Rayfield Wright, a tough, agile Hall of Fame offensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys who was on five Super Bowl teams in the 1970s, then suffered from dementia for at least a decade, which he believed was most likely caused by repeated blows to the head, died on Thursday. He was 76.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced his death and said he had been hospitalized for several days because of a seizure. It did not say where he died.
Wright incurred numerous concussions between 1967 and 1979 — “so many that I couldn’t even count them,” he told The New York Times in 2014. Like many former players, he struggled with his memory, cognitive problems and headaches.
“Sometimes I walk into the kitchen and forget why I went there,” he said. “I’ve gotten into several car accidents because of seizures. Totaled two cars. My memory is not good. There’s a big fight within myself.”
At 6-foot-7 and about 255 pounds, Wright was a towering presence at right tackle, protecting the scrambling quarterback Roger Staubach and creating holes in the defensive line for running backs like Calvin Hill, Duane Thomas and Tony Dorsett.
“I love blocking, I love the contact,” Wright, who was nicknamed the Big Cat for his athleticism, told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1973. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you’re moving your man out of there. But the biggest satisfaction of all was to put my man on the ground. I’m on top of him, and the ball carrier is 10 to 15 yards downfield.”
Wright was a first-team All-Pro three times, selected for the Pro Bowl in six consecutive years and named to the N.F.L.’s all-decade team of the 1970s. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio, in 2006.
Carl Eller, the Minnesota Vikings defensive end who was one of Wright’s fiercest opponents and who is himself a Hall of Famer, told The Associated Press before Wright’s induction, “An all-day fight with Rayfield Wright is definitely not my idea of a pleasant Sunday afternoon.”
At Super Bowl VI in 1972, the Cowboys accumulated 252 yards in rushing — a Super Bowl record at the time — on the way to a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins. It was one of two Super Bowl victories for the Cowboys in the 1970s; they also lost three times.
“What we did today is the way you’re supposed to play this game,” Wright told The Dayton Daily News. “Who’s going to control things up front — that’s what counts, everything else being equal.”
He added, “We controlled them on the line, and that’s what did it.”
Larry Rayfield Wright was born on Aug. 23, 1945, in Griffin, Ga., about 35 miles south of Atlanta, and raised by his mother, Opel Wright, and one of his grandmothers. A Boy Scout, he recalled memorizing Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” when he was in the eighth grade, and he said it guided him to believe that life offered him choices.
In high school, he excelled in basketball but did not make the football team until his senior year. Playing basketball for Fort Valley State College (now University) in Georgia, he averaged 20 points and 21 rebounds a game and attracted the interest of the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) of the National Basketball Association. He was also a free safety, punter, defensive end and tight end for the football team and was chosen by Dallas as a tight end in the 1967 N.F.L. draft.
“He was a great competitor, talented and smart, and he could run; you could have gotten away with playing him at wide receiver,” Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ former director of player personnel, said in a phone interview.
Wright had been a backup tight end for the Cowboys for two seasons when Coach Tom Landry moved him to right tackle to replace the injured Ralph Neely. In his first start at the position, in 1969, he faced Deacon Jones, the feared Los Angeles Rams defensive end.
“Hey, boy,” he later recalled Jones’s greeting. “Do your mama know you’re out here?”
“What does my mama have anything to do with this?” Wright recalled thinking to himself, which distracted him enough to momentarily lose his concentration when the ball was snapped. Jones promptly slapped his huge right hand against Wright’s helmet, sending him reeling backward to the turf.
“It was as if I’d just been hit in the head by a baseball bat,” he told The Times.
It was probably his first concussion, he said, incurred at a time when the N.F.L. did not take head trauma seriously and players were encouraged to return to action as soon as possible.
Wright continued to play at a high level for most of the next 10 years, until leg problems reduced his effectiveness. He was released by the Cowboys in 1980 and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he retired before he played a game with them.
His survivors include his wife, Di; his daughters, Courtney Minor, Anitra Hernandez and Ariel Wright; his sons, Laray and Larry Jr.; and his brother, Lamar.
In retirement, Wright was a motivational speaker and formed a foundation to help children get grants to go to college.
He was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. That year, he and a group of former Cowboys joined thousands of other retired players in filing concussion-related lawsuits against the N.F.L. that accused the league of hiding the links between repeated head hits and degenerative brain disease from the players.
They were consolidated into a class-action suit in federal court that was settled in 2015, providing payments of up to $5 million to individual players who have one of a handful of severe neurological and cognitive disorders.
“I’m scared,” Wright said of his dementia in the 2014 Times interview. “I don’t want this to happen.” Wiping away a tear, he added, “I just want to know why this is happening to me.”