Athlete or Actor? Top DB Faces Big Choices
Next summer he'll be on the big screen as LBJ's 'Space Jam' son, but first Ceyair Wright must choose from among the likes of USC and Notre Dame.November 5, 2020
One week in March brought together everything that's made life such a whirlwind for top football prospect Ceyair Wright, who also happens to have a major role in next summer's Space Jam: A New Legacy.
He arrived at a Rivals Camp Series event at East Los Angeles College on the morning of Sunday, March 1. Showing off the speed and fluid hips that helped him become the No. 5-ranked cornerback in the class of 2021, he ran through drills and competed in one-on-one battles against other recruits from the region. His goal: Earn an invite to the Rivals Five-Star Challenge, an annual competition for the most promising players in the country.
He ended the camp with a golden football in his right hand, posing for pictures, shoulder to shoulder with eight other players who made the cut.
The following day, he was back to work as an actor, reading in front of producers for the lead role of Levi in a CW Television Network pilot, The Lost Boys, adapted from the 1987 teenage-vampire film of the same name.
By Thursday, Wright the actor was still in the dark, thinking he probably hadn't gotten the job. He also was preparing for a track meet after school, coming into it with the state's top 100-meter time of the young season, 10.92.
As the meet got underway, he won the 100. But then Wright received a text from his father: There was no time to spare. The Lost Boys studio required him to appear on set for a test screening the following morning. In Wilmington, North Carolina.
"Should I come pack my bag?" Wright replied to his dad. The answer was yes. Loyola High School would have to do without its junior track star for the 200 meters and 1,600 relay that afternoon.
By mid-morning Friday, Wright; his mother, Chanell Jackson; and his two-year-old brother, Clay; were at their hotel in North Carolina, with time just for a quick nap before the test.
It went well, and, on Monday, Chanell called her father Charles "Chuck" Jackson, a retired police officer, to discuss his moving to Wilmington with Wright if The Lost Boys pilot was picked up by the network. At the end of the conversation, he informed her that he was feeling light-headed and nauseous.
Weeks later, Ceyair Wright found himself helping bear the casket of his grandfather at a funeral limited to 10 people because of the pandemic—it was COVID-19 that led to Jackson's sudden death. In between, Wright had been back in North Carolina for The Lost Boys production, only to see it shut down.
Sports, acting, family, COVID. Seven months later, the mix leaves several aspects of Wright's life still unresolved. The Lost Boys is in limbo; all auditions are through Zoom; and Wright's senior high school football season was moved to January. His biggest decision to date also looms: Where will Wright, as one of the top football prospects in the country, go to college?
Wright occupies rare air now, but two years ago he was just an anonymous sophomore with an acting resume of bit roles, sitting in the back of the football bus, often after a loss. Loyola won just one game in the fall of 2018.
He was not one to dwell on defeat during the ride home. Instead, sometimes he would scroll through a script on his phone and study the dialogue and actions of characters he was planning to audition for.
The morning after a game, Wright would go to Saturday football practice and break down game film. Later that afternoon, he would be focused on acting with his manager, Carla Alexander.
His introduction into entertainment had come as a model when he was three years old, appearing in magazine ads and even a White Stripes music video for "My Doorbell."
Around the age of 10, he expressed an interest in acting and began to audition. His first gigs were commercials, and then came small roles on television shows such as Training Day, Instant Mom, Life in Pieces and 2 Broke Girls. He also appeared in a few small budget films such as Magic '85 and American Skin.
In the spring of his sophomore year, he was in serious contention for the role of Pope Heyward, a main character on the Netflix series Outer Banks. Though he didn't get the gig, the traits he honed preparing to play Heyward and several roles were evident in his real-life role as a football player.
"He's used to processing so many different roles and being different people," said Loyola defensive backs coach Jerry Phillips. "He has to go from one acting gig to the next. For him in football, you can almost see that's what he's doing. It's seamless for him."
His acting memorization skills seem to translate to the football field. His coaches rave about Wright's ability to identify coverages on the fly and digest opponents' plays, formations and player tendencies. He plays kick returner, cornerback and wide receiver and thrives the more that's thrown at him.
As a cornerback, his best ability might be his temperament. He never gets too high or too low. Even when he gives up the occasional reception, it doesn't faze him—not surprising given how he grew up. Since the age of three, casting directors and booking agents have told him no for modeling gigs and acting jobs. With more than a decade in the industry, he's amassed more rejections than he or his parents care to count.
By the time Outer Banks came out and became a hit, Wright had the perspective and recent success to be able to just enjoy the show.
