SANTA CLARA — Eric Wright raised his arms to the sky, his right hand clutching the ball, then danced off the field collecting hugs and hand slaps from his San Francisco teammates.
The veteran cornerback finally was back in his playmaking element.
Wright and the 49ers had reason to celebrate after his interception in the final minute last week sealed San Francisco’s 19-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, a game in which Wright was knocked out with a head injury in the third quarter but was back on the field to make a play when it counted at the end.
In Sunday, the 49ers visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team Wright played for last year during a tumultuous season in which he was suspended for four games.
It was a long way down for Wright since then before he got back on the field with the 49ers in November.
“I was able to change the perspective a little bit to get the most out of the situation,” Wright said, “and I was able to do that and really take that situation in stride and become not only a better football player, but a better person.”
Wright has stepped up for the 49ers when they needed him. His return from an eight-week stay to start the season on the reserve/non-football injury list came just a few weeks before San Francisco lost starting right cornerback Tarell Brown to a rib injury that has sidelined Brown for the past three games.
Wright has moved into the regular nickel back role for a defense that has extra defensive backs on the field more often than not. He had a team-high two passes-defensed against the Seahawks, playing a key role in a defense that limited Seattle and quarterback Russell Wilson to 178 net yards passing.
“He has been getting better and better, which is what you would expect that would naturally come with more practice time and more playing time,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He’s been improving, and we have high hopes for him the rest of the season and in the future.”
Wright had to wait patiently to get himself back in that position following a stretch that saw him fall from grace after signing a five-year, $37.5 million deal as a free agent with the Buccaneers in 2012.
Wright served a four-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and the Buccaneers traded him to the 49ers for a conditional draft pick in July. But Wright failed his physical with San Francisco and the deal was voided. The Bucs subsequently released him.
It was later revealed that Wright had been arrested for suspicion of DUI in Los Angeles on July 12. He also had been arrested for DUI in 2012, but those charges were later dropped.
Undeterred, the 49ers signed Wright to a one-year deal on Aug. 8. He was promptly placed on the NFI/Illness list, where he remained throughout training camp before he was placed on the Reserve/NFI list at the end of the month.
“That’s difficult for anybody that’s been playing in the league six years and starting in the league six years,” said Wright, who started 71 games during his first five NFL seasons with the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions.
But the 49ers had a plan for Wright, and he worked hard to get back on the field and overcome his personal issues.
When Wright was signed by San Francisco, coach Jim Harbaugh said it had the makings of a great story. Harbaugh said Friday he’s pleased by how that story is unfolding.
“Very well,” Harbaugh said. “Feel good for him and feel good to be a part of it in a small way. But he’s done the heavy lifting. No question about it.”
Wright, a star athlete during his prep days at San Francisco’s Riordan High School, grew up watching the 49ers.
He has been able to savor that opportunity after spending the first nine games of the season out of uniform on the sidelines.
“I wanted to be available and ready and having the opportunity to play whenever that came about and just being able to maximize that opportunity whenever it happened,” Wright said. “That’s kind of what I envisioned, to be ready and to really be a factor and help anyway I can once called upon.”