“After I got over the initial shock and excitement,” said the former Ole Miss and NFL star, “it made me think about all the people who helped me along the way.”
The list is lengthy, and includes many from Mississippi.
Walls played high school football at South Pontotoc High before transferring to Pontotoc High for his senior season.
Then it was on to Ole Miss where he became a first-team All-American. Then after four years in Oxford, Walls had a successful 15-year career in the National Football League, was a five-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl winner.
“South Pontotoc, Pontotoc, all of Pontotoc County, Ole Miss. I just want to say thank you to them all. I didn’t do this by myself,” said Walls, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his wife, Christy, whom he met at Ole Miss during their college years.
Walls’ life, and certainly his story, has often been about change. After moving from South Pontotoc to Pontotoc, it was his high school coach his senior year, Tommy Morton, that was an early difference-maker for him.
“Coach Morton at Pontotoc is as big a part of my college career as Coach (Billy) Brewer at Ole Miss was, if you ask me,” Walls said. “He gave me the confidence I could get to the next level. Whenever I see him I thank him every time. He really helped me mature as a football player and a man.”
But Brewer certainly makes the list, too. It was the veteran Rebel head coach’s decision to allow Walls to not only play defense, where he had played for three seasons, but to also play on offense his senior season.
Even in 1988, having a player participate in a game on both sides of the ball was a rarity.
The story to add tight end duties to his already successful defensive end duties went something like this, according to Walls, who recounted it all recently.
“I had a neck injury the spring of my junior year at Ole Miss, going into my senior year,” he said. “I had worked my tail off in the weight room. I just wanted to be ready. So we’re clowning around before practice one day (in the spring), and we’d just hired Red Parker as offensive coordinator. We were seeing who could throw the ball the farthest. The quarterbacks were out there – John Darnell, Mark Young.
“So Coach Parker saw me throw it and asked me if I’d ever played tight end. I said ‘Yes, one time in a high school all-star game.’ He asked me how I did. I told him, ‘I caught seven for 97 yards and a touchdown.’ He said, ‘That’s where you need to be. I can put you in the NFL. Give me two weeks in spring practice and you make the decision.’ So that’s what I did.”
Walls had been the ultimate team player already. To be able to play on both sides of the ball, to get that opportunity to help Ole Miss, was certainly something he welcomed.
“Coach Brewer allowed me to do it. My defensive coach, Art Kaufman, was for it. They allowed me to go play tight end. From the first play, it seemed like it was where I needed to be.”
So when fall camp rolled around, Walls was a defensive guy and now also an offensive guy.
“I decided I wanted to try it both ways,” he said. “But I didn’t want to give up on my defense, where I’d worked so hard for three years. But I wanted to help Ole Miss at tight end, too.”
And in one memorable game, he not only did that, he helped on special teams as well.
The Rebels were playing Alabama in Tuscaloosa his senior season in 1988. It was homecoming for Alabama. The Crimson Tide athletics department and the University of Alabama were also dedicating the Paul W. “Bear” Bryant Museum that day.
The score at halftime was 0-0, and Alabama ran the opening kickoff of the second half back for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. With the home team now clearly with the momentum on such an important day, a lesser group of Rebels might not have recovered. But this group did.
“After we tied it up, Coach Brewer came over to the bench and started pointing to some of the older players. I was one of them,” Walls said. “He told us to get out there on the kickoff return team. He wanted his best players out there. He told us they’re not beating us with another kickoff return for a touchdown.”
Wesley Walls played offense, defense, and special teams. And Ole Miss beat Alabama 22-12 that day.
The Ole Miss defense did not allow a pass completion for the Crimson Tide the entire game. Walls had seven catches for 79 yards, and he also had a key quarterback sack in the victory.
“That game helped me a lot as my career moved on,” Walls said. “I caught a few passes. I had a sack. I played on special teams. I still get chill bumps thinking about it.”
He gets those same feelings when he thinks of another big road win during his college career.
“It was at LSU in 1986,” he said of the day the Rebels won 21-19 in Baton Rouge. “LSU missed a last-second field goal and we won.”
Through all those years of high school and college football, Walls made a name for himself as one of the hardest workers on any of his teams. His reputation as a team leader was evident throughout, and others noticed.
“First to show up, last to leave,” was how Morton, his coach at Pontotoc, remembers it.
“I always thought Wesley was a better offensive player than he was a defensive player,” said Morton, still living in Pontotoc. “He had great hands and could really catch the football. So I wasn’t really surprised he was successful. I was probably a little surprised he was a starter at defensive end in college as quickly as he was. But I shouldn’t have been, knowing his work ethic and his ability.”