"It was definitely really fun to be a part of that audition process, and that was something that I enjoyed," Wright said. "Then a couple months later, I booked Space Jam, so I was definitely appreciative for it."
Space Jam: A New Legacy has been a long time coming, since Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny and various other NBA players and Looney Tunes characters brought us Space Jam in November 1996. For nearly a decade, rumors fluttered that LeBron James would reprise the role Jordan made famous, and the hype train started rolling early for A New Legacy, expected to hit theaters next summer.
In the original Space Jam, the actors playing Jordan's children have bit parts. They help Bugs and Daffy Duck retrieve their father's basketball shorts and shoes from his trophy room, which involves an encounter with the family dog. But in the sequel, Wright's role as James' character's eldest son, Darius, is said to be a much juicier role that displays his athletic ability.
Wright's Space Jam: A New Legacy story always starts with that one moment that captures his dual world. Wright and his mother were getting a recruiting tour of Stanford University on a golf cart. Even though the Cardinal had yet to extend an offer, Jackson struggled to hide her enthusiasm given the prestige of the university and because it was just an hour's flight from Los Angeles.
As they rode through campus, Wright pulled out his phone and opened his email. His focus shifted away from the palm trees and red-tiled roofs: After an audition and multiple callbacks, he had earned a Space Jam role: His inbox contained the contract.
Over the next few months, football and acting conflicted. He missed a few weeks of summer workouts. But Wright's mix of football and acting served him well as he mingled and collaborated with actors and athletes on Space Jam.
He spent hours a day with James, Oscar nominee Don Cheadle and Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery, The Walking Dead), as well as Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Diana Taurasi and Klay Thompson.
He built a bond with James, at first over football, which James played through his junior year at high school. James would tell Wright he wouldn't have been able to cover him; Wright would assure him, as a potential future All-American cornerback, he can lock down anyone.
As for Wright's basketball skills, after only having to dribble during auditions, he realized for the movie he'd need to fix his broken shot, rectifying his mechanics (elbow in, feet set) to at least look the part.
Back on the real football field, his teammates started calling him nicknames like "Hollywood Wright" and "Bronny," the name of James' real-life eldest son, a high school sophomore point guard.
"We're just keeping him grounded a little bit," said Loyola teammate Zakhari Spears, a 2021 commit to Washington. "It's all in good fun."
Beyond the football-basketball-acting connection, James is a fitting role model for a person with Wright's aspirations. He's an athlete at the top of his game, a business mogul and an entertainer. Yet he also is recognized for what he's accomplished for the Black community in the United States and how he uses his voice to speak out for those who are vulnerable. Wright also strives to accomplish this.
At 8:46 a.m. PT on June 18, Wright posted a video speaking out against police brutality and racism and in support of Black Lives Matter. 8:46 represented the number of minutes and seconds a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, ending his life.
The video featured Wright and 15 of the other top high school football prospects from California from the class of 2021 and 2022 reading a script written by Ceyair's father, Claudius Wright, and Zakhari's father, Bobby Spears.
Got my guys with me to speak on an issue that has been alive for too long. The Time Is Now! @TatiolaTV @blmla @datrillstak5 @marcelluswiley @rolandsmartin @stephenasmith @ktla @abc @espncfb @donlemon @GregBiggins @adamgorney @BrandonHuffman @FootballRecruit @coachkeith_1k https://t.co/rZENPprqW0
Collectively, the participating players have hundreds of offers, and the list of those who participated includes 2021 defensive end Korey Foreman, the No. 1 player in the class; 2021 quarterback Miller Moss, a 4-star USC commit, and 2021 quarterback Tyler Buchner, pledged to Notre Dame. Wright had fostered connections with these players from years of Pop Warner, football camps and seven-on-seven football.
"Making it home safely shouldn't be a thought on my mind, but sadly it is for people across the country that look like me," Wright said near the conclusion of the video. "The time is now to change."
Between Instagram and Twitter, the video has garnered more than 200,000 views on Wright's accounts. It doesn't hurt that after he posted it, LeBron James liked it on Instagram.
Of course, Wright is a long way from approaching James' ability to juggle multiple ventures as an activist, actor, athlete and businessman. Actually, he's closing in on a period of time when his football career may become too demanding for acting or vice versa.
At 6'1" and 180 pounds, Wright appears on the 247Sports composite ranking lists as the No. 72 overall prospect in the class of 2021 and No. 5 cornerback. He's considered the best defensive back on the West Coast.
