Game Day

BY THE HORNS: Personal pride helps Wright fight through Bobcat career


I saw a dead man’s finer part

Shining within each faithful heart

Of those bereft. Then said I: “This must be

His immortality.”

Zach Wright started thinking about the concept of his own mortality and the broad notion of immortality when he was still in high school. As a prep senior, he stumbled upon Thomas Hardy’s poem “His Immortality.”

At first, Wright could not figure out the deeper meaning of the poem’s opening stanza. But he knew he liked it. He memorized the passage. He recited it. He began to understand. He began to form his own quest for a personal definition of immortality.

“I finally learned that the poem is about when someone dies, the part that they leave that makes them immortal is the part that person leaves within all others,” Wright said. “More than anything, I live by those words.”

Wright takes great pride in the places that have molded him.

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)/by Brooks Nuanez

Like so many Texans, the New Braunfels native has a fierce pride in the Lone Star State. Like so many in his hometown, he has a fierce pride in his German heritage and a great respect for those who came before him. And like so many young men who come of age in the Treasure State, Wright now has a deep admiration for Montana.

Because of his understanding for the factors that form him and the clusters of people he represents, Wright has committed himself to a steady discipline that has helped him walk the straight and narrow during the last five years in Bozeman, Montana.

And because of his quest to influence the lives of those around him, Wright has risen to a position to leave a memorable mark on the Montana State football program.

On Saturday, Wright will walk to the center of Bobcat Stadium as a team captain for the final time. The fifth-year senior defensive tackle will make his 31st straight start against Northern Colorado. He shared Montana State’s Joe Tiller Defensive MVP honors last season and is working on a second straight All-Big Sky Conference campaign.

But it’s the impact Wright has had in the Bobcat locker room with his teammates that will resonate the most. The captain has played an integral role in helping usher along the culture change third-year head coach Jeff Choate preaches daily. Wright’s ability to actualize his role amongst his peers paired with sharp communication skills have helped solidified Wright’s lasting legacy. 

“We have a collection of leaders on this team, but Zach is the heart and soul,” Choate said earlier this fall. “He understands the pulse of the locker room and the psychology of the program as much as anyone we have had here.”

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)/by Brooks Nuanez

The blue-collar workman came to Montana State as an unheralded defensive end with no recruit stars or flashy suitors. Through toughness, diligence and perseverance, Wright has been one of MSU’s most consistent performers in three years starting at a different position than he was originally recruited to play.

And as the lynchpin on a defensive line that also includes senior end Tyrone Fa’anono and senior nose tackle Tucker Yates, Wright has kept a group of 10 Bobcat seniors playing their final home games on Saturday together.

“Zach is the glue guy,” MSU third-year defensive line coach Byron Hout said. “He’s really, really smart for his age and he really understands the game being a coach’s son. Zach really understands what we are trying to do, the psychology of the program and where guys are at mentally from day to day.”

During fall camp of his redshirt freshman year while still playing defensive end and still carrying defensive end weight (240 pounds), Wright suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him from competing for time in MSU’s defensive line rotation. Early that season, Wright “messed up” his AC joint in his shoulder and ended up appearing in just five games, notching one assisted tackle.

By the end of his redshirt sophomore year in 2016, Choate’s first season at the helm, Wright “looked like a robot” because of the bulky brace he had to wear on his right elbow to support a torn UCL and a brace on his knee because of a sprained MCL. Yet he started all 11 games.

Last season, Wright tore the labrum in his left shoulder, an injury that initially happened in high school but got to the point where his shoulder “constantly slid out” when he played. He has delayed the surgery until his eligibility runs out. Yet his string of consecutive starts reached 22 games.

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96) in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

This season, he’s managed to stay healthy and has produced at multiple inside positions on MSU’s defensive line. He started the first game of the season at nose guard with Yates suspended and has rotated in at the position a good amount all year. He has 32 tackles this season, including a career-high 7.5 tackles for loss. He notched sacks against South Dakota State, Weber State and Cal Poly.

