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He protected him from a world of drugs and violence, but Shaun Wade's close friend couldn't save himself. Now, the Ohio State cornerback vows to keep Jacoby Wright's memory alive forever.

By Chase Goodbread | March 29, 2021

JACKSONVILLE -- The name is Jacoby Joshua Wright. Shaun Wade knew him well.

The case number is 857597, and Wade doesn't want that to be all there is for people who didn't.

There is so much more to know about Jacoby Wright, Wade insists; so much more that inspires, motivates and even now, five years after his death, evokes laughter in Ohio State's star cornerback.

But none of those qualities are listed anywhere in Case No. 857597.

To all who didn't truly know him, and few did -- Wade and a small circle of friends called him Coby for short -- Wright is indeed a number now as one of 113 homicides in Jacksonville from 2015. The hard facts are these: a Florida Highway Patrol officer noticed the 17-year-old's arm extending from brush that was obscuring his body on a dirt road adjacent to a dead-end street on Jacksonville's Northside, shortly after 3 a.m. on Dec. 20, 2015.

He was a long way -- nearly a half-hour drive -- from his Westside neighborhood, where he'd met Wade and others who cared for him about seven years earlier. He died of gunshot wounds, including one to the head. Police found Wright wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, and believed the body was moved at least 12 hours before it was discovered, barefoot and surrounded by little more than a few abandoned mobile homes. On his chest was a tattoo of his mother's name, Felicia, and on his arm, the Lord's Prayer. And perhaps the hardest fact of all came years later when, among those 113 Jacksonville killings from 2015, Wright's is one of 16 classified by police as a justifiable homicide.

Wade, the latest in Ohio State's long line of defensive backs bound to hear his name called in the NFL draft, didn't know much about the Coby Wright described in the police report. And that's exactly the way Wright wanted it. Wade's future in football shined brightly at a tender age, and Wright took protecting and defending it very personally. So anytime Wright thought danger might be afoot, he never allowed Wade anywhere near it, least of all in the last few months of his life when the streets began to consume him.

Wade never knew that Coby. Never even spoke to him, really.

Their last conversation was roughly five months before Wright died, as Wade pleaded with him to pursue enrolling at Trinity Christian Academy. The two had hoped to be football teammates in the fall of 2015 there, where Wright, Wade believes, could have earned a football scholarship himself and started down a path other than the one that ended off a cold, dead-end street.

Wade keeps his friend's memory alive the best he can.

For four years, he's worn the No. 24 for the Buckeyes in his friend's honor; 24 was Wright's number as an AAU basketball player. He's memorialized him with the letters B.L.I.C., written anywhere from his wristbands to the backplate of his shoulder pads. Five years after his death, he still can't make sense of it. But with his Ohio State career now behind him, Wade is revealing for the first time what the No. 24 and B.L.I.C. -- Ballin' Like I'm Coby -- mean to him.

Shaun Wade has kept the memory of Coby Wright alive by wearing No. 24 at Ohio State, the same number Wright wore during is AAU basketball days before his death. (Photos: Travis Moss and Associated Press)
Shaun Wade has kept the memory of Coby Wright alive by wearing No. 24 at Ohio State, the same number Wright wore during is AAU basketball days before his death. (Photos: Travis Moss and Associated Press)

With a sly grin, Wade must scan the full depth of his memory to answer the question: What is the worst trouble you've ever been in?

It's been awhile.

He finally harkens back to a fight he got into in the second grade, about a year after he'd moved to the United States from Italy, where the U.S. Navy had his father, Randy, stationed for several years. He "took a whooping" from his grandfather over the altercation, but that's it. He can't recall being in any hotter water with his parents or elders than that.

Randy Wade describes his son's upbringing as sheltered, and Shaun doesn't deny it. Randy and his wife Gwen paid close attention to the friends their son chose, but they probably didn't need to, because Shaun always had his own instinct for steering clear of the wrong crowd and the problems that came from it.

"I used to tell coaches, if you see Shaun walk away, something's about to go down," Gwen said. "He's not going to snitch; he'd keep a secret. But he wasn't going to put himself in the middle of trouble."

“Shaun was always the golden boy. He’s a natural-born leader and the guy in our group who would always make the right decisions in life. Coby knew we all had careers ahead of us, but especially Shaun.” D.J. MATTHEWS

Wade and Wright were different that way.