With aspirations of majoring in business or possibly studying film, his 3.7 GPA at the prestigious Loyola High School, coupled with his potential on the gridiron, earned him opportunities to study at top academic institutions. To date, Stanford, Yale, Duke, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Cal, Michigan and USC have all offered. He also recently expressed interest in possibly attending a historically Black college or university. Several quickly offered, including Jackson State, Morgan State and Langston. In total, he's amassed more than 30 offers, with every Power Five conference represented.
Before the offers came in, most college coaches first wanted to verify his speed. He ran track as a sophomore and produced a 10.84 in the 100 meters and a medal for running the first leg in his high school's 4x400 state championship relay team. It was his first time running track since elementary school.
"A lot of football teams were thinking that I wasn't fast enough," Wright said. "So I wanted to run track just to show that I had the speed that people thought I was lacking."
He also possesses the twitch, loose hips, length and instincts of a cornerback destined to play on Sundays.
"He just checks all the boxes for that position," said Loyola head coach Drew Casani, a former NFL and college football scout.
It helps that Wright comes with NFL pedigree. His father, Claudius Wright, played cornerback at the University of Arizona under head coach Dick Tomey, in the Desert Swarm defense. Undrafted after college, Claudius signed with the St. Louis Rams organization and spent much of his professional career allocated to teams in the NFL Europe League. Wright's uncle Mazio Royster and cousin Darick Holmes also spent time in the NFL, while his cousin Darnay Holmes is a rookie cornerback with the New York Giants.
Take all that and put it next to his acting potential. There's no clear choice, one versus the other. Wright possesses the swagger, nerve and beaming smile of a teen heartthrob, plus the confidence casting directors demand of prospective talent. Unlike many of his peers, he's willing to audition for roles ill-suited for his skill set, such as those requiring singing or dancing, for the sake of pushing himself.
The most relevant comparison for Wright's situation might be that of wide receiver C.J. Sanders, who recently completed a college career that began at Notre Dame and ended at SMU.
Like Wright, Sanders began his acting career at a young age. His first role was playing a young Ray Charles in the 2004 Academy Award-winning film Ray, starring Jamie Foxx. He parlayed his early success into appearances on popular television shows and films but, by the time middle school football entered the picture, Sanders took a break from acting to focus on football. In high school, as a 4-star wide receiver according to the 247Sports composite rankings, he chose to sign with Notre Dame over offers from Tennessee, Ohio State, Stanford and several other top college football programs.
The same summer he was set to enroll at Notre Dame, Sanders said Foxx reached out to him about playing his son again, this time in the film Sleepless. The role enticed Sanders, but he couldn't help but think about what his new head coach Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish coaching staff might say.
"I wanted to show them that I was all-in for football," Sanders said. "Then imagine me asking them, 'Hey, can I not do summer workouts to do a movie?' They would have looked at me crazy, so I didn't even bring it up."
Sanders continued his hiatus for the five years he was a college football player. In the 2020 NFL draft, he went unselected. He is still pursuing his dreams of professional football while also preparing for the next chapter of his life. Sanders posed for headshots this August—the first he's had taken since he was a child—and plans to return to acting in the near future.
Wright will be in a similar position next summer. Space Jam: A New Legacy is scheduled to hit theaters on July 16. By then, he should already be on campus at the university of his choice and participating in summer workouts himself.
At the same time, he will be receiving the most exposure he's ever received as an actor. What roles will be available to him once millions worldwide associate him with LeBron James and the Tune Squad?
By that time, it's presumed the NCAA will regulate and allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, which should open doors for Wright that were unavailable to Sanders. He's even exploring the possibility of his own YouTube channel down the road.
But he knows how demanding acting is and that college football is an all-consuming activity for at least 10 months out of the year. At some point, one will have to take priority over the other, even if the ultimate goal is to play in the NFL, act and manage a portfolio of business ventures down the line.
For the time being, Wright still needs to make that college decision, and he'll be able to make limited college visits in the coming weeks, just not under the auspices of football programs. He can't meet with coaches and gets no special entry to any games, but he can at least see campuses and maybe check out some dorms.
His plan is to announce his commitment as part of the All-American Bowl broadcast on Jan. 2 that is replacing the canceled game. What will his decision be? Athletics, acting and, of paramount concern, his education are all in play. Could he possibly do it all?
How much he acts in college will depend on the flexibility his coaches offer and where he goes to school. Callbacks will be much easier to make if he's at UCLA or USC compared with South Bend, Indiana, or Evanston, Illinois.
"I don't know how possible it is," Wright said. "This is something that I have to see as I get older, and as I go into college what I'm able to do.
"I just have to see once I get there."
Andrew Mentock is a writer who splits his time between Detroit and South Bend. His features have appeared in B/R Mag, SB Nation and Ozy. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMentock