As former South Carolina quarterback Anthony Wright relayed the stories, a word came to the forefront over and over.
Some of those stories were about his playing days, putting the fear of God into SEC powerhouses, or leading an NFL team to the playoffs. But other stories were simply harrowing, about speaking to his children on the phone as he fought to stay alive after being shot four times.
“I’m thankful to still be here,” Wright said, adding he was even thankful for the ordeal he went through on July 1, 2019. “I trust the process and I know everything that I’ve been through. I know that there’s a creator that’s got his process. I can’t make the trees grow. I can’t make the grass grow. And I can’t make the sun shine. If I can’t do that, who am I to question a lot of the other things that happened that I can’t control?
“All I can do is the best that I can.”
A decade and a half after he left the NFL, three years after he nearly lost his life, one of the most talented passers to ever come through the Gamecocks program is savoring things. He planned to focus his post-football life on his children — he’s been able to do just that.
They’re mostly grown now, one daughter a teacher in Charlotte, where he lives, another just finishing college and a son learning his dad’s old position as a high school junior. The North Carolina native, now 46, once wowed fans with a cannon arm and nimble feet. He now fills his days with things that might seem mundane, but it’s exactly what he wants to be doing.
“Being an Uber driver for my kids,” Wright said. “Running around, taking my son to workouts. … Doing things with my daughters. Have to be there for them and do things for them.”
An argument spirals
Wright remembered thinking one thing, perhaps hoping more than anything else.
“I know he hasn’t got a gun,” Wright said.
It started with an argument. Wright was at the Concord, North Carolina home of a young woman he’d been dating, Candice Kilgore, when there was a miscommunication regarding transportation for her daughter from another relationship.
That led to a heated phone call between the woman and the daughter’s father. As things escalated, Wright got on the phone, but the tone didn’t cool down. Kilgore took the phone back and agreed to go pick up her daughter.
Only the father, William “Willie” Hooker Jr., decided to come to Kilgore’s house instead.
“It was one of those situations when he just gets out of the car and starts shooting,” Wright said. “Boom, boom, boom.”
Wright saw the muzzle flashes. A bullet hit his chest, as he remembered, and he started to run. Another bullet caught him in the back. As Wright turned around, he said he saw Hooker reloading. Moments later, a third shot hit Wright in the hip as he ran. In that moment, his leg went numb.
Kilgore tried to stop Hooker, but the shots continued. Hooker walked up to Wright as he lay on the ground, and fired a round into Wright’s stomach, the former USC QB recalled.
The shooting then stopped, though Wright didn’t fully know why. He guessed it was because Hooker’s daughter got out of the car and ran to her father. Hooker yelled something and drove away.
“By this time, my friend has come over to me,” Wright said of Kilgore. “She’s screaming and she asked me what to do. I told her to go to my phone, go get my phone out of my truck.”
After she got the phone, Wright asked Kilgore to hold his head up. Laying on the ground, bleeding profusely, he had one thing in mind.
“I called my kids,” Wright said. “I took my phone and called my kids.”
In that harrowing moment, he displayed confidence, Kilgore said.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna be OK,’ “ Kilgore said. “And then he just said, ‘Remember what I’ve taught you.’ With that, he just meant because he does study and he does practice positive thinking and the power of thought.
“It was his way of letting them know, ‘If I don’t make it … those things that I’ve taught you are going help you in life and help you make it in life.’ ”
Hooker was arrested two days later. In December 2021, he was sentenced to more than a decade in prison for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious injury.
Wright was later told another thing he should be thankful for.
“They said, thank God that I was as healthy as I was and my heart was as strong as it was,” Wright said. “That’s probably what saved me.”
EMTs had cut him out of his clothes, loaded him into an ambulance and had him airlifted to a hospital. He spent 13 days hospitalized, seven in the ICU.
For the first few days, Kilgore remembered that Wright couldn’t even speak. If he wanted to communicate, he had to write, handing off chicken scratch notes — Kilgore saved a few of them.
“That was emotional when they were taking the tube out and he could breathe on his own, and I immediately just started crying,” Kilgore said. “We didn’t even know if that would be possible.”
Each day, those around Wright played affirmations to keep him going. He was slowly able to start moving, but for a man who scrambled away from NFL defensive linemen, it wasn’t an easy process.
“They were trying to test him with walking up steps,” Kilgore said. “And he can only walk up two and was completely out of breath and couldn’t do anything else.”
When Wright finally went home, the journey back wasn’t over. Still unable to use stairs, a bed had to be set up in his dining room. Kilgore recalled moments of frustration when Wright couldn’t move like he was used to moving.
He had support from all over. His parents stayed for a month. His children helped where they could. Aunts, uncles, cousins all came through. Kilgore remembered everyone working in shifts, making sure he got his medicine, did his exercise and was simply cared for.
It felt like a long time before Wright was close to his old self. It took about three to four months to get back to close to normal, Wright recalled, a period that today seems both long and short given all that had happened. It took about that long to move around like he’d like, to drive again. That’s after his injuries yielded a pair of problems.
“My quad atrophied,” Wight said. “I just had to get my breath back because my lung was bruised. Those were the two things that really were the most difficult in the recovery process.”
