In the moment Isaiah Wright took flight — blond dreadlocks streaming behind him, his first career touchdown within reach — it was easy to forget how unlikely it all was. The rookie wasn’t from a football hotbed or a top college program; he wasn’t even drafted. In normal circumstances, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera said, “Reasonable expectations for [an undrafted free agent] is to make your practice squad and hang on.”

Now, in a season with the least normal circumstances possible, Wright not only has made Washington’s active roster but has established himself as an important part of a young, growing offense. He has stepped in for injured players and become a reliable option, ranking second among the team’s wide receivers in catches. The NFL loves to flex its star power — Washington’s game against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday is being billed as No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow against No. 2 draft pick Chase Young — but players such as Wright are the league’s bedrock.

In a salary cap system that prioritizes young, cheap talent, undrafted free agents are the youngest and the cheapest. They always account for the largest portion of NFL rosters by draft status, about 25 or 30 percent, because there are so many of them. But this year was different. Teams signed fewer undrafted free agents, in part because of smaller training camp rosters amid the coronavirus pandemic. And for those who did make it to camp, the lack of preseason games robbed them of the traditional opportunities to impress coaches and earn roster spots.

Even with the reduced number of undrafted free agents, only 12 percent made an active roster before Week 1, according to OverTheCap.com. But Wright was one of them, and he has continued his improbable trajectory, playing the third-most offensive snaps in the league among undrafted free agents.

For that brief moment Sunday, it appeared his rise was going to include his first NFL touchdown after he hurdled Detroit Lions cornerback Justin Coleman just a few yards from the goal line. But he landed off balance and stepped out of bounds at the 2-yard line, popping up with a frustrated roar. The near miss is a microcosm of his career since he went undrafted — headed where he wants to go but not there yet. And in a way, his journey illuminates the undrafted free agent experience.

“This situation I was coming into, I had to take it up a notch,” he said. “My whole life I’ve been a worker. I’m no stranger to work, nor do I shy away from it. So I was just about it.”

‘You have to plan for the uncomfortable things’

The first sign of trouble for Wright was, as for so many others, the mid-March weekend when the world changed. Temple was one of the many schools nationwide to cancel its pro day, which put fringe prospects such as him in a difficult spot. The wide receiver needed the audition in front of NFL personnel. After a disappointing senior year, he hadn’t received invites to several high-profile showcases, including the NFL combine.

Wright had spent two months preparing for the pro day. Now the world of NFL pre-draft training was chaos, and Ed Wasielewski, Wright’s agent, scrambled to find another place to drill. He tried Penn State and Pittsburgh, but they canceled. He asked a private gym in New Jersey, but then the state announced travel restrictions. Wasielewski tried everything. Everything ended the same way.

“You could not get ahead of covid,” Wasielewski said. “It was a nightmare.” He paused. “You ever open up one of those boxes as a gift and there’s a second box inside? Well, this was like that, but there’s eight or nine boxes, and at one point, you’re like, ‘Where’s the damn gift?’ ”

Finally, on April 1, Wright drove to West Hartford, Conn., and worked out at Kingswood Oxford, the high school where Coach Jason Martinez used to see him make defenders “crumble like a Drake’s coffee cake.” The setup “wasn’t perfect,” Wasielewski said, but Wright performed combine drills, including the 40-yard dash, which he ran in 4.58 seconds. He tested well enough to be drafted in a normal year.

But Wright missed a key part of the process — the in-person interactions that can lead to a team feeling comfortable with drafting a player. One of Wasielewski’s clients, DaeSean Hamilton, was a similar player in 2018, and he excelled in interviews with coaches and physicals with team doctors. Denver drafted him in the fourth round. Wasielewski said about 20 teams asked about Wright — his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame alone merited interest — but numbers and highlights weren’t enough.

