COLUMBIA — He swoops down in front of the opponent, drills the ball high into the night and races back into position. As the crowd cheers him on against the University of Illinois (Springfield), the player can’t help but think of the man who taught him how to play so hard, the one who would of loved that play the most.
Chris Wright, senior defender and captain of the Columbia College men’s soccer team, grew up on a soccer field, beginning when he was four. The one thing he remembers the most from his early soccer days was his dad on the sidelines, always coaching and always smiling.
“My dad was such a big part of my life and my soccer,” Wright said. “He was at damn near all of my games until his death.”
Wright’s dad, Dave Wright, died four months ago of a heart attack. He was 49 years old.
“I guess he had a mild heart attack earlier in life and that contributed to this last one,” Wright said. “It was just so unexpected because he was in great shape; he had just ran 11 miles the day before.”
As a boy, Chris Wright and his dad would spend afternoons kicking the ball back and forth. In high school, the elder Wright would be the voice pushing his son during summer conditioning. And during college, his father was the person who always knew the right thing to say after each game.
“It had to kill him,” friend Greg Kayser said. “I know that he would call his dad after every game to tell him how he did.”
Soccer is no longer just a game for Wright. It is now a constant reminder of his father’s death. Wright sees his dad’s face whenever he steps out onto the field. He hears his father’s voice with every free kick he defends: “Mark up, grab a man.” Wright has lost the feeling that sons get when he and his father play catch or sit and watch the afternoon ballgame.
“Soccer is the hardest part by far.” Wright said. “Soccer was me and him, no one else but me and him.”
The loss has left Wright searching for answers. He graduates this spring and talks about going home to start his own painting business, or maybe taking over his dad’s waterworks business and selling pipes and valves for a living. He thinks about living on his own in Columbia, or maybe living in his dad’s house in Kansas City. Wright is looking for the sense of direction that his father always gave him.
“I am scared,” Wright said. “I don’t have anyone to go to like him because he always had the right advice for me.”
Even with pain and heartache, Wright continues to compete on the soccer field and lead his team. He is upbeat and positive during practices and games, trying to never show the painful emotions deep down.
“Chris is so strong,” teammate Jimmy Stranz said, “that I think he is handling it better than anyone I know would. He cracks jokes and continues to lead our team.”
Wright attributes his leadership skills to the man who also taught him the meaning of determination and hard work. Wright’s dad started his own business, EFI-Wright Sales Inc. His father wanted to show his children how to live the right way.
“He was a great example to me and my sister,” Chris Wright said, “on not only working hard, but doing it and still making time for the people he loved.”
The healing process for Wright began the day of his father’s funeral, realizing the kind of man his father was when nearly 700 people showed up to pay their respects. Wright’s grandfather told him his dad meant so much to so many, but the people he cared about the most were his kids.
“I didn’t appreciate him enough when he was alive,” Wright said, “because I just didn’t realize how much he meant to me and so many others.”
Wright has continued dealing with his dad’s death by focusing on the present. He is doing well in his classes, on course to receive his bachelor’s degree in business this spring. The Columbia College men’s soccer team has its first two-game winning streak of the season, after beating Williams Baptist College Friday night and becoming 2-1 in the American Midwest Conference. Yet even with these accomplishments, he is still fighting the battle within his heart.
“Sometimes you will see him go up to his room for time alone,” Stranz said, “or just keep to himself on the soccer field, away from the team when he is usually right in the middle of everything.”