By Scott Brown, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Mike Wallace(notes) #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up prior to the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on October 16, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
A knock on the door led her to a youth football coach holding her injured son. For Sonjia Wallace, it also slammed shut a different door.
There would be no more football for her son, not after someone had stepped on his eye, leaving it swollen and in need of medical care.
It took several trips to the doctor to fix the eye. It also took years before Wallace allowed her son to play organized football again. When she finally relented, she told him, "OK, Michael, you can play, but you make sure you run. Don't let nobody catch you."
Mike Wallace has done his best to follow through on an impossible mandate from his nervous mother. And if his sublime speed gets the New Orleans native where he ultimately wants to go, that anecdote may well become part of Wallace's lore.
In his third NFL season, the Steelers receiver has established himself as one of the NFL's premier big-play threats.
Wallace on Thursday night eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving for the second consecutive season, and he already has a dozen 100-yard receiving games to his credit. Hall of Famer John Stallworth had 25 such games during a 14-year Steelers career.
Wallace has everyone's attention on the field. His blistering early-season pace has slowed -- he has gone six consecutive games without going over 100 yards receiving -- but the 6-foot, 199-pounder still has an outside shot at Yancey Thigpen's franchise record for receiving yards in a season (1,398 in 1997).
"I believe we're watching something special," said quarterback Byron Leftwich, who is on injured reserve with a broken arm but is still a regular presence at the Steelers' South Side headquarters. "I believe when all's said and done, he'll go down as one of the best ever from a numbers standpoint. People don't even call him one of the top 10 wide receivers in this league, but he's got a chance to have better numbers than a lot of people."
There are 10 players whose statistics Wallace checks regularly. They are the receivers taken ahead of him in the 2009 NFL Draft. That teams passed over him for more than two rounds stokes Wallace's inner embers.
Asked if he doesn't get his due, Wallace shrugged and smiled.
"I think we're public enemy No. 1. People want us to fail, but we're going to keep pushing," he said. "People don't have to tell us we're good. We know we're good. The world will find out eventually when we hold up that Lombardi (Trophy)."
Unearthing a gem
The assignment offered a chance for Randy Fichtner to return to Tennessee, where he had spent two coaching stints at Memphis.
But the opportunity to see family and old friends was not the only reason Fichtner embraced the idea of representing the Steelers at Memphis' Pro Day workout. Timing and proximity also allowed him to attend Pro Day at the University of Mississippi -- and get a firsthand look at Wallace, who had intrigued him at the NFL Scouting Combine by running a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash.
The Rebels were flush with NFL prospects, and their headliners were offensive tackle Michael Oher -- his story inspired the best-selling book and movie, "The Blind Side" -- and defensive tackle Peria Jerry.
As Fichtner took note of how many NFL coaches, general managers and scouts were at Ole Miss' Pro Day, something struck him: He was the only receivers coach.
The receivers attending the workout were such a low priority that there was no quarterback to throw to them. Fichtner ended up running drills for the wideouts, many of whom were from schools that did not have Pro Day workouts.
He also got a chance to put Wallace through a personal workout and interview him. He came away impressed with Wallace's ability to do more than just run.
"Believe me, I threw some bad passes, and it wasn't on purpose," said Fichtner, who is now the Steelers' quarterbacks coach, "and he was adjusting and catching."
When he returned to Pittsburgh, Fichtner looked up Wallace's college statistics. He noticed his production generally spiked late in seasons, something Fichtner chalked up to Wallace playing for different coaches and quarterbacks.
That was enough for the Steelers to put Wallace on "our radar," Fichtner said.
Not that Wallace had any idea they were interested. He had not interviewed with the Steelers at the combine or made a pre-draft visit to Pittsburgh. When the Steelers took Wallace with the 20th pick in the third round of the draft, 84th overall, it surprised him.
It moved his brother, Reggie, to tears.
"He said, 'Ma, do you realize that was my favorite team? And my little brother is going to play for them?' " Sonjia Wallace said.
For two brothers who had been separated by the streets of New Orleans, it provided a connection on which both still thrive.
Reggie Wallace, the oldest of five kids, gave Mike the nickname "Rock" as a toddler because he never cried when he fell.
"He always had that love for his little brother and took care of his little brother," Sonjia Wallace said. "He definitely has a good heart. He just did some dumb things."
Reggie learned the Steelers drafted his brother while he was in a Louisiana state jail. He is serving time for selling drugs and is an example of what Wallace overcame while growing up in a West Bank neighborhood of New Orleans.
"He never really talked to me about street life. It was not something I wanted to do," said Wallace, who also lost a half-brother to street violence. "I can't buy my mom a house sitting on a corner selling drugs. I owe her everything."
Sonjia Wallace held down two jobs for about four years -- she worked as a presser at a dry cleaner and a caregiver at a home for mentally and physically challenged people -- and she sometimes only saw her children in the morning.
The sacrifices she made is why Wallace, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, plans to buy her a dream house.
Overcoming his environment shaped Wallace as much as a person as it did a player. That is something Steelers receivers coach Scottie Montgomery learned the more he got to know Wallace.
"If there's something to be done away from here with young kids, he's one of those people with an inner-city situation that understands that," said Montgomery, who is in his second season with the Steelers. "He knows his situation 10 years ago was completely different than it is now. I just didn't realize how much he cared about this opportunity. Now I know."
Not forgetting where he came from includes his brother and the unconditional love they share.
The two remain in regular contact -- they spoke last Sunday before Wallace scored two touchdowns against the Bengals -- and Wallace plans to bring Reggie to Pittsburgh after he is released from prison in 2013.
"He tells me words can't explain it how he's feeling, how good I'm making his time go," Wallace said. "It's never good in jail, but it makes it a lot of easier for him when I'm doing well."
'Extra gear' propels Wallace
Wallace may have world-class speed, but he is not a textbook sprinter.
His feet jut out slightly when he walks and runs -- think of them pointing to the 11 and 1 on a clock -- and his track coach at O. Perry Walker High School tried to change his style.
It didn't stick, and it didn't matter.
"That's just how I am," Wallace said. "Nobody could ever catch me."
Wallace's speed stands out on the football field.
"When he sees the ball in the air, he has that extra gear," Leftwich said. "Mike's like a center fielder, seeing the ball come off the bat. He's just running, and he'll find it later on to make a catch."
"Mike Wallace is an unbelievable talent," said Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a perennial Pro Bowler. "Everybody knows what his skill set is, and he is still finding a way to get it done."
Wallace led all rookie receivers with 756 receiving yards in 2009. He had nearly 1,300 receiving yards last season, his first one as a starter. In between those seasons, Wallace's infamous "one-trick pony" nickname was born.
It happened during an offseason practice in 2010, while the Steelers were taking part in an 11-on-11 drill. As Wallace took his place at the line of scrimmage, free safety Ryan Clark called out, "Just stay back. He's a one-trick pony."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't run with the sobriquet; he galloped with it, using it as away to prod Wallace.
Not that Wallace needs extra motivation, especially as he is the link between the past and a better future for his family.
Wallace is supremely confident, though when he claims he can be the best in the game, he says it so matter of factly that it doesn't comes across as bluster.
That may be because in the next breath Wallace, who turned 25 in August, concedes there is still much for him to learn.
"I want to be one of the best ever," Wallace said. "I want people to remember me."
"He can be great," Montgomery said, "if he just allows it to happen."