Wright was unfazed. He learned at Temple, where he had three coaches in four seasons, to trust his process. When gyms were shut down near his parents’ home in Waterbury, Conn., and the track nearby was padlocked, Wright ran in the street, YouTubed home workouts and found a local passer to throw to him a few times a week. To keep his optimal weight, he controlled his sweet tooth and abstained from fried Oreos.

“It was hard,” he said. “Them things are delicious.”

In late April, Wright watched the draft in his family’s living room. He was frustrated that he went unselected, but he said it “didn’t matter” how he got to the NFL as long as he stuck around. He signed with Washington because it had a new coaching staff, inexperienced wide receivers and an offense that prized his experience at both wideout and running back.

Wright quickly devoted himself to the playbook. He used a strategy he had refined during the turnover at Temple: writing and rewriting concepts until they lodged in his brain. Sometimes he asked others to read him the plays so he could envision hearing them in the huddle. He filled pages and pages, and his coaches noticed during videoconferences.

“[Temple] kind of prepared me to deal with things in a different way,” he said. “You have to plan for the uncomfortable things that come about.”

During the summer, Washington’s receiving corps was thinned by injuries and legal trouble. Wright was confident he had worked hard enough to have a shot at the roster, but when he left for the airport, his mom, Nina, knew he was nervous. Other players, drafted players, came from bigger programs and had better resources during quarantine. She texted him a prayer.

“Today is the big day that Isaiah will embark on his next adventure,” she wrote. “He has sacrificed so much to make his dream a reality.”

‘He was finally able to exhale’

Days into camp, Wright felt a familiar frustration. He was dwelling on his mistakes, replaying poor routes or missed assignments in his head on a loop. In college, he said, he was “really negative-minded” and often let setbacks snowball.

“The frustration comes from the intelligence he has,” said Rod Carey, his last Temple coach. “It comes from a good place. He knows how things are supposed to be.”

Wright knew he couldn’t get discouraged, so he talked with family members and friends. He met with Washington wide receivers coach Jim Hostler, who assured him the team believed in him and said, “Go have fun.” He spent time alone, reflecting, and realized every time “I had a negative mind-set, I only got a negative result.” So he adopted a familiar approach. He believed he could learn positivity the same way he did a playbook. He wrote a list of goals.

Contribute.

Get 1% better every day.

Remain poised.

Remain hungry.

Slowly, Wright checked off goals, becoming more consistent on the field and in his positive mind-set. By late August, he was a regular on the second-team offense. Days before roster cuts, Wright leaped to snare a deep pass against tight coverage in practice, drawing praise from Rivera.

Four days later, Wright left the team facility for what could have been the final time. Roster cuts were coming the next day. Nina texted Wasielewski to confirm they probably wouldn’t know whether Isaiah had made it until Saturday evening. She went to bed nervous.

The next morning, her phone rang at about 7:30. She awoke Randy, Wright’s father, thinking, “No, this is too early.” On the other end, her son was sobbing. He cried so hard neither she nor Randy could understand what he was saying. Nina had never heard her son this emotional before, and she inched to the edge of the bed, scanning her closet for clothes and planning a drive to Washington. She braced for bad news. Nina estimated it was about two minutes before she and Randy could hear their son.

“I made it,” Isaiah remembered saying during the proudest moment of his life.

The past three months have been a blur. In the week after the call, Wright found an apartment, signed an NFL contract and made his debut. Two weeks later, the team thrust him into an expanded role after slot receiver Steven Sims Jr. suffered a toe injury. There have been positives and negatives (including a shoulder injury), but Wright has shown that, in this season unlike any other, he could keep growing.

One of the keys, Wright said, is his mind-set. After camp, he stopped writing a list of daily goals and started reading a Bible verse every morning. This week, the theme has been patience.

“All these years, you really can’t exhale,” Nina said. “You don’t know if what everyone’s telling you is really going to happen. Pop Warner, high school, college — you can’t predict anything. He was finally able to exhale.”

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