Wright spends most Sunday mornings during the season in the training room or doing some sort of rehab to keep his body operating at a functional level. He’s endured as many injuries as any Bobcat. Yet Wright has as many consecutive starts as anybody on the roster.

“The devil is in the details,” Wright said as he sat outside the MSU training room less than 48 hours after enduring an afternoon defending Cal Poly’s relentless triple option. “It’s not the big things. It’s all the small things added up. It’s about the menial tasks, doing the things you don’t want to do to stay in the fight.

“You wake up like this and you feel like you’ve done something. That’s what I love. It’s unbelievably satisfying. You don’t want it but you need it. It’s addicting.”

In his career, Wright has 12.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Statistics don’t tell the whole story.

“He’s a tough Texas boy that never quits,” said Yates, who has served as a captain with Wright, senior center Alex Neale and junior wide receiver Kevin Kassis down the stretch of this season. “He’s going to fight through some injuries. He’s going to play his heart out.”

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)/by Brooks Nuanez

Before taking his first college head coaching job, Choate spent two years coaching defensive line at Washington. When spring practices opened, Choate and Hout went to work building the bedrock fundamentally for what, three years later, is now one of the top defensive lines in the Big Sky. Before the coaching change, a mutual decision was also made to move Wright from end to tackle.

When he came back from Christmas Break to report to winter conditioning, Wright had gained so much mass, he became the brunt of jokes from his fellow linemen.

“We were like, ‘Damn, Zach,’” Fa’anono said with a nostalgic laugh. “We would send him messages about him being all big and fat. He gained weight by eating and he didn’t have that much time to train. When he came in, he was skinnier than me. His mom must be a great cook.”

The “bad weight phase” didn’t last long. By the 2016 season, Wright weight 255 pounds with improved fitness. He has played the last two seasons at 265 pounds on his 6-foot-2.5 frame, part of his conditioning coming from spending part of his summer working on a farm in Medicine Lake, Montana. Wright’s ability to perform at an all-league level is a testament to the discipline he’s been honing since his youth.

“Because of his discipline in developing and sharpening his technique, Zach is one of the few guys I’ve seen who gets better as a game goes on,” Hout said in September. “He plays with such high effort and his fundamentals are so good, he wears people out.”

From a young age, Wright remembers having an affinity for the military. “I wanted to be a patriot,” he said. Wright’s father, Matthew, has worked at a local construction company that is well known in New Braunfels and has coached youth sports most of Zach’s life. Wright’s mother, Robin, worked as a curriculum specialist for the New Braunfels school district, meaning he and his younger brother, Weston (now a true freshman offensive tackle at Texas Tech), knew they had to behave at every turn. The combination of a structured home life and an interest in a structured lifestyle helped keep Zach and Weston in line.

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96) with defensive line coach Byron Hout/by Brooks Nuanez

“I’ve lived and breathed patriotism, doing what’s right for your country and your family since I was little,” Wright said. “The family pride is huge. Making sure you represent that well was a huge deal for my parents.”

His roots also bolster that sense of pride. New Braunfels is a former German colony with a heavy German influence to this day. The town of about 80,000 Northeast of San Antonio still hosts Wurst Fest, a famous German festival complete with traditional sausages, beer, polka music and “chicken dancing,” Wright said.

Robin’s grandparents were German immigrants and Zach said his great grandmother fits the depiction of someone from one of the most prideful countries in the world.

“You want to talk about some proud people,” Wright said. “My great grandma, you ain’t doing anything she is supposed to do. She’ll kick your ass. Great grandma makes breakfast. You are not allowed to do that. That’s her role: to take care of her family.”

Because of his upbringing, Wright has always been a good student both in the academic classroom and on the football field. While studying the military, he remembers reading an essay about the teaching and repetition of basic battle and survival fundamentals “so when the shit hits the fan, you can just react instead of thinking.”

