Rayfield Wright grew up in Griffin, without much money or opportunity, but his athletic prowess earned him an athletic scholarship at Fort Valley State.
He was a standout in basketball and football, eventually choosing to focus on the gridiron for coach Leon “Stan” Lomax. The Cowboys selected him in the seventh round of the 1967 draft, making him a long shot to even make the team.
Thirteen years later he finished a Hall of Fame career that includes two Super Bowl victories.
“All of that goes back to Fort Valley and SIAC because that’s where I got the understanding of commitment, dedication and keeping God in front of you no matter what,” Wright said. “Because of that I had opportunities to travel a lot of roads I never would have traveled.”
The Southeastern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, founded and based in Atlanta, is celebrating stories such as Wright’s during its 100th year. He’s one of five former SIAC players to enjoy NFL careers who will speak at a symposium Friday at Morehouse and also serve as honorary captains for the SIAC Championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday between Albany State and Miles.
In addition to Wright, members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played in the SIAC include Deacon Jones (South Carolina State), Shannon Sharpe (Savannah State) and Bob Hayes (Florida A&M).
Wright said his basketball background and the chance to play tight end for Lomax were instrumental in his ability to make the transition to playing NFL offensive tackle. He had never played the position when Cowboys coach Tom Landry moved him from tight end to tackle before the 1969 season.
Wright’s first assignment was to block star end Deacon Jones, his fellow SIAC alum. After a rough start, Wright held his own and became a mainstay for the Cowboys.
“The SIAC was a conference that gave athletes an opportunity to perform as athletes, not just as a football player or a basketball player,” Wright said. “They taught us about life and sports and if you had the ear to listen to what was being taught, you could make it.”
For black football players in the South, the SIAC was one of the few avenues available for college football.
The SEC wouldn’t be fully racially integrated until the 1970s. From 1913 until widespread integration provided more options, SIAC schools provided a chance for blacks who wanted to play college football in the South.
“At least in this part of country, it was the only game in town,” SIAC commissioner Greg Moore said.
Racial integration of powerhouse college football programs meant fewer blacks chose to play for SIAC schools and other HBCU programs. Still, Moore said SIAC schools maintain their importance because many of them provide jobs and opportunities for higher education in the “poorest, most disconnected, rural communities.”
The SIAC Championship game features East division champion Albany State (5-4, 4-0 SIAC) against West champion Miles (6-3, 4-1). Miles defeated Albany State 22-14 during the regular season and also beat the Golden Rams in the inaugural SIAC championship game in 2011.
In addition to Wright, the players scheduled to participate in the symposium and serve as captains are Nick Harper (Fort Valley State), Greg Lloyd (Fort Valley State), Tyrone Poole (Fort Valley State), and Frank Walker (Tuskegee).
The symposium is scheduled for the Leadership building on the Morehouse campus. A limited number of tickets are available for $10 and can be purchased by calling the SIAC office at 404-221-1041.