Winston Wright Comes Up Big In First Collegiate Kickoff Return
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Winston Wright stood there at the five-yard line, the football dancing through the Texas sky like a nervous butterfly, the kind he had his stomach at the moment.
Baylor had just scored and WVU needed a shot of something stronger than Dana Holgorsen’s Red Bull, and Wright had been sent back to return his first kickoff as a true freshman, hoping to provide that boost.
“When I went out there, all that was going on in my head was to put us in a better point in the game,” he explained Tuesday afternoon.
And so he waited as the ball floated ever so slowly to him as 11 Baylor Bears came flying toward him.
On the sideline stood his soulmate, another freshman receiver who had become his best friend on the team, Ali Jennings. As a receiver, he knew what it was like to have a ball come floating toward him, for he had been in that situation, about to make maybe the catch of the year for WVU against Oklahoma.
The defender was there, their arms entwined as they went step for step, forcing Jennings to reach up with one hand and snare the pass.
Don’t look for it in the record books, though, for it doesn’t exist, as offensive interference was called.
So now he waited with Wright and joined him in spirit as Wright caught the ball, made a move across the field, saw a hole and hit it, breaking loose for 95 yards on his first kickoff return.
“He’ll be returning kickoffs the rest of the year,” said head coach Neal Brown.
No one ever said Neal Brown was a dummy.
Think of it … Winston Wright, a year removed from high school in Georgia, running 95 yards for a touchdown on national television.
“When I got halfway I was thinking, ‘Is this real?’ Then when I got in the locker room my phone was blowing up. I had to put it on ‘do not disturb’ so I could go to sleep.”
Ali Jennings knew all about the feeling. In his first college game earlier in the year against N.C. State he had caught a touchdown pass. OK, he didn’t have to run 95 yards, but 14 yards on the reception worked just as well.
And besides, he got to enjoy Wright’s kickoff return.
“I felt like I was running it back,” Jennings grinned. “As soon as I saw they kicked him the ball, it was, ‘Let’s go, Winston.’ I couldn’t do anything but smile and laugh and jump up for joy. I was excited for him because I new it was his first one. I got my first one early. I told him it was coming soon.”
But he controlled himself, did not run down the field to congratulate his buddy.
“When they kicked him the second one if he ran it back I was going to run to celebrate with him,” Jennings said.
The return was almost an out of body experience for Wright.
“That play was special. I felt faster than I ever felt,” the true freshman said.
He really didn’t, however. His GPS caught this Georgia track champion at 21.5 miles an hour. He’d run 22 earlier in the year … but this time he had pads on.
So how did friendship happen between Wright, the Georgian, and Jennings, a Virginian?
“We met through the recruiting process. We were on the same three-way call with the Illinois coach. I didn’t even realize it was him until we talked about it a couple of day ago,” Jennings said.
They came to WVU, live near each other and have totally bonded.
“Ali is like my brother, my friend. We do everything together, on and off the field. We encourage each other. He encourages me if he sees me down and I do the same or him,” Wright said. “We talk a lot. How he feels and how I feel are kind of the same, so we kind of just get through it together.”
“We’re always with each other and always competing, even when we play video games. We are always in each other’s face, driving each other. Sometimes when we come to the sideline it’s like ‘C’mon.’ We’re were freshmen but we’re not any more.’ Now we say ‘This is our time, let’s go,’” Jennings said.
And now, it appears, they hold a good portion of WVU’s future in their hands.