As a defensive end for the Rebels, Walls recorded 140 career tackles, including 19.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and he led the Rebels to a win in the 1986 Independence Bowl against Texas Tech 20-17.
The 1988 team captain had 36 receptions for 426 yards and three touchdowns at tight end en route to earning Associated Press first-team All-America and All-SEC honors.
An Academic All-American and three-time academic all-conference selection, Walls was chosen as a member of the 1980s All-SEC Team and honored as an SEC Legend in 2007.
“He was the real deal at being a student-athlete,” said Brewer, who was the head coach all four years Walls was at Ole Miss. “His GPA was extremely high, and he was a very, very intelligent guy on the field and off the field.”
Brewer recalls those spring meetings when they were trying to decide where to play Walls his senior season. It was apparent a tug of war between offensive and defensive coaches wasn’t going to resolve anything.
“We had some very lengthy discussions in the staff meetings about which side of the ball would get him,” Brewer said. “The offensive people thought we could play him at a slot or a tight end. The defensive people thought we needed him as a defensive end that could pass rush like he could and with his size. So we played him both ways, and it worked out.”
Brewer had only been the coach at Ole Miss for a couple of seasons when Walls chose the Rebels over Alabama, LSU, and plenty of others that would have loved to have had him.
“He was a big get for us,” Brewer said. “He was one of the top kids in Mississippi. One of the first for our program since we’d gotten there.”
Langston Rogers, the Ole Miss sports information director at the time, said as Walls’ resume’ grew, so did his chances at the highest of honors for a college player.
“Since Wesley had basically removed himself from any defensive honors, we felt it was important to emphasize he was a rare two-way player at that time,” Rogers said. “He had a great year at tight end and it didn’t hurt that Billy started him both ways in the season-opener against Memphis. It also helped his All-America push as he continued to make big plays on defense. The All-America voters, many who were probably watching the TBS telecast, saw his performance against Alabama when he caught seven passes for 79 yards and had a key quarterback sack in the win over the Tide.”
All of which ultimately vaulted Walls into the professional ranks. Chosen by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 1989 NFL Draft, Walls enjoyed a decorated 15-year NFL career, helping the 49ers win Super Bowl XXIV during his rookie campaign. A five-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro selection, he also played for the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers.
Wesley and Christy, a Yazoo City native, have a daughter, Jennifer, in Washington, D.C.; a daughter, Alex, in Chicago; and a son, Colton, who is a student at Ole Miss.
The Walls endowed a football scholarship at Ole Miss. The $100,000 gift is for any Ole Miss football signee from Pontotoc County.
“We’re empty nesters now,” Wesley said of he and Christy. “We haven’t missed an Ole Miss football game the last two seasons. We bought a place in Oxford, and we’re spending about half the year there. Eventually I’m going to be fulltime in Mississippi and probably in Oxford. We’ve found out that if you get a place in Oxford, everybody wants to come see you.”
Morton said he’s appreciative of getting to coach Walls back in the early 1980s, even for just that one season.
“He’s one of those special people. I’m thankful that we were together at a good time,” said Morton, whose team that year was upset in the first round of the playoffs, although one of Mississippi’s best teams that whole season. “Maybe I was able to give a little guidance at a time when he needed it. And he certainly made me look like a football coach at a time when I needed it.”
They keep in touch today.
“We talk regularly,” Morton said. “When I left coaching and went into church work, Wesley was gracious to help our youth programs out some. We stay in touch, and I see him occasionally. Wesley always remembers where he came from. He has humility that’s rare in a lot of athletes this day and time.”
Walls said for him, along with being about passion and preparation, the game was also about respect. He hopes that’s the way he’s remembered by his teammates and those he played against.
“One of those 49ers, Ronnie Lott, said to me if you play for respect, the wins, the money, everything else will come after that,” Walls said. “You go out and earn their respect. Hopefully some of the guys would say Wesley earned my respect.”
Walls will head into the College Football Hall of Fame in December, becoming the 11th Ole Miss Rebel to enter. One of these already enshrined is the man who alerted Walls he’d made it.
Archie Manning is the chairman of the National Football Foundation.
“I knew I was nominated and I had been nominated before,” Walls said. “When it was announced this spring that I’d made it, I got a call from Archie giving me the great news. Having him give me a call made me go full circle back to my decision to even go to Ole Miss. One of your idols and heroes giving you the news made it even more special.”
And gave Walls yet another reason to be thankful these days.
(This story was written by Spirit Editor Jeff Roberson and first appeared in Rebel Nation magazine, now called Rebel Rags magazine, this past summer. Walls was enshrined Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, in New York City. The College Football Hall of Fame is located next to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.)
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