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The students run the show during pep rallies at Cardinal Gibbons High School, and on this day, they made it clear who they wanted.

At the request of his classmates, Daniel Wright stepped out from the throngs of students, bounded down the steps toward the gymnasium floor, and grabbed a microphone. The entire student body — more than 1,200 strong — roared its approval as he began to sing.

Wright, a highly-recruited, hard-hitting safety, was best known for what he did under the Friday night lights, but he also loved being under the spotlight. 

“I coached for many, many years, so I get up in front of the assembly and talk all the time, but I was never a comfortable public speaker,” said Mike Morrill, the school’s football coach at the time. “I was just amazed at the audacity of a 16-year-old young man to just go out there on a whim and sing.”

It wasn’t uncommon at all for Wright, who’s now a starting safety for Alabama, to sing for large audiences. He sang at six to eight pep rallies during his time at Cardinal Gibbons — sometimes planned, sometimes at a moment’s notice. One of the songs he performed was John Legend’s “Ordinary People.”

He was also in the choir, he sang during the school’s Catholic masses, he performed in the talent show multiple times, and he even sang the national anthem at a basketball game.

Wright’s pipes caught the attention of Alabama fans three years ago when his teammates demanded that the true freshman serenade coach Nick Saban on his birthday.

Last year, as part of a golf-themed birthday surprise, he did it again.

“That man’s confidence is unwavering,” said former teammate Maxwell Worship, who’s now at Vanderbilt. “That might be one of the most confident people I know.”

His football talents and his musical talents inevitably overlapped during high school in Fort Lauderdale. Morrill says Wright was “always breaking into song,” whether in the locker room or on the practice field, and the most common genre was R&B.

“He had a good voice, I know that. We were pretty shocked when he did it. We were like, ‘Whoa. OK,” defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Dave Montiel said. “He would also sing when he was in the secondary a little bit, just goofing around during practice. It’d be [like], ‘Make the calls and stop singing!’”

His musical skills don’t stop at just singing, though; he could freestyle, too. 

One year, at 1 or 2 a.m. at a homecoming after-party, one of Worship’s friends who was pursuing a music career started rapping. Wright, ever the showman, joined in on the fun.

“All of a sudden, Daniel comes up and they start having a rap battle. Daniel’s going crazy, he’s going crazy, they’re going back and forth,” Worship said with a laugh. “That was one of the most memorable moments of high school for me. That was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had. I just remember him coming out of nowhere, and I was like, ‘Wait, he can sing and freestyle?’”

Every person interviewed this story mentioned how comfortable Wright is with being himself. Morrill recalled being impressed with how laid-back Wright was whenever he called him into his office. 

Morrill’s successor at Gibbons, Matt DuBuc, took over after Wright’s junior season, but Wright transferred to nearby Boyd Anderson High School shortly after. DuBuc, who had convinced Wright to come to Gibbons in the first place, was miffed for a little while, but the easygoing Wright didn’t sense any tension.

It’s a Gibbons tradition that players, coaches and their families go up the street to a restaurant called Wings N’ Things after every home game. One night during Wright’s senior year, he took a detour to get some wings and visit his old teammates. 

“I’m sitting there one night after a game with my family, and our kids are all in there, and Daniel Wright walks in. He had been coming for chicken wings for three years, and he walks in in his Boyd Anderson pants,” DuBuc said, laughing. “He got a plate of wings, sat down and started talking to his buddies. I almost wanted to tell him to get the heck out.”

Wright headed to Alabama just a few months later as an early enrollee, but he didn’t see much playing time until this year. (He did, however, gain some notoriety for his hard hits on special teams as a freshman — around the same time as his debut performance of “Happy Birthday.”)

His coaches back in Florida are proud of him for sticking it out, waiting his turn and earning his degree. As Morrill, who coached Wright for three years at Gibbons, watched him undercut a pass and return it for a pick-six against Texas A&M earlier this season, he thought back to the courageous 16-year-old who could command a stage.

“It never surprised us that that was going to happen,” Morrill said. “Just like it never surprised us that, as he was running down the sideline, he might just belt out a song. That was just Daniel.”