Let’s begin when Mike Wallace was just a toddler. Before the riches and hardships and stardom and loss.
Still learning to walk, the future football superstar knew how to climb. One day, which his parents Sonjia and Mike Jr. vividly remember, their youngest son slipped off a table and nearly hanged himself with his own bib.
Years later, he was an asthmatic teen. Mike — or Burnell Michael Wallace III, as he’s formally known — would routinely reach for an inhaler after sprinting through New Orleans’ humid air a little too hard, a little too fast.
The winter winds of Pittsburgh have stung his lungs — and every other part of his body, for that matter – the past few years. Sultry Miami was never far from his mind.
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So when cold-weather teams like the Vikings made a pitch for 2013’s hot-shot free agent, they barely had a chance. It was time to go south, where he could breathe – figuratively, and a bit literally.
“The [Vikings] had come to the point where they were telling him, ‘You don’t have to live here, just be here during the season,’ ” Wallace’s father, Mike Jr., said by phone this week. “He wanted to get out of that snow and cold weather.”
Wallace didn’t last a day on the open market before signing a five-year contract with the Dolphins earlier this month. The deal will pay him on average roughly $12 million annually, and yet, he actually left money on the table, his dad claims.
The Vikings offered more, according to Mike Jr. , but Wallace said no thanks. The Rams and Seahawks were among the teams he said also expressed interest. The feeling apparently was not mutual.
“[Miami] feels like home,” Mike Wallace III told The Miami Herald on Thursday. “I’m just excited for a new start. On to the next chapter.”
Wallace declined to talk about the specifics of his free agent courtship. But his decision to sign with the Dolphins has helped breathe fresh life into a franchise determined to turn the page on more than a decade of futility.
The Dolphins have a new logo. They are vying for tax dollars to fund a renovated stadium. And they have new-look roster, investing tens of millions of dollars into free agents who general manager Jeff Ireland believes have already made a better team.
Wallace, the speedster wide receiver, has been the offseason’s crown jewel. Dangerous fast, Wallace caught nearly three times as many touchdown passes last year (eight) as the Dolphins’ group of receivers had combined. His knack for catching long, downfield passes is expected to open the field for Ryan Tannehill in his second year as Miami’s quarterback.
But anyone with basic cable already knows all that.
The rest of the story: Wallace is a loyal family man who has supported his hard-luck kin through tough times.
He has covered mom Sonjia’s bills since she was laid off by the state. He will give cash to his dad even when Mike Jr. doesn’t ask for it.
And he deposits money every month into the prison account of his older brother Reggie, whose five-year drug sentence at Louisiana’s Dixon Correctional Institute ends in July.
“Those are the people who took care of me,” Mike Wallace said. “We come from a rough place.”
Wallace was one of five kids growing up in Algiers, a tough part of New Orleans.
One of the fastest players in football, he took his sweet time to enter this world. He was due in July of 1986, but was days late when doctors finally decided to go in and fetch him on the first of August.
As soon as Wallace could crawl, his parents had to keep a close eye on him. Little Mike wasn’t even a year old when he made his way onto the dining room table, fell and got the cord of his bib caught on a chair.
“He almost choked,” Sonjia Wallace said. “He carried that mark around his neck for a long time. It scared me to death.”
That fright aside, he was a perfectly normal kid. He loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Couldn’t play enough video games. And he was a natural athlete.
Asthma developed during adolescence, but it wasn’t prohibitive. It still bothers him to a degree; Wallace takes medicine daily and always has an inhaler nearby on game days.
And yet, he starred in football and track at O. Perry Walker High School — the same school his father attended.
Longtime friend Keenan Lewis, now a cornerback for his hometown Saints, has a ton of stories about Wallace’s youth, but one in particular stands out.
It was just before the opening kickoff in a game against a rival school and Wallace was the returner. Problem was, he had to go — bad.
“He told me, ‘I’m going take this kickoff all the way so I can go,” Lewis recalled. “And he did. He scored on that first play and ran right to the bathroom.”