Wade was an introvert, Wright the extrovert. Wade was prone to good decisions; Wright, at times, to bad ones. Wade wasn't a fighter, but Wright -- known to be fiercely protective of his friends -- wasn't the least bit hesitant to throw hands.

Wade was a star athlete who played, and excelled, above his age group in both football and basketball. He played on a national championship Pop Warner football team, four state championship teams at Trinity, and for elite AAU basketball programs. Wright was every bit the athlete Wade was, but wasn't as accomplished at sports. Wright didn't necessarily see himself as a college student, much less a college athlete. But in his core group of friends, which included several who would earn scholarships in football or basketball, he saw Wade as the one most destined for greatness.

"Shaun was always the golden boy," said D.J. Matthews, who was a star teammate of Wade's at Trinity and was signed by Florida State as a four-star wide receiver recruit. "He's a natural-born leader and the guy in our group who would always make the right decisions in life. Coby knew we all had careers ahead of us, but especially Shaun."

Wade's positive influence on those around him had an impact on Matthews, who first introduced Wade and Wright when the three played in the youth football hotbed of Jacksonville's Westside. According to those close to the two, Matthews' personality had too hard of an edge, while Wade's edge was a bit too soft. Being around one another tempered each in just the way that was needed.

"Shaun needed to be opened up a little more, and D.J. needed to see more of a family structure," Randy Wade said.

Wade hoped to have the same impact on Wright that he and his family had on Matthews, but it was easier said than done. Wright was a free spirit with a bold personality. His charisma had a magnetic effect on those around him. By all accounts, he was a mix of conflicted traits: likeable but troubled, generous but hot-tempered. And not the type to change who he was for anyone.

"That was definitely my goal," Wade said, "to make him understand there's more to life than what he was living."

Wade (left) had a positive influence on D.J. Matthews (right), something he hoped to bring to his friendship with Wright. (Photo: Wade family)
Wade (left) had a positive influence on D.J. Matthews (right), something he hoped to bring to his friendship with Wright. (Photo: Wade family)

Wright once told Wade he loved him enough to kill for him.

The comment hit Wade in two ways. On one hand, it laid bare a depth of loyalty that he couldn't fully comprehend but had no choice but to appreciate. On the other hand, it was a frightful realization, because Wade knew his friend wasn't joking.

"It scared me to hear that, but it showed what I meant to him, what he had for me," Wade said. "He felt like I could be something more in this world."

Travis Moss, Wright's AAU basketball coach, was the closest thing Wright had to a dad. His biological father lived in Alabama and rarely saw his son, and Wright used to call his coach with best wishes every Father's Day.

Last December, Moss sat on a leather couch in his home, at the end of a cul-de-sac street on Jacksonville's Westside, and watched Memphis' football game against Tulane with interest; his son Travis is a freshmen linebacker for the Tigers. His eyes largely stay on the game, but for two hours, he speaks only about Wright, who he calls his fifth son -- Moss has four of his own -- and the efforts that went into guiding him. Anger management was a definite problem for the teenager, and Moss believes it largely stemmed from his father's absence. Wright once told Moss he was the only person who could snap him out of a fit of anger.

"He had his mom, who worked hard and was always there for him," Moss said. "But I did think he was one of two players on my team who I thought basketball might have to save."

“That’s who he was. If you disrespected someone close to Coby, you disrespected Coby.” TRAVIS MOSS

Wright relished in defending those closest to him, sometimes to a fault. Among those who knew him, an oft-repeated story recounts an incident at an AAU basketball tournament at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, where Wright was playing for Moss' team, Jacksonville-based Team Blueprint.

An iPhone was stolen from one of Wright's teammates, and the 15-and-under Team Blueprint squad suspected that it was taken by someone on a U-17 team that had been sitting near them between games. With the older team having already taken the bench for its next game, one of Wright's teammates called the missing phone, and its ringtone could be faintly heard in the direction of the U-17 team bench. A visibly angered Wright, without the first thought that the other team's players were bigger and stronger, marched straight to the court and, without a word, began opening and dumping out their gym bags, which were lined up behind the bench. He emptied a couple before anyone noticed, and a couple more while the U-17 players watched in shock as a stranger rifled through their belongings. Arguing ensued, then gave way to confrontation as a few players from Team Blueprint stepped between the bags and the bench to prevent the older team from stopping Wright's bag-by-bag inspection.