“It’s the same thing with our tedious drills and practices,” Wright said. “I get in there and I’m getting off the ball and everything happens in the snap of a finger and all of a sudden, the guard pulls, the tackle is crashing down and I don’t even have to think. I just react and throw them by me and I’m good.

“You can bet it gets tedious. Anyone who tells you it isn’t tedious is lying. But it’s how we’ve gotten to this point.”

This point is the crescendo of Wright’s college days. He will graduate with a double major in business management and business marking. He has navigated his final football season while taking a full course load, including capstone classes in each major.

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)/by Brooks Nuanez

Between practice, film study, recovery and rehab from the football side of things and a strenuous course load academically, Wright said he does “not have any spare time” this fall. He gives himself Sunday nights to recover and recoup each week.

“It all boils down to discipline,” Wright said. “It’s the ability to, as tempting as it is, to not throw yourself into the college life of drinking and partying and not doing school. I think that’s the No. 1 thing as far as attrition goes for guys who get into programs is they are not disciplined enough to handle being an athlete and a student.

“The other part is will power. It’s the ability for you, when all the odds are stacked against you, when you may not be the biggest, strongest or the fastest to put yourself in the grinder and improve yourself and become better every day, every hour, to never let off.”

He’ll stay in Bozeman until the spring, mostly to get the security deposit back on the apartment he has shared with his girlfriend, Emily Wilbert, since she moved to town late last summer. Wright’s high school sweetheart spent the last four years attending the University of New Mexico.

Following a tragic car accident his senior year of high school that cost the other driver their life, Wright began developing a breaching device for use by law enforcement to help those trapped escape. Wilbert’s father is the chief of police in New Braunfels and helped Wright begin bringing the idea to fruition. He’s continued to work on the idea and is now on his third prototype. He is in talks with a company in Tennessee that is interested in making the device “a subsidiary” of their company.

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)/by Brooks Nuanez

That invention might lead Wright down the path to his future. If not, he said he will look for career opportunities in Montana and Texas.

As for his football career winding down, Wright said he has no fear. Montana State’s captain remembers the end of each regular season being accompanied by thoughts and plans of how to spend the upcoming months healing and improving. With Saturday’s Senior Day and one last showdown with the rivalry Grizzlies the only guaranteed games remaining in his career, is simply enjoying the ride.

“I did the best I can,” Wright said. “I may not have been some insane, All-American award winner but damn if I didn’t give it my all. I came in here with no stars. No one knew who I was. I came from a school with a losing record. Being honest with myself, was I that great of a player? Hell no. But it’s the work that I did that got me to where I’m at and I’m damn proud of that.”

Of the 20 high school prospects that signed with MSU in 2014, only six will be celebrated on Saturday. Wright, Yates and Fa’anono along with tight ends Curtis Amos and Connor Sullivan and inside linebacker Grant Collins have endured a sea of change individually and as a group over the last five years. Wright said the group is similar in work ethic and their common belief in the values Choate strives to develop.

Fighting, pushing and striving to better themselves together has formed a brotherhood between MSU’s senior class. Enduring an unusual number of close loses over the last three seasons has brought that brotherhood and these Bobcats to the brink.

A win Saturday would stamp a winning season, snapping a three-year streak of losing records. A win over the Grizzlies in two weeks would solidify Montana State’s first three-game winning streak in one of college football’s most impassioned rivalries since 1985.

As Wright analyzes the mortality of his football career, he is at peace. Thomas Hardy’s 19th century passage resonated with him then, sparking his unwavering drive to be remembered now and into the future.

Montana State defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)/by Brooks Nuanez

“The sum of it all is about the relationships you build with people,” Wright said. “How can you affect people’s lives? That’s been the biggest thing I’ve fully learned. I’ve always wanted to be a captain but it isn’t about the high five or the title. It’s about what can I do to impact people’s lives and to be remembered.

“My legacy, I’d like it to be that I cared for people, I helped people and when the time comes, the mortality of life, people wonder what they left behind. Did I leave my mark on the world? And the best way to do that is for those you impacted to remember you.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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