K.J. Wright may have played his last game as a Seahawk.
But at least he can say he’s a Seattle Sports Star.
On Saturday, the 31-year-old linebacker — who’s entering free agency after a decade with the Seahawks, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft — was named the Sports Star of the Year for men’s sports at the 86th annual Sports Star of the Year Awards, which were held virtually and broadcast in an hour-long ceremony on Ch. 5.
Nominees were selected by the Sports Star Committee — which is comprised of local sports historians, media and other members of the sports industry — and then voted on by the general public.
Wright bested a quartet of fellow nominees in Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis, Washington State infielder Kyle Manzardo, UW defensive back Elijah Molden and Sounders forward Jordan Morris. Wright did so after starting all 16 regular-season games and stacking up 86 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 10 passes defended, two sacks and two fumble recoveries.
And while Pro Bowl honors again eluded Wright last season, the Mississippi State alum is taking home some hardware anyway.
Appropriately, the award was presented by fellow Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner — who urged him to “enjoy this, and come over to the house so we can celebrate.”
“I just want to thank you guys tremendously for voting me the Seattle Sports Star of the Year,” Wright said. “It’s an award that I’ve always wanted to get my hands on. I’ve always watched it, and I wish I could be there in person to accept this. But I’m truly thankful to you guys for even nominating me. This is a great class of guys, and I’m truly honored.”
But Wright was not the night’s only big winner. Seattle U guard McKenzi Williams was named Sports Star of the Year for women’s sports, after overcoming a pair of knee injuries to lead the Redhawks with an average of 15.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in 21 games in her redshirt junior campaign. The 5-foot-5 guard and Auburn Riverside High School alum edged out former Storm forward Alysha Clark, UW softball catcher Morganne Flores, Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker and Gonzaga forward Jenn Wirth for the honor.
“There’s so much talent in the Seattle area that often is overlooked, and I’m so thankful to the Seattle Sports Commission for giving athletes the stage to highlight their skills,” Williams said. “I just want to thank my coaches and my teammates for always having my back throughout my career. I want to thank my family — especially my mom — for making so many sacrifices to keep me going.”
Meanwhile, the Sports Story of the Year went unsurprisingly to the Storm, which won its fourth WNBA championship and its second title in four years. Other nominees included the Gonzaga men’s basketball team’s continued success, the Seattle Kraken’s name announcement and merchandising campaign, the Seahawks’ NFC West title and the Sounders’ appearance in the MLS Cup for the fourth time in the past five years.
“On behalf of my co-owners and the entire Seattle Storm franchise, I’m here to say an enormous thank you for supporting us this past pandemic year,” said Ginny Gilder, Storm co-owner. “Just like y’all, we love winning championships, and bringing home the franchise’s fourth WNBA title — in a year that was frequently disheartening and often frightening — to you, our city, was sweeter and more meaningful. This championship was for Seattle.”
As for other honorees, the Paul G. Allen Humanitarian Award went to 20-year NBA veteran and Rainier Beach native Jamal Crawford — who has maintained a constant presence in the local community.
“I am beyond honored to receive the Paul Allen Humanitarian Award,” Crawford said. “This is something I didn’t even dream of, to be honest. I’ve won other awards in my life, but this one is at the top of the list. For me personally, it’s just how I live my life. I didn’t think you’d get awards for just trying to help people and do the right thing.”
Former Mariners manager Lou Piniella was honored with the Royal Brougham Sports Legend Award. Though he played for parts of 18 major-league seasons, won a pair of World Series and was named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1969, “Sweet Lou” achieved even more as a manager. He won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 and tallied 840 wins in a decade at the helm in Seattle, from 1993 to 2002. Piniella led the Mariners to the franchise’s only four postseason appearances and was named Manager of the Year in 1995, 2001 and 2008.
Seattle Times photographer Dean Rutz took home the Keith Jackson Media Excellence Award, after documenting Seattle sports for nearly three decades. Past recipients include Angie Mentink, Art Thiel, John Clayton, Rick Rizzs, Kevin Calabro, Steve Raible, Warren Miller, Bob Rondeau, Bob Robertson, Keith Jackson and Dave Niehaus.
“I want to thank the Seattle Sports Commission for honoring me with the Keith Jackson media award. Undoubtedly, this will be the only time my name and the great Keith Jackson will ever appear in the same sentence,” Rutz said. “But being the first photographer chosen for this award makes the recognition immensely special.”
The Wayne Gittinger Inspirational Youth Award was bestowed on Matthew Esselstrom, who transitioned from female to male before overcoming a severe knee injury during his lacrosse career at Seattle U. The Equity and Inclusion in Sports Award, which made its debut on Saturday, went to All Girl Everything Ultimate Program (AGEUP) — which uses ultimate frisbee to invest in Black, Indigenous and people of color youth in south Seattle.
And Wright plans on continuing to impact this community as well. Because though he may leave the Seahawks, the standout linebacker isn’t through with Seattle.
“To the city of Seattle … being a kid from Mississippi, this city has really opened my eyes to so much stuff,” Wright said. “I remember the first time that I was flying into Seattle and I saw Mount Rainier. I saw the beautiful mountains, the beautiful scenery, the lakes, and just all this city has to offer. This place is truly special and I plan on being here for the rest of my life.
“This is just the beginning of K.J.’s impact on this city. So I’m just truly honored. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to make this organization and city just be proud. I think I did an OK job.”