Just as the altercation began to get too heated to control, Wright discovered the stolen iPhone in what Moss recalls as the eighth or ninth bag his player had emptied.

"That's who he was," Moss said. "If you disrespected someone close to Coby, you disrespected Coby."

On the floor, things were no different.

He wasn't a good shooter, but his style of play was said to be Dennis Rodman-like -- defense, rebounding, pouncing on loose balls. And if his teammates took an excessively hard foul, he enforced with a harder one. That made Wright an anomaly in the AAU ranks, where the order of the day for recruiting attention starts with three-pointers and ends with dunks.

Wright's game wasn't attracting college coaches, but it naturally endeared him to teammates.

That's a trait of Wright's that Wade says he's taken on, that the people closest to him aren't just to be loved; they're to be defended as needed. When he walks into the Buckeyes locker room, he senses more of a brotherhood with his teammates than he would have had he never met Wright.

"I can say that, definitely, I feel I owe more loyalty to the people who do right by me," Wade said.

Those close to him say Coby Wright was a loyal friend who protected others in his circle. (Photos: Travis Moss)
Those close to him say Coby Wright was a loyal friend who protected others in his circle. (Photos: Travis Moss)

Moss spoke at Wright's funeral and told mourners this: "If you just met Jacoby within the last six months, you didn't know the real Jacoby."

Moss looks at Wright almost like two different people; the one he mentored and guided for the better part of seven years and the one who lost his way over the final months of his life. At the Builders of Faith Christian Center, the day after Christmas and just three miles from the park where Jacoby played youth football, it was the former Coby who was memorialized.

Moss believes Wright's bad temper and willingness to fight gave him a reputation as a delinquent, but he insists that Wright didn't live a truly dangerous lifestyle until he completely fell away from organized basketball.

"Sports kept him out of trouble, like a lot of kids," Moss said. "And he never really cared about having money, so he didn't need the street life as much."

The Wright described in Case No. 857597, however, became desperate for it.

The Coby Wright that Moss remembers routinely went out of his way to help the homeless or people in need. Wade recalls a trip to Las Vegas for an AAU basketball tournament, in the summer of 2015, where Moss had taken Team Blueprint to eat at In-N-Out Burger. Wright was the hungriest -- he was the one who had asked Moss to stop -- but gave his meal away to a homeless person he spotted near the restaurant.

"Sometimes five, ten dollars would be all he had in his pocket, but if someone needed it more than him, he'd give it away," Matthews said. "I've seen him give a stranger his last."

To Wade, B.L.I.C. -- Ballin' Like I'm Coby -- is about more than playing sports with Wright's aggressive and selfless approach to basketball. It's also about the qualities he had that should be known to anyone who knew him only by Case No. 857597.

"One thing I took from him, something my parents taught me, too, was to put other people ahead of yourself," Wade said. "That's the way he was."

In sports, Wright had become used to the view from behind. In his core of friends were Wade, the two-sport star bound for greatness, and Matthews, a four-star football recruit, both of whom led Trinity Christian to a fourth straight state title in 2016. There were others, including Mike McDougal, an undersized point guard who played in college and coined the term B.L.I.C.

Wright didn't have the shooting touch to play college basketball, nor the size at 6-foot-3 to play a Rodman-style game at that level. He stuck to what he was best at -- basketball dirty work -- while others scored and shined. Chronic headaches ultimately dissuaded him from the collision contact of football, and he didn't like school much, anyway. His friends were all moving on, and there was a certain understanding that Wright wouldn't be joining them as college athletes. He used to tell them all, Wade especially, that he'd come to every college game of theirs that he could.

He was OK with it.

"Not a jealous bone in his body as far as that goes," said Wade's father, Randy.

Convinced he didn't do enough, Wade was overcome with pain and guilt after Wright's death. (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)
Convinced he didn't do enough, Wade was overcome with pain and guilt after Wright's death. (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

Blame went all around when Wright was killed, but fingers didn't all point at someone else.

Some pointed to self.

Wade blamed himself for nearly a year, convinced he didn't do enough to talk his friend into enrolling at Trinity Christian to play football with him. Wright spent half of his last summer living with the Wades. He was training with the team regularly in summer workouts with the intention of enrolling, and Wade couldn't have been more excited to not only be his teammate but for sports to continue playing a desperately much-needed role in his close friend's life. After weeks of training, not long before preseason practice was to begin, Wright suddenly said he was through with football.

