Comeback kid

Sunday, January 20, 2013
2012 All-Missourian Football - Jackson High School - Brannon Wright

Jackson senior Brannon Wright's numbers were the best among receivers in Southeast Missouri.

He led the region in receiving yards with 871.

His 48 catches were tops in the area, and his per catch average was a robust 18.1 yards.

He had seven touchdown receptions, and they almost always were on the high end in the real-estate market. Six of them went for more than 50 yards -- 76, 80, 79, 71, 51 and 64.

But the most impressive number for the Southeast Missourian football player of the year was the one put forth by his coach.

"In the middle of the season, he was one-legged," Jackson coach Brent Eckley said. "It was difficult. You could go back and watch the film at how much he gimped in the middle of the season."

It was the reoccurrence of a stress fracture in Wright's left leg that Eckley was referring to, and one which drastically reduced his practice time throughout the season.

But in a season where Jackson football pulled itself off the mat with a revitalized offense that averaged 33.1 points per game, Wright mirrored the theme.

The pride in Jackson football returned with a 7-3 season as the Indians played for a district title for the first time since 2008.

That was the year Jackson advanced to the Class 5 semifinals for the second consecutive year. They had fallen on hard times since, compiling a 6-24 record over the following three seasons, which included a 2-8 mark in 2011.

The dark days on the football field spared few, and Wright was not immune. In his junior season, in a run-oriented offense that averaged just 12.8 points per game, Wright had just five catches for 83 yards in an injury-plagued season.

That was low production for a player commonly cited by his varsity teammates as among the fastest players on the team as a sophomore. It did not match up to the athleticism that played out so well on the track last spring, where he finished third in the 400 in the Missouri Class 4 Track and Field Championships.

"Growing up there was always a bunch of pride really in everything in Jackson Indians for me, especially growing up with some football and seeing how good our team did, and then whenever I get here, we're not doing so hot," Wright said. "I had to be mentally tough, and of course I had track, too. and I was doing pretty good in track, so that was kind of keeping me up."


Wright always had been able to run fast, but the use originally was for soccer, baseball and basketball.

That began to change in seventh grade when he was introduced to track for the first time, and in eighth grade, where he got his first taste of football and worked his way to starting running back by the end of the season.

Jackson wide receiver Brannon Wright brings in a pass during the Indians' 41-14 home win over the Poplar Bluff Mules Friday, September 14.

His long, smooth stride was best displayed on special teams and became apparent over the six-game season.

He flashed his ground-gobbling stride on a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a loss to rival Central his junior season, but the stress fracture that would haunt him his senior year first appeared, forcing him to miss time and leaving him with less than 100 yards receiving on the season.

"At the end of my junior season, I knew that it would be a different year next year, but I didn't know how different it would be," Wright said. "I didn't know Coach [Van] Hitt would be gone. I didn't know we'd have Coach Eckley. I didn't know the offense would be different, but I always tried to have a positive outlook on the next season ahead. It wasn't always working out the first two years."

Eckley came in as a highly respected coach, whose teams at Union High School had been offensive juggernauts. His 2011 squad averaged 48.7 points and his 2007 team averaged a state-record 545 yards a game.

"I didn't know a whole lot about him besides he was big on offense," Wright said. "And then once I started reading up on him and seeing how he was big on strength and conditioning, and all the stuff that he'd done with his teams in the past seasons, I got pretty excited."

Eckley was hired in December of 2012, and he quickly took note of the cupboard.

"I was aware immediately after taking the job that he was a fast track kid and that he had been injured the year before," Eckley said. "And I saw in workouts and how his body was maturing and just how hard he was working.

"I thought if he could catch the ball, he had a chance to be pretty special for us. And he proved to be able to do that. He's got good coordination, good hands, good ball skills. It didn't take very long for me. He's maybe the 10th or 12th all-state receiver that I've coached at different levels, and I thought he fit into the mix of the other kids that I had. He had the ability to do it and was productive like an all-state receiver."

Wright had no inkling he was about to make the transition to a Class 5 first-team all-state receiver. He merely adhered to the strict training regimen that Eckley set up.

"He just had a system," Wright said. "He knew what he wanted to do and what day he wanted to do it. There was always a schedule we followed, and that always worked for us."

When school let out his junior year, the lifting, running and learning of the offense intensified.

