Wenkers Wright only has vague childhood memories of growing up in a Haitian orphanage. But he does vividly remember playing soccer.
“I remember always playing soccer barefooted on the gravel,” he said. “Kicked the concrete by accident, go back and go for the ball.”
It was the genesis of Wright’s athletic career. He raced on the grounds of the orphanage in Petionville, Haiti. Wright said the one-floor building and its bordering field was about the size of a football field.
“Anybody that wanted to play, played,” he said. “We didn’t have anything to do after school. You couldn’t go outside the orphanage, so I played soccer and had some fun.”
About a decade later, now a junior at Floyd Central, the running back is roaming all over an actual football field and headlining the Highlanders’ offense. Wright has 1,001 rushing yards in four games, which according to coach James Bragg, ranked No. 1 in the state of Indiana as of Week 4. He has also scored 12 touchdowns.
Emerging from a backup last year to a starter this season, Wright has been on every opponent’s scouting report. But what cannot be overlooked is the winding path of his upbringing.
Betsy and Shawn Wright saw this picture of Wenkers and Gregory and decided to adopt them from Haiti (Photo: Courtesy of Shawn Wright)
Wright for years didn’t know exactly know how many siblings he had. Not long after he was born, he and one of his older brothers, Gregory, were put into an orphanage. Wright knows he has a younger sister, and believes he has three more brothers besides Gregory, who also played football at Floyd Central.
Betsy Wright, Wenkers’ adopted mother, said that Wenkers has six older brothers and one younger sister. His family is originally from Cité Soleil, one of the poorest areas in the Western Hemisphere.
His memories of the orphanage consist of playing soccer, attending school and eating butter noodles with ketchup.
“That was the meal. I had that all the time,” Wright recalled. “It was just the certain way they made it because nowadays, I would not eat that. There is no way you can create it in America and have it taste good like it did back then because that does not sound appealing to me right now.”
On December 15, 2007, after going through two years and seven months of the adoption process, Betsy and her husband Shawn Wright drove a pickup truck to the orphanage to meet and bring Wenkers and Gregory to their newest home in Southern Indiana.
Wenkers Wright’s Haitian family (Photo: Courtesy of Shawn Wright)
“Gregory just walked right up to me. Your mama heart just fills up and I was trying not to overwhelm him by grabbing him and squeezing him and crying,” Betsy said. “Wenkers held back just a little bit. That day is soaked in my mind.”
Betsy and Shawn, wearing blue T-shirts with the words “Wright Family,” brought Domino’s Pizza for everyone at the orphanage, but Wenkers remembers not liking the pizza at all.
“Everybody likes pizza right? I did not like it,” he said. “I filled up on M&Ms that day.”
The first memory Wenkers has of America is of a group of people wearing the same shirts Betsy and Shawn were wearing, waiting for them at the airport with balloons.
“My parents walked me and my brother to the big group of people and everyone hugged us,” he said. “They gave us a stuffed animal. I didn’t know who these people were, but they come to be my whole family.”
The Wright family (Photo: Courtesy of Shawn Wright)
While the families welcomed the two siblings, the assimilation to American culture was not easy for Wenkers. He didn’t speak English fluently and repeated a year in kindergarten as a result. He didn’t like school because he had no way of communicating and just shrugged whenever his classmates approached him.
“And I had to stay there for six hours,” he said. “It was just me sitting there and watching foreigners do what they do.”
But after making his first friend — McKenna Robertson in Mrs. Smith’s kindergarten class—he grew comfortable with the language and began to make more friends. Eventually, he began playing soccer as he had in Haiti. It was the first time Wright played in an organized team activity with rules.
“No referees in Haiti,” Wright said. “I was just aggressive in soccer. In the orphanage, I played with what you could call the street rules.”
Shawn suggested his son try football in fourth grade and his talent was immediately evident.
“The very first time I ever touched a football in a real game, I had a 72-yard touchdown,” Wright said. “And after that my dad said I came off the field, took off my helmet and I had the biggest smile on my face.”
Wright grew up playing with the same group of friends from his days from Floyd Knobs Elementary to Highland Hills Middle School to now Floyd Central. The “insane” familiarity allowed him to adapt to the sport more easily, Wright said.
From the first career carry in a game to his latest one, a 60-yard touchdown in 50-14 win against New Albany last Friday, he’s reached the end zone countless times. But the one he can’t ever forget was his first varsity touchdown against Providence last year.
“I bust through the line and I was running,” Wright said. “I was thinking, ‘this is going to be my first varsity touchdown.’ Everybody was crazy. Stands were full. Oh my gosh, let’s keep doing this.”
He’s been steamrolling ever since. The junior, who incredibly rushed for 350 yards and five touchdowns last week, said his goal is to rush for 2,000 yards this year, and he is already halfway there in four games. Wright has to average 200 yards per game for the remaining regular season games to achieve that feat.
Floyd Central’s Wenkers Wright ran down the field for another score as he had 350 yards with five TDs as the Highlanders romped over 50-14 visiting New Albany Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (Photo: Matt Stone/Courier Journal)
“He has the ability to break tackles,” Bragg said. “And the speed to break away to the end zone. No one in the coaches’ office is surprised by what he’s been able to do.”
Wright now enjoys eating pizza. In fact, he works at Rapid Fired Pizza and said his favorite topping is chicken and bacon with Alfredo sauce. He occasionally keeps in touch with his family in Haiti. And most importantly, he loves football — a sport he didn’t even know for more than half of his life, but is now thriving in it.
“I get reality checks now and then,” Wright said. “Look at where I am. This is great. It’s just a great feeling.”