He likely had to be.

Longtime Trinity coach Verlon Dorminey, who coached Wade on four of his eight state championships, recalled an enrollment snag of some kind for Wright but couldn't remember if it was related to academics, tuition affordability or something else. One day, without further word, Wright left the Wade home and never returned.

Wade never spoke to him again. He'd have liked to, but Wright didn't own a cellphone, so he couldn't be contacted easily.

"I feel like if I had just spoken up and said, 'No, you're staying with me and playing football,' he wouldn't have ended up in the situation he was in," Wade said.

“We’ve got to let kids know you can’t be on both sides, with one foot in sports and another in the street. Because if you’re in between, you’re really just in the street.” RANDY WADE

Wade stayed in his bedroom for hours at a time after Wright's death. Not one to typically show emotion, he came home from the funeral, closed his bedroom door and cried. It was one of only two times his family had seen that kind of pain in his face -- the other was when his younger brother Latrell suffered a gruesome ankle dislocation in a Trinity football game.

Moss blamed himself as well. The two had gotten into an argument over Wright's academics upon their return from the Las Vegas AAU tournament. He wanted to test Coby and challenged him to straighten out some things in his life on his own, and thus asked the Wades if Wright could stay with them temporarily. They fell out of touch until a few weeks before Wright's death, when Moss received a random series of texts from multiple cell numbers he didn't recognize. It was Wright, who used others' phones to text or call people.

"It was five or six texts in a row. He poured his heart out, said he didn't want to live the street life anymore, said 'It's rough out here,' which was unlike him," Moss said. "We started talking some again and I was hoping to get him back into basketball. I carried a burden about it for a long time."

On the day Moss watched his son's Memphis team against Tulane, Randy Wade watched Shaun record his second interception of the season for Ohio State with a beautiful diving grab. He nipped at a drink following the Buckeyes' 52-12 rout of Michigan State, as a massive, four-screen projector covered most every inch of his living room wall with sporting events. In an adjacent room, full of workout equipment, he's covered red-painted walls with photos, certificates and all manner of keepsakes from the athletic careers of his children and their friends. Among the photos is one of Miami Dolphins wide receiver Isaiah Ford, a former Trinity Christian star who, as a senior, used to drive Wade to school in the morning.

Randy reflects on the structure he and Gwen provided his family, the role sports played in it, and the things they've done to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. He points to Wright's favorite spot on the couch. He wants Wright's story told because he knows there are kids who need to hear it.

"We've got to let kids know you can't be on both sides, with one foot in sports and another in the street," Randy Wade said. "Because if you're in between, you're really just in the street."

Wade hopes to keep Wright's No. 24 upon his entry into the NFL, and you can bet he'll have B.L.I.C. written somewhere when he takes the field on Sundays.

Playing in the NFL was a dream for him since he was a kid, and it was Coby's hope for him, too. He briefly opted out of the season over the summer when it appeared the Big Ten would not play and opted back in when the league re-launched with a revised schedule.

A slot cornerback in his first two years as a starter, Wade moved to outside corner this season in a move that was thought to be best for both the Buckeyes and Wade's future as a pro. It hasn't gone as smoothly as hoped, however, and while his performance in 2018 and 2019 as a slot corner will serve as a strong bedrock for his draft status, his play at outside corner hasn't boosted it, according to one area scout for an AFC team.

The COVID-19 pandemic likely complicated Wade's transition. Spring practice was canceled, summer workouts were scattered and the stop-and-start Big Ten season, replete with cancellations, provided Wade only five regular-season games.

“I’ve had some great ones, but he’s probably the first one I would say has five-position versatility. ... He’s unique in that you could really put him anywhere back there.” KERRY COOMBS

"They're very different positions, the slot corner and the outside corner, and it takes time to learn the nuances," said Ohio State secondary coach Kerry Coombs. "He got thrown into it with virtually no live training. … I feel bad. The easy answer would've been to just put him back at slot corner where he's comfortable, but I don't know that that would've been best for him or the team."

Two NFL area scouts interviewed for this story expect Wade to be a second-round selection. Fortunately for Wade, the experience factor is something scouting departments recognize.

"He didn't really show what everyone was hoping to see (in 2020), but that doesn't mean he can't still be that guy," the AFC scout said. "If you want to talk about draft prospects who didn't develop much in 2020, Shaun Wade is just one name on a long list."

