How many men could say they intercepted a pass from Joe Namath or scored over Julius Erving? And then how many can say they helped 2,000 minority youths in New Jersey from underprivileged backgrounds become medical doctors? Well Lonnie Wright could say he did all of that and more in his illustrious life.
Wright passed away in his South Orange home on Friday due to congestive heart failure. He was 67.
Growing up in Newark, Wright was a natural athlete from an early age. He attended South Side High School, where he earned All-City, All-County, All-State and All-American honors in both football and basketball. He also starred for the track and baseball teams and was inducted into the Newark Hall of Fame in 1988.
He then went to Colorado State, where he set the school's shot put record (with a throw of 52’ 9”) and was part of the Rams basketball team that went to the 1966 NCAA Basketball Tournament.
"Baseball probably was my favorite sport, but there wasn't enough action," he said in an interview with the Denver Post in 2007. "I was quite a football player as a quarterback, but I thought my future probably was in basketball."
After graduating from CSU in 1966, Wright returned to football as a safety with the Denver Broncos of the American Football League. Despite not having played for four years, he quickly rose up and secured a spot in the starting lineup.
In his second AFL season, he started to get an itch to return to the hardwood and play some more basketball. Two weeks after the season ended, he signed on with the Denver Rockets (now the Denver Nuggets) of the American Basketball Association and became a dual-athlete on the professional level. Wright would play five seasons in the ABA, averaging 10.7 points per game, including 16.4 ppg during the 1968-69 season for the Rockets.
However, some of Wright’s best work was yet to come. Following his playing career, he returned to Newark and became an assistant superintendent of parks and recreation for the city. It was there that two doctors urged him to apply for an opening at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ).
He was hired and once there, he did what he always did and made the most of the opportunity presented to him. He was able to rise through the ranks at UMDNJ and become the director of recruitment and summer programs for disadvantaged students.
“They thought students needed somebody who could give them solid advice,” Wright told The Gaslight in March 2011. I didn’t know what they meant. How could I advise young people smarter than me?”
Well Wright found a way to advise them as he was able to recruit roughly 2,000 minority youths from underprivileged backgrounds and help guide them to careers as become medical doctors and dentists. Many of those students then went back to the urban communities they came from to work.
“I found out (how to advise them),” Wright said. “They have their own issues, and you can reach them through advice and counseling.”
Lonnie Wright retired in 2010 after 36 years with UMDNJ.
He is survived by his wife Johanna and their three kids and five grandchildren. Services are pending.