NEW PORT RICHEY — The sun presiding over Gulf High has begun its initial descent, even if the feel-like temperature hasn't. For the next 90 or so minutes, Brian Wright will be oblivious to the glut of humidity and his lack of hydration.
Fact is, he's just tickled to be out here, watching kids pass and run and catch. On the sweltering surface, the offensive coordinator everyone calls Red appears to be in the pink.
"I was telling (coach) Jay (Fulmer), everything I wish for internally to myself, it happens," he said.
Wright is doing exactly what he loves, in a state he has always dreamed of calling home, at a waist size into which he has longed to fit. By all indications on this late-July evening, Brian Keith Wright is a svelte embodiment of fulfilled aspirations.
He might never dare aspire again. For Red, fulfillment came attached not with strings, but a tube. It was surgically inserted at the belt line, some time after the emergency esophageal surgery and medically induced coma. The tube popped out on its own about 12 days ago, after Wright had dropped more than 90 pounds and before severe stomach pain forced him back to the hospital for more tests.
Now, after the most physically debilitating offseason of any area football coach, Wright says he's "just a little bit careful of what I wish for."
A real scare
A native Kentuckian with champagne-colored hair, a soft Commonwealth accent and a passion for Hank Williams Jr. and Harley-Davidsons, Wright embarked on his third season as a Bucs assistant Monday, when Florida's high schools officially commenced preseason practice.
When the 2007 season ended, the former Morehead (Ky.) State defensive tackle, who doubles as Gulf's boys track coach, was the biggest guy on the team.
At his peak, he said, he weighed 311 pounds. He was primed to pack on a few more the night of April 12, when he and girlfriend Tina Wallace — also a Gulf teacher — sat down to a rib-eye steak, potatoes, green beans and corn on the cob.
He never made it past the first bite of meat, which he says felt like "razor blades" when he tried to swallow.
"It wouldn't go down, and I was pushing on it," Wright recalled. "All my life, I just gagged myself and moved it and made it come back. When I did that, blood."
Wright had suffered a ruptured esophagus, a freak affliction with a national occurrence rate of three in 100,000, according to emedicine.com. That night, eight days shy of his 45th birthday, he had emergency surgery at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
The Gulf High family mobilized as Wright's mom, Betty, flew in from Louisville. Initially, his family was told, his odds of survival appeared grim.
"Fifty-fifty," Betty said.
"They wouldn't let him wake up," said Fulmer, a fellow Kentuckian who had arrived at Gulf a year before Wright. "They had him out, doped up on morphine, out cold."
For years, Wright, a veritable prep coaching nomad in Kentucky, had pined for the favorable climate and football talent of Florida. His yearning failed to dissipate even during his resurrection of the program at Western High, a Louisville football doormat that won one game in the five seasons before his hiring.
In Wright's first season after arriving from 2000 Class 4A state champ Male High, Western won five games. Two years later, it won nine and reached the playoffs. "They were 0-10 the year before," he said. "I built lockers. I just went in there and renewed everything. I had that state championship ring on, and I just worked it and worked it."
Nonetheless, Florida beckoned. That wish also came true. But only after tragedy expedited its fulfillment.
On Aug. 14, 2002, Wright's 16-year-old stepdaughter, Ashley Payton, was killed when her Chevrolet Blazer ran a stop sign in Louisville. The tragedy prompted him to take a year off from coaching at Western, where he would return and coach two more seasons.
"Ever since that car wreck happened, I wanted a change," he said.
Wright joined Fulmer's staff at Gulf in 2006. That year, the Bucs earned the first playoff berth in program history.
"He's really not too much of a screamer; he's a soft-spoken coach," said Bucs junior two-way standout Will Burbridge. "He gets through to us that way instead of screaming. We just really like the guy."
The admiration was manifested in the huge banner — Get Well Soon, Red — the players hung in front of the locker room and the football they signed. Fulmer, meantime, rarely left the bedside of his best friend, soothing Wright as he regained consciousness so he wouldn't jerk out the tubes attached to his insides for fear of lethally poisoning his body.
"Red was out," Fulmer recalled. "And (the doctor) made the comment like, 'When we wake him up, we're going to start weaning him off this morphine a little bit … and get him off the respirator. And when we do this, if he pulls those tubes out, he will die on the spot.' "
The tubes remained intact. A few days after being admitted, Wright emerged from the proverbial woods, with four surgical stents implanted in his esophagus. About two weeks later, he left the hospital, free to eat soft foods and try to regain his strength.
Wright had graduated to Taco Bell sustenance when complications arose in late May. He developed a fever, began sweating profusely and noticed a green hue in the phlegm he coughed up.
Eventually, an abscess was discovered, caused by a leak in the esophagus. Wright was referred to Dr. Steven Hochwald at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Internationally renowned for his work with esophageal disorders, Hochwald removed the four stents, inserted a larger one and implanted a feeding tube near Wright's navel.
For about the next two months, right before bedtime, Wright hooked the tube to an IV bag filled with a protein shake-type liquid that sent 2,000 calories to his body by the trickle. With that gradual infusion — 80 milliliters a minute — serving as his lone nourishment, he eventually dropped to 219 pounds.
"Muscle-wise and everything, he was well-rounded," Burbridge said. "Now it's just, whew. I don't know, I'm used to seeing him big and jacked."
But at least they saw him.
Still fighting back
At a checkup July 31, the morning after the tube popped out on its own, no esophageal leakage was discovered. Wright immediately went out for a chocolate Wendy's Frosty.
"I've got more energy now," he said Aug. 1, "because that feeding tube was no carbs or nothing."
Five days later, he was back in the hospital, complaining of severe stomach pain. After tests revealed nothing, he was released Friday night. According to Wallace, doctors believe Wright's body simply hasn't acclimated to solid food again.
"No man deserves this much stuff," Fulmer said. "It's just ridiculous."
At some point, maybe these afflictions will congeal into one profound, long-term lesson. Although far from 100 percent, Wright attended Monday's team photo day, a slimmed-down, sober testament to perseverance for a young squad that ultimately will be forced to persevere.
"There was a nurse and her son plays for Tarpon Springs. He's a safety for Tarpon," recalled Wright, whose club plays the Spongers in a preseason game Aug. 29.
"I guess she was trying to motivate me or something, but she was like, 'I'm going to see you at that game. I'm gonna come and talk to you.' "
Perhaps she should be careful for what she wishes.
"I said, 'Good,' " Wright recalled. " 'We're going to throw right at him.' "
Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected]