Sam Wright didn’t believe it at first. He refused to. It wasn’t the way this chapter of the story was supposed to end.
Rewind a few days back to one of the most memorable games in the history of Princeton Stadium. It was the third of five overtimes, and a Crimson-clad wideout stood in his end zone after what appeared to be the game-winning catch.
“It didn’t sink in at first,” said Wright, a senior All-Ivy defensive lineman. “I was in disbelief. We had a strong belief in ourselves, and I really thought there was more to this. It was not how the narrative was supposed to go.”
Fortunately, the narrative had paused because Princeton head coach Bob Surace had called timeout before the play. The Tigers survived that OT session, and then another, before they grabbed an 18-16 lead on a will-be-shown-for-years catch by Jacob Birmelin in the back right corner of the end zone. Wright came back on the field to do what he does best — create havoc in opposing backfields.
One errant pass later, and the narrative was back in place. Wright barely remembers that defensive play. It was all a blur that ended with thousands of Princeton fans storming Powers Field in jubilation.
He remembers everything that led to that moment. And it wasn’t always jubilation.
But it’s what made him the player — and the man — he is today.
Wright held Olympic aspirations while growing up in Lawrenceville, Ga. While he was leading the Archer High School football team to the playoffs each year as a two-way lineman, he was also a highly accomplished shot-put thrower. A three-time county champion and two-time Georgia runner-up, Wright believed he could grow into an international competitor in the sport.
“Competing in track and field was a legitimate component of my decision to come here, on top of it just being Princeton,” Wright said. “I had good conversations with both coaching staffs during the recruiting process.”
Wright was neither the first nor last two-sport athlete to compete for the Princeton football team, and one (Jesper Horsted) is currently catching touchdown passes for the Chicago Bears. But his first year as a two-sport athlete was memorable for the wrong reasons. His first experience outside of his Georgia home saw him rushed into playing time on the defensive line due to a rash of injuries — a rash that eventually got him too — and then he suffered a hand injury in the spring that basically ended his shot-put career.
Two wrongs had the chance to ruin Wright. Instead, they provided the foundation for growth that will sustain him far beyond his Princeton days.
“I had to focus on my mental and spiritual health,” said Wright, a man of strong faith. “In high school, coaches try to instill a tough, ‘get through it’ mentality. In college, the coaches have taught me something else. They want us to talk to them about issues, to communicate. They aren’t only worried about your four years, because they fly by, but also about preparing you for the next 50 years.”
Communicating and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is easier said than done. There has to be trust in both parties, and that developed as Wright continued to grow on and off the field. He credits the leadership of both coaches and older players, especially mentor Kurt Holuba ’19, as critical to his growth.
When Holuba, a former All-America and Defensive Player of the Year finalist, went down prior to the start of the 2018 season, it would have been understandable if Wright and his teammates felt a ‘here-we-go-again’ vibe. Instead, his team came together, pushed forward, and never lost belief.
“It speaks to a powerful motivator that I didn’t understand before it,” Wright said. “Team identity, team culture, team chemistry, they spread among all of us before that season. We had one heart, one mind, and we had the same goal in mind. We were operating under the same standard, and we had the most unified spirit.”
And they didn’t lose. Wright had 24 tackles and four sacks for the nation’s fourth-ranked defense during the undefeated 2018 Ivy League championship season. He came back the next season with 40 tackles, 4.5 sacks and All-Ivy League honors, and he was starting to get noticed by NFL scouts. They may not have understood Wright’s transformation off the field, but they were seeing the by-product on the field.
“I discovered who I was as a player,” Wright said. “I improved in technique, in work ethic. Coach Surace asked me if I wanted to be a player or if I wanted to a play a role. I could come in as a third-down pass rusher, or I could be an every-down player. I had to get better at holding a gap, setting the edge, rushing the passer. I had to be a total package player.”
“Sam has grown as much as any player I have coached in my 12 years at Princeton,” Surace said. “His leadership has been outstanding, both verbally and with his relentless effort.”
That leadership was tested during the COVID year, when every member of the senior class wondered if they would ever wear the Orange and Black again. Had COVID occurred during his freshman year, maybe he wouldn’t have been ready to lean on his teammates. But Wright was a new man, and he believes that the “brotherhood” within Princeton Football only grew during those dark times.
Wright lived with three classmates and eventual team co-captains, James Johnson, Niko Ivanisevic and Cole Smith. Instead of complaining about their disrupted schedules (both in college and life), they worked and talked and believed in the dreams that hadn’t been extinguished yet. When they found out there would in fact be a 2021 season, Wright saw something in his teammates’ eyes that reminded him of that 2018 team.
The previous two weeks of the season tell the story of a team that comes together when the times get rough. When the defense struggled at Brown, the offense put up 56 points. When the offense struggled against Harvard, the defense held the nationally ranked Crimson to 16 points. Both were wins that leave Princeton alone in first place entering the final four weeks of the season.
Wright isn’t concerned about league standings right now. He has an eye for all aspects of a project, a quality that will suit him well as he hopes to pursue a career in real estate development (preferably one that follows an NFL career). An architecture major, Wright has worked in construction and gained experience in both finance and business management. He knows it’s about doing all the work necessary to get to the end goal, and not cutting corners along the way.
Had Wright cut corners earlier at Princeton, he’d be a far different person. Instead, he struggled. He hurt. He trusted. He developed.
And he has one more month of football to show everybody just how special a player — and person — he has become.