Seamus Patenaude was sprawled in the bed of a truck, nursing an injured ankle, the first time he met football coach Mike Wright. Patenaude’s eighth-grade Green Hornets team had played a match against Generals Highway, and Wright — then a JV coach at Severna Park High School — introduced himself to Patenaude’s dad and wanted to make sure Patenaude was OK.
Wright would later serve as Patenaude’s coach on the high school varsity team for four years, and during that time, Wright’s support never wavered.
“It was a difficult year for me as a freshman, feeling like part of the team,” said Patenaude, who was part of a three-way competition to be the team’s starting quarterback. “The student section weren’t big fans of me, but [coach Wright] told me to trust the process. He told me he had my back and he said, ‘Even if the odds are stacked against you, you have people around you.’”
It would be easy to dismiss those words if they came from someone else. But they came from Wright, who was showing up to coach every day despite having the odds stacked against him, too. Wright was coaching after being diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer in 2008 and issues that led to heart surgery in 2020.
Despite those odds, Wright, Patenaude and the rest of the varsity team would go on to have winning seasons in 2020, 2021 and 2022. Before then, the Falcons had not had a winning season since 2011.
Severna Park also made the playoffs in 2021 for the first time since 2008 and hosted their first playoff game since 2006.
If that were the end of the story, it would be a happy ending. But it’s not.
Wright announced after the 2022 football season that he will step away from coaching. Complications from the heart surgery have caused fatigue; weight loss; and difficulty eating, swallowing and speaking.
“As a result, just can’t coach like I used to or want to, or that the program will need in the future to continue its upward progression,” Wright said.
Wright is not looking for pity. He is proud of the resume he put together, but more importantly, he hopes he was a role model for the kids.
A linebacker for Old Mill High School, Wright was injured when a 300-pound lineman rolled over his ankle. Or at least that’s what Don Linnell, Wright’s former teammate and current Severna Park defensive coordinator, remembers.
“We both knew he was messed up,” Don Linnell said with a chuckle.
Wright’s career was over after just two games of varsity football. But that passion for the game never disappeared, and from 2002 to 2010, Wright served as a youth coach for the Green Hornets organization.
“The reality is when your playing career ends, you don’t lose your passion for the game just because you don’t play anymore,” Wright said.
From early on in his coaching career, Wright developed a reputation for outperforming expectations.
Taylor Kitzmiller remembers facing an undefeated, more athletic Pasadena Chargers team. Wright called a play called “Rebel Run.”
“It was a glorified QB sneak,” Kitzmiller said. “A lot of guys were on the line, and I ran behind three to four extra blockers, and there was a scrum. In the second half, we ran that play 15 to 20 times in a row because they couldn’t stop it, and we won. It means a lot that he had the confidence to put the ball in my hands.”
Wright became the Green Hornets football commissioner in 2005, and he continued that role through 2010 while also coaching. He called the move to Green Hornets football commissioner “a natural transition.” Although he felt like the previous commissioner did a great job, Wright saw an opportunity to make updates and minor improvements. He doubled the size of the program and changed the uniform colors from green and black to the Michigan State shade of green with white.
“The kids absolutely loved it,” Wright said. “It made it a lot more fun for the kids watching football. It’s what kids would call swag now.”
He and his assistant also reopened the concession stand and gave the proceeds to Green Hornets.
“He had that thing running like a Fortune 500 company,” said John Stein, a former Green Hornets coach and current leader of the JV program at Archbishop Spalding. “The home field was always immaculate. He found donors and sponsors so he could upgrade all the equipment, and his son, Erik, got pulled into everything. It looked like a college equipment room.”
Wright believes all the changes made the atmosphere more festive.
“I was hard on players and expected a lot of them, but we had a lot of fun,” Wright said.
Wright accepted a position as an assistant coach with Severna Park High School’s JV team in 2009. Those duties briefly overlapped with his Green Hornets ones. Wright later became the head coach of the JV team in 2012 and served in that capacity until 2018.
“Youth football is all about fundamentals, the basics, discipline, building a routine, but also to make sure kids enjoy the game,” Wright said. “With JV, you’re still focused on fundamentals and discipline, but it’s ratcheted up a level. You’re no longer relying on athleticism but players’ understanding of the game, and as a coach, you have to develop that.”
A 2014 Severna Park High School graduate, Kitzmiller was on a few of those JV teams.
“He never played favorites,” Kitzmiller said of Wright. “If you were good, you would play. He would yell at you if you messed up, but it was warranted. He would always make jokes or jabs at some of the players, but it was all in fun. He understood that it’s a game and you’re supposed to enjoy your time in high school.”
That leadership style made Wright an ideal candidate to take over the varsity team in 2019 when Will Bell left. Wright accepted the job.
“The speed of the game is much different with how much quicker and detail-oriented it is, from time management to play design to game planning,” Wright said.
After a challenging first year, Wright quickly turned around the program.
“At Severna Park, you’re rarely going to out-athlete other schools, so you have to be well prepared,” Stein said. “Mike is going to change what he does to match what he has, and that wasn’t always done at Severna Park.”
Wright held players accountable but also rewarded them for a job well done through “constant affirmation and praise.”
“But the biggest reward was them realizing that you have faith in them to let them play, and that gives them confidence,” he said. “It’s not as much about wins and losses as much as seeing them develop as young men and nurturing their love for the game.”
That’s not the only quality Wright helped the boys develop. He led by example while managing his declining health.
“There was never a day he didn’t show up for us, even during COVID, when I thought he shouldn’t be at practice because he was high risk,” Patenaude said. “A lot of the boys, including me, thought that if he’s out here doing this for us, he deserved our full commitment. I would never want another coach for high school.”
Retirement will be a big shift for Wright, who dedicated countless hours to football, especially over the last eight or nine years.
“I’m going to miss those players every day in practice, goofing off,” Wright said. “Those young players kept me young at heart with the slang and what’s popular. It was all about camaraderie between the coaches and players.”
His lessons will remain with the players and coaches.
“I’m most proud of his fight for life,” Linnell said. “I hope the players see it and they understand. He had that cancer and keeps defying the odds. With that ‘never out’ mentality, he has set an example for them.”
Wright does not have any immediate plans in retirement other than to focus on his health. He won’t be on the sidelines, but he will think fondly on his time as a coach.
“Wins and losses are a great thing, but the big wins and losses from coaching are not on the scoreboard but how you treated your players, how they responded, and developing them not only as players but as men,” Wright said.