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Wallace has passed multiple tests on NFL journey
Steelers cornerback has overcome the odds to fulfill his dream
By Dale Lolley  Mar 13, 2023

It was a year ago this week that cornerback Levi Wallace was heading into the unknown.

Wallace had just finished his fourth year with the Buffalo Bills at the completion of the 2021 NFL season and was entering free agency – real free agency – for the first time.

But for Wallace, there wasn't a feeling of excitement or happiness. For Wallace, who had worked so hard to get to that point in his football career, the feeling was completely different.

"It was super stressful," said Wallace, who would quickly sign with the Steelers. "You're getting calls from your agent. You're seeing other guys get paid. It was just a whole big scene and days of feeling out what's what. What teams are calling you? What kind of scheme do they have? It was trying to find the best place to fit in. It was more stressful than fun. But it definitely was rewarding in the end, for sure."

Finally, somebody wanted Levi Wallace – and not just as a camp body or for someone to line up on the scout team. The Steelers wanted Wallace as a key component to their defense, somebody they could count on to bolster their defense.

It was a long way from the days of Wallace playing football at Tucson High School in Tucson, Ariz., when he couldn't get a single NCAA Division I offer, or when he graduated from the University of Alabama after having been a starter on a national championship team and went undrafted.

Wait. Let's back up a moment. How does someone go from not having a scholarship offer to winning a national championship? How does that player then go undrafted and find himself a coveted player in free agency?

To understand that process, you have to go back to Tucson High School, where Wallace was a cornerback-wide receiver-kick returner on Justin Argraves' football team.

"When I got hired at Tucson High, it was January of his sophomore year," Argraves said. "We had the ability to coach him for those two years. He didn't come off the field for us. He played offense and defense and special teams for us. He was a tremendous leader in the locker room and progressing forward, he was very coachable. He's just a natural football player."

What Wallace wasn't was naturally big. Though he was 6-foot, he weighed just 160 pounds – at least that was his listed weight.

College teams just weren't banging on the door for a rail-thin player.

But as disappointing as that was, Wallace had bigger plans.

His father, Walter, a 21-year veteran of the Air Force, had grown up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the home of the University of Alabama. In his younger days, Walter Wallace had worked during Crimson Tide football games selling drinks. He fostered a love of Alabama football for his sons, Levi and Lawrence.

"We had gone back there many times. The boys had gone to games," Levi's mother, Wendy Wallace, herself a military veteran, said. "Their dad used to work at the games selling drinks and things of that nature. There was a very rich tradition. Growing up in Tucson, they had the posters. They had the T-shirts. They had the connections. We rooted for 'Bama every single football season.

"It was not a matter if they were going to go to school, but just a matter of is this what they wanted to do? We always knew he would hopefully go there. The tradition was very strong. Ultimately, his dad had the benefits from the military, so he was able to go on the GI benefits, which worked out really well. And then, he had family in Tuscaloosa to support him along the way."

That proved to be very important. Just before Levi left home for Tuscaloosa, Walter was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gerhig's disease. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. For reasons that are unknown, military veterans develop the disease at a higher rate than the normal public.

The median survival rate for the disease is 20 to 48 months, though 10 to 20 percent of those diagnosed have a survival rate of longer than 10 years.

It was a tough pill to swallow for an 18-year-old.

"For me, at the time, I didn't know what ALS was, nor did I care because I thought my dad was Superman," Wallace said. "Whatever they said it was, I'm not worried about it. My dad will be OK. So, I never really looked into it until I started seeing drastic changes."

Wallace didn't want to leave for school. But his parents insisted he go and live out his dream.

He had 18 years at home with his dad. Now, it was time to go fulfill his life's dreams.

"It was very challenging. He was diagnosed with ALS after having gone through many different doctors and we couldn't figure out what it was," Wendy Wallace said of her husband. "When we got the conclusive diagnosis, Levi was literally just heading off to school. At that point, he did not want to go. He wanted to stay home. But it was not an option. We said, 'You need to go.' And so, he had some challenges the first year. I don't think his mind was 100 percent focused on school because he was concerned about dad at home. I said, 'Don't worry, I've got it here. You take care of what you need to do there.'

"He had a brother in high school. There were just a lot of things going on. At the same time, it was always expected that he would go to school. This would be his path. He had some challenges. Ultimately, we convinced him that he was in the right place during that time period."

He enrolled as a business major, but the first semester was difficult. So, Levi Wallace turned to the sport he had played since he was 6 years old.

Walter Wallace thought getting back to football would help his son. So he talked Levi into trying out for the football team as a walk-on.

"I honestly just got bored. I missed football," Levi Wallace said. "I missed being on a team, something bigger. I didn't really have any expectations. I wanted to help win. I wanted to play, so that's just what I set out to do."

And, as Wendy Wallace has always told her family, "You do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do."

It's a mantra the Wallace family lives by.

So, Levi Wallace set out to make the roster for the Crimson Tide. He began doing what he needed to do to do what he dreamed of doing.

"I still remember when he first got on as a walk-on, he sent me a picture of his locker," Argraves said. "His locker number was some crazy high number."

But he had made it. Wallace, however, wasn't content with just being on the team. He wanted more.

First, however, he had to deal with more pressing matters. The night before he would dress in a Crimson Tide uniform for the first time for the team's spring game in 2014, Walter Wallace lost his battle with ALS. He was 59.

Walter Wallace wouldn't get to see his son play for the Crimson Tide.

Levi was obviously upset. But he knew his father would want him to carry on.