"He'd throw the ball to everybody a lot, kind of see what they could do," Wright said. "But I would get the ball quite a bit so I could try to show what I had because he didn't really know who I was. He didn't know who anybody was, and we were all trying to show him what we could be and everything."


Wright showed enough over the summer that he was a starter when the Indians debuted with a 48-21 thumping of North County, and his role was a big one.

Jackson's Brannon Wright runs away from Farmington's Anthony Greco to score a touchdown during the second quarter Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 at Jackson High School. (Fred Lynch)

Wright surpassed his junior year of production in the first game with 145 yards on four receptions, which included a 76-yard touchdown pass. He also had a 23-yard touchdown run, when he went in motion and took a handoff from quarterback Ty Selsor.

"I was confident going into the game. I think we all were, because of the summer that we did have and the work we put into it," Wright said. "I guess I was kind of relieved to finally get that game that we'd been looking for and start the season off right and show everybody that we were back and were a different team."

It was quite a start, and Wright ignored the tightness in his lower left leg that began to occur as the Indians prepared for Vianney in Week 2.

Griffins junior running back Markel Smith was supposed to be the marquee player on the field when the Indians traveled to St. Louis. Smith had blistered Francis Howell North for 297 yards the opening week.

But it was Wright and the Indians who stole the show on a rainy Friday night.

Wright had touchdown catches of 79 and 80 yards, and finished with seven catches for 190 yards.

"It's a pretty great feeling when you first catch it and you know they're right there, and you feel them dive for you and you know they nipped your heels and didn't get you, and it's just open field and you just go as fast as you can to the goal line," Wright said.

The Indians had matched their win total from a year earlier with what was probably the best game of Wright's career.

But Wright's great feeling in the open field soon began to give way to a familiar, bad feeling.

*

The pain increased in his leg as the Indians prepared for Farmington in Week 3. He saw a doctor and was told the stress fracture in his fibula likely was back.

"The week going into the Vianney game was really the only time he had a regular practice week," Eckley said. "After that his practice was modified. There were a lot of days where we didn't even have him at practice throughout the season -- really until the last week of the season.

"He was at 100 percent for Game 1 and Game 2, and he wasn't back at 100 percent until the [Rockwood] Summit game [in Week 12], physically."

The modified workouts included pool training at HealthPoint Fitness before school on Mondays and Thursdays instead of leg lifting with his teammates. He worked out his upper body, studied the offense and defense with teammates, but just warmed up quarterbacks in practice and played catch with other injured teammates in an attempt to keep his hands active. Practice for him was often watching and trying to learn what coaches were telling players on the field.

"I don't like to say it, just because it makes me feel like I'm a wimp or something, but I didn't practice probably from the second week of September all the way to the first week of November," Wright said.

"Like our trainer [Jake Brooks] said, the only way to not be like last year, where I could be a help to the team, was to take it easy during the week and then tape it up and wrap it up for the games on Friday. That's what we had to do."

Even with that prescription, Eckley said Wright had to be pulled during games against Farmington, Poplar Bluff, Central and Sikeston.

Wright still collected more than 100 yards of offense against Farmington and had a 51-yard touchdown reception against Poplar Bluff, against whom the revitalized Indians improved to 4-0.

"I was pretty lucky to still be a part of the offense and still have the rhythm even though I was still missing the reps and everything," Wright said.

He missed nearly the entire second half of a comeback win against Central the following week, and had 61 yards on two receptions as the Indians encountered their first loss in Week 6 to Sikeston.

After an open week on the schedule, Eckley made a switch at quarterback against Columbia Hickman, inserting sophomore Dante Vandeven, and Wright continued to produce. He hauled in a 64-yard touchdown pass against the unbeaten Class 6 school to give Jackson an early lead, and he ultimately finished with six catches for 105 yards in a 27-14 loss.

He recorded his fourth 100-yard game the following week against Francis Howell Central in Week 9, when the Indians secured a first-round bye in the district tournament with a victory.

He added 10 receptions for 92 yards in two district games, scoring two touchdowns and intercepting a pass on defense.

In the end he played in all 10 games, something for which he's thankful to his coaches.

And through it all, he was productive enough to earn all-state status. Which begs the question about the kind of season he might have had under healthier circumstances.

"I thought about it," Wright said. "I don't know how much better I would have done. I still think I had a pretty good season. That's the way it happened. I try not to think about, 'What if?'"

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