A STAR AT OLE MISS
Lewis and Wallace — who grew up blocks apart, and years later, were Steelers teammates — had planned to go to college together.
Lewis had a scholarship to attend Oregon State, and Wallace was set to join him.
But he couldn’t qualify academically, and ultimately decided on the University of Mississippi. Ole Miss was five hours up the road from home and had recently hired Wallace’s high school coach, Frank Wilson, as an assistant.
Mike Wallace Jr. attended about two dozen of his son’s games during the next four years, watching him average 17.1, 18.8 and 20.1 yards per catch in his final three seasons.
“We used to drive up there every other weekend,” he said. “It was a dream.”
And perhaps a diversion. For all of Wallace’s athletic successes, he couldn’t help his family’s financial slide.
Long separated but not estranged, his parents filed jointly for bankruptcy in 2001. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof off their home. Mike Jr., who owns an air conditioning installation business, took the kids to Dallas to find work.
Sonjia, who at the time worked at a state facility for the mentally and physically challenged, relocated to Hammond, La. She was in charge of getting the home fixed, but said she lost more than $20,000 she gave to a thieving contractor.
And they didn’t get much help from Wallace’s older brother Reggie. His New Orleans Parish arrest record dates to 1992, when he was caught illegally carrying a weapon. Reggie Wallace, 38, has since pleaded guilty to a string of theft and drug charges, including the most recent transgression, which is why he’s locked up.
“Reggie was kind of like a troubled kid,” Mike Jr. said. “Doing things he didn’t have to do, like selling drugs. None of us approved of it.”
Still, his younger brother has his back. In addition to putting money every week into Reggie’s prison expense account, he plans to set him up with a home and car upon his release. But if Reggie slips up again, Mike Wallace III is prepared to cut him off for good, dad said.
The family’s financial relief came in 2009, when Wallace entered the NFL Draft. Selected in the third round, he joined a Steelers receiving corps already loaded with talent. Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes were the stars then, but within three years, Wallace was the No. 1 option.
By that point, he had outplayed his rookie contract and wanted a new one. In a power play, he held out of training camp last summer – a move that might have all but ended his time in Pittsburgh, and opened the door for Miami.
Instead of negotiating with a disgruntled Wallace, the Steelers gave big money to fellow receiver Antonio Brown. From then, it was all but a formality that Wallace would leave Pittsburgh upon reaching free agency.
Wallace saw his numbers regress last year, but still caught 64 passes for 836 yards.
“When you factor in all of those things, he clearly wasn’t focused,” said Ward, his pro mentor who retired after the 2011 season. “He wanted to have a contract, and at the same time, was trying not to get hurt. That can be a distraction for anyone.”
As for now? Those issues should be gone.
“He’s still young, that’s what scary,” Ward added. “The kid hasn’t hit his prime yet.”
The same can be said for his earning potential outside of football. Andrew Ree, an Atlanta-based attorney, is his publicist and marketing agent. Ree says that with Wallace’s combination of talent and personality — he’s described as a clean-cut, teachable guy with a great smile — “the sky is the limit.”
Ree is working to line up endorsements for Wallace, and before long, don’t be surprised to see him popping up on prime-time programs or TV talk shows.
Playing it safe
As for the Dolphins, they’re starting slowly. The organization is trying to shield Wallace from interviews until he gets better acclimated to his new team.
“Being the face of the franchise anywhere in any sport comes with performance, comes with community involvement, leadership within the locker room, within the team,” said Dolphins CEO Mike Dee.
“Does he have the ability to? Sure. … I haven’t met Mike. Everything I’ve heard about him, he’s going to be a personality.”
He’s back in New Orleans this week after spending a month in South Florida, hanging with college friends such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Wallace plans to return to Miami soon for the start of the team’s offseason conditioning program. He hopes to bring his 2-year-old daughter with him.
But first, he needs some family time. Get-togethers usually include barbecue and boiled crawfish in the backyard. This will probably be the last extended chance he will get until the summer.
Reggie Wallace gets out around the time training camp begins. Little brother intends to be in town when he does.
Free air tastes wonderful, particularly with family.