The man who shot him, Willie Hooker, is serving a 13-year sentence and is currently in the Warren Correctional Institution in Manson, North Carolina, according to N.C. Department of Public Safety online records.
Speaking about it this summer, Wright spoke with no anger about Hooker. He mentioned Hooker’s sentencing, then said, “It is what is.”
He’s back on track, not dwelling on it, nor feeling some mistake or twist of fate brought him to that moment.
Mostly back to normal in a few short months seems like no small feat. But dating back to his time in Columbia, Wright had a habit of making the unusual commonplace.
Success in the SEC
The first time Ray Green saw Anthony Wright was well before both enrolled at South Carolina. Green was only a junior, watching his Burke High School teammate, Zola Davis, in the Shrine Bowl.
“He was, no doubt, an amazing athlete,” said Green, who went on to play four years in the NFL. “Had some real zip on the ball.
“I was excited that he was going to be the quarterback at South Carolina. It was already a given that he was going to start.”
Wright wasn’t the biggest at 6-foot-1, but he could move and had as strong an arm as anyone who came through the Gamecocks program. Former USC assistant coach and player Erik Kimrey on occasion joked that seeing Wright sling the ball once was enough to convince Kimrey that he’d have to trade his own NFL dreams for a headset.
Things were not perfect during Wright’s run in Columbia. The Gamecocks struggled in the latter half of the Brad Scott era, and a devastating knee injury cost Wright the 1997 season and hampered him as a senior the next fall.
But he still savored some moments, like the buildup to a junior year showdown against Tennessee and Vols QB Peyton Manning.
“I played with (Tennessee running back) Jamal Lewis in Baltimore,” Wright said. “He said, all week long, coach (Phil) Fulmer, reiterated to the defense and to the team that if they stopped me, if they stopped Anthony Wright, then they’d win the game.
“He said that Friday night before the game, in the team meeting (Fulmer) said it three or four times.”
The Volunteers ultimately won, with Wright’s knee being injured in the game, but the North Carolina product still looks back on it as a funny story of how a national powerhouse zeroed in on him.
Green, who is still friends with Wright, remembered a playful guy, funny and confident, ready to joke around.
Wright’s last season in college included plenty of adversity between the knee, splitting time with freshman quarterback Phil Petty and the 1-10 campaign that ultimately ended Scott’s run as coach.
Wright went undrafted but ultimately carved out an NFL career successful in its own way. He spent 10 years as a backup for five teams. In 2003, he was pressed into starting duty and led Baltimore to a 5-2 finish and a playoff spot. A few years later, he was a part of a New York Giants Super Bowl championship team.
“I was able to play at the highest league, the highest level for that amount of time, which is incredible, being that the average NFL career is only 3 and a half years,” Wright said, noting he didn’t go into the pros on the best footing. “I was able to lead a team into the playoffs in the NFL. I think that speaks volumes to my potential and how good I really was, as compared to my last year at South Carolina.”
Just a dad
Wright’s life right today embodies a certain simplicity.
More than a few former athletes dig into different business ventures, hop right into the coaching ranks, do something that connects to a competitive history. Wright made something else the focus: family.
“I kind of planned it this way,” Wright said. “I wanted to spend my younger years trying to put myself in a position where I could take care of my kids and spend time with my kids.
“It that wasn’t the case, I’d be trying to coach college or the pros somewhere, and that can be pretty time-consuming.”
His oldest daughter is a teacher. His middle child just wrapped up her freshman year in college, while his youngest is entering the 10th grade and plays quarterback at Charlotte Country Day.
His daughters need him less, being older, but he’s still there to help. He’s worked with his son, Khalel, as a coach for the position he once played. Wright even helped out with his son’s high school team last season, but he’s rolling that back to just working on things at home.
“It’s been a huge learning curve for me as a coach and as a parent,” Wright said. “I’m just trying to juggle those two. But it’s been challenging from that standpoint
“He has really picked up on it really well and he’s doing really well,” he said of Khalel. “He looks really good. He’s a kid that does everything I asked him to do. So he’s very determined.”
That determination might just translate to a chance to play in college like his old man. It’s still early, but Khalel Wright has a dad who is taping workouts and cutting together videos to send to coaches.
Looking back, Anthony Wright admits it’s a different era now compared with the time when Brad Scott’s staff had to make the trip to Vanceboro in eastern North Carolina to watch him play.
“With social media, using Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all these different platforms to put yourself out there, it’s definitely different from the time when I was coming up,” Wright said. “That’s something that I’ve had to learn.
For a man whose life nearly ended on the pavement of a driveway three years ago, Wright spoke like a man who doesn’t dwell on the traumatic moment.
“One of the first things that I told my kids was that there were no mistakes,” Wright said. “Everything happens for a reason. And the way that I saw it was, there was a purpose. It was greater than what it seemed.”
He was lucky his injuries were not worse. He was mostly back up to speed after four months. He can now devote his life to his kids and spending time with them. He’s not working as a coach this season, but he’ll be around, helping to guide his son.
In a few years, the kids will all be out of the house, and he’s got ideas for his next step.
“I think I’ll travel the world a little bit,” Wright said, “just learn different cultures and customs.”
Another phase of the plan. Another thing to be thankful for.
This story was originally published September 20, 2022 9:21 AM.