marriott – was a surprise. So was the reception. Wright is with a group of Colts executives and sponsors, hence the VIP treatment. Every NFL team receives about 600 Super Bowl tickets, but those go fast. Players get their share. Sponsors have contractual rights to others. What’s left?
“Just a handful,” says Colts chief operating officer Pete Ward. “But Jim (Irsay) was aware of the story, and he wanted to see if we could get (Wright and his wife) to the game.”
How, I asked Ward, was Irsay aware of the story?
“His daughters,” Ward said of Carlie, Casey and Kalen Irsay. “Once it became clear we had the tickets available, Jim wanted to get him out here to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately we couldn’t take care of the whole family.”
Two Super Bowl tickets is two more than the Wright family expected. Bud Wright woke up Friday morning to a big breakfast and a free day. At least until the Super Bowl party later in the evening.
“It’s so great,” the winningest high school football coach in Indiana history said Friday from a resort in Phoenix. “I still can’t believe I woke up here.”