The measurables are certainly what the NFL looks for in a cornerback. Wade is 6-1 with long arms, and Coombs has every confidence he'll run the 40-yard dash under 4.5 seconds at OSU's pro day on Tuesday -- plenty fast enough for a player of his size and length. Because of Wade's versatility and intuitiveness for more than one position, Coombs compares Wade to New York Giants defensive back Logan Ryan, whom Coombs coached when he was with the Tennessee Titans.

Coombs has coached a string of OSU cornerbacks drafted in the first round, including Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, Denzel Ward, Gareon Conley, Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette. And despite Wade's difficult transition to outside cornerback, he sees something in Wade that none of them had.

"I've had some great ones, but he's probably the first one I would say has five-position versatility," Coombs said. "He can play inside corner, outside corner, or either safety. I've had guys at each position that might measure up better than him at one spot or another, but he's unique in that you could really put him anywhere back there."

In one of his final opportunities in a Buckeyes uniform to give his friend the proper nod, Wade took a Sharpie to his cleats just before Ohio State's playoff game against Clemson and wrote: B.L.I.C.

With COVID-19 limiting his ability to fully learn a new position, Wade's transition to outside corner was hampered. (Photo: Ohio State Athletics)
With COVID-19 limiting his ability to fully learn a new position, Wade's transition to outside corner was hampered. (Photo: Ohio State Athletics)

Ultimately, police in Jacksonville believe Wright's death was of his own doing.

He entered a home where drugs were being sold and attempted an armed robbery, according to the sheriff's department report on the case. A witness in the house told police that Wright exclaimed he was under the influence of "Flakka," a dangerous synthetic drug for which dosage is highly difficult to control. According to the DEA, Flakka causes hallucinations and can evoke violent behavior. An NBC News report about Flakka's impact in Florida, dated the day before Coby died, cited body temperature spikes to 105 degrees in users, and a South Florida ER doctor who considered Flakka more of a local scourge at the time than cocaine or heroin.

Gunfire exchanged inside the house, and Coby was shot four times, including a fatal blow to the back of his head. His killing was ruled justifiable homicide because of the robbery attempt, and a charge for moving his body to the off-road brush where it was found was cleared.

Things were happening in his life that, right up until his death, could have altered his course. Moss says the morning of the homicide, Wright was supposed to have shown up for a basketball practice on a high school team Moss was coaching. That very weekend, unbeknownst to Wright, his estranged biological father was traveling from Troy, Alabama, to Jacksonville to visit him.

“I finally realized that’s how life is -- you can tell people to do things, but it’s their choice at the end of the day.” SHAUN WADE

And three days after his death, Wright had an appointment scheduled with a U.S. Army recruiter with the intention of getting out of Jacksonville by joining the military.

"I think he felt like the military was the only place left for him to go," Moss said.

Little is known about Wright's final months, perhaps because he didn't want much known. Wade is uncertain whether his close friend deliberately communicated only with others' cell phones so he didn't have to discuss his circumstances with the well-meaning friends he was falling away from. But intentional or not, it certainly would have been an easy way to maintain a divide. Wade just knows damned well that Wright wouldn't have had him anywhere near 904 Bunker Hill Blvd., Jacksonville's Northside residence where the shootout occurred.

The Wright who couldn't be reached -- by phone or otherwise -- certainly had plenty to hide from those who loved him and wanted more for him; the police report references a drug habit he'd begun to support through crime. But the Wright that Wade knew was still out there, even in the worst of times, looking out for those who needed it. In the months preceding his death, according to both Moss and Matthews, Wright's girlfriend -- who had a baby by another man -- had nowhere to stay. They say Wright convinced a motel manager to let his girlfriend and her baby move into a room, and Wright performed odd jobs around the motel to pay off the bill.

Wade still struggles to make sense of it all, but he no longer blames himself.

"I finally realized that's how life is -- you can tell people to do things, but it's their choice at the end of the day," he said.

Still, he refuses to let Case No. 857597 be the standing public record of who his friend was.

The Coby that Shaun Wade knew inspired him enough to establish a foundation to help the homeless and needy, at some point after Wade reaches the NFL. Shortly after Wright's death, Wade's sister, Serenity, came up with the idea, and Shaun plans to put it in motion.

The name is Jacoby Joshua Wright.

And acts of kindness will be done in his name, not his case number.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter.

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