"I knew he would want me to play in it, all the hard work we put in. It was kind of a no-brainer for me," Wallace said. "If I didn't play, I was going to sit in my room and sulk and be upset, so sometimes the best thing to do is to get involved in a system that supported me with my teammates. They were my brothers. It was good to just be around them."

And he began to turn heads on the scout team.

Each day in practice, Levi Wallace lined up with the scout team and went head to head with wide receiver Amari Cooper, who would win the Biletnikoff Award that year as college football's best receiver and be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

It was Cooper who was the first to realize that this walk-on could play.

Cooper, who now plays for the Browns, traded jerseys with Wallace after one of their meetings this season, which only made sense since Wallace had covered him like a jersey in their college days.

"I tried my best to make him the best he could be. I took that as a personal challenge," Wallace said. "As you look back, it's funny, I just got his jersey this year. He was one of the first people to believe in me. He told me I could transfer and go play somewhere else after the year I spent guarding him. It wasn't that hard after you guard some of the best receivers. Everything kind of slows down. You're like, 'He's nowhere near as good as Amari Cooper.' He's a rare talent. The year after, Calvin Ridley comes in, a really good route runner, too. It was just guys after guys after guys encouraging me. I just kept making plays on defense, did what they asked me to do."

Alabama head coach nicknamed Wallace, "The Technician." He wasn't the biggest corner. He wasn't the fastest. But he took the coaching the Alabama staff gave him and translated it to the field.

The following season, Wallace was again on the scout team, but in 2016, he cracked the team's depth chart, earning a scholarship as a special teams player.

And when Marlon Humphrey suffered an injury against Alabama's biggest rival, Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Wallace was called upon to step in for his first serious playing time.

The following season, he beat out Trevon Diggs for a starting spot opposite Anthony Averett in a secondary that also included future Steelers teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick along with strong safety Ronnie Harrison.

"I'd have conversations with his dad. His whole family grew up loving Alabama. When I first met his dad, that's what he told me, his son was going to Alabama. That's where he wanted to go," Argraves said. "So, it didn't come as a surprise he was going there. That was something he wanted to do for a long time. But it's Alabama. It's the premiere college football program in the nation. For him to get in and work his way up. Once he got there, it didn't surprise me how fast he elevated, just because I knew the type of individual he is. He has that strong work ethic. Tremendous."

Wallace finished that season with 48 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, two sacks, three interceptions and 15 pass defenses as the Crimson Tide won the national championship.

"We've had a lot of walk-ons through the years that have done a really good job of becoming contributors to the team," Saban told reporters. "Levi's probably done it as well as any of them."

Still, the NFL was unimpressed.

At the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, Wallace ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot, 179 pounds.

According to his prospect bio on, one unidentified AFC scout told draft analyst Lance Zierlein, "He's the opposite of all of the other guys on that defense. I think he was a zero stars prospect, and he's turned himself into a starter all the way from being a walk-on. To do that at Alabama tells you about his mental toughness. He can play a little bit too."

That toughness was one thing NFL teams couldn't measure. Nor did they realize what a technician Wallace happens to be.

He wins above the neck.

"Eighty percent at least, I think 80 percent," Wallace said of how much of cornerback play is using your brain. "I look at the Combine and stuff, and yeah, that's cool. Some of it translates. I think the Combine just kind of shows the kind of athlete you are. It doesn't show that you're a great football player. I didn't impress anyone, but I'm one of the smartest corners to play the game. There are tons of people, guys who have long careers, who didn't do well at the Combine. They were late-round draft picks. It's for spectacle and show.

"We're here to play football. Some of it translates, but not all of it. I guard guys who run 4.2, 4.3, 4.4. Mine wasn't like that and I feel like I run with them easy. It's all about the start. I start typically backpedalling. I think it doesn't translate as much as some people do."

Still, Wallace didn't get a call during the 2018 draft.

He did get a call from the Bills post-draft, however. And just as he had attacked being a no-star prospect coming out of Tucson High, he accepted the challenge in front of him.

"Looking back, it was probably one of the more upset days I've had," Wallace said of going undrafted. "But hindsight being 20-20, it's just something I had to go through. It made me stronger in the end.

"It was honestly nothing I hadn't been through before. Being a walk-on prepared me for that. So now, where am I going? I'm going to Buffalo. I'll start all over and make a name for myself. I'll work and show I can play because 32 teams thought I wasn't good enough to be on their team getting drafted. It was a challenge that I accepted."

The people around him who really knew Levi Wallace and the toughness instilled in him by his parents knew he would not be deterred.

"They did a tremendous job in raising him," Argraves said. "He has that no-quit attitude. He doesn't let anything get in his way."

Wallace not only made the Bills' roster, he started seven games as a rookie. And despite the Bills constantly drafting players to potentially replace him, he continued starting the following three seasons, recording 219 tackles, six interceptions and 30 pass defenses in 52 games.

He also learned a little something about giving back to the community.

Any time his teammates would do charity work, Wallace would be asked to tag along. He learned the ins and outs of charitable foundations and decided when he had the opportunity, he would form one of his own.

"He's always been a giver in terms of his heart, having a real passion for people," Wendy Wallace said. "At Thanksgiving, he was handing out meals for families, volunteering at soup kitchens, volunteering with children. A lot of that stuff was done quietly, extremely quietly. When the opportunity came up, when he was at Buffalo, he had an opportunity to walk side by side with a lot of his teammates, (Safety Jordan) Poyer, for example. Poyer had a foundation and some of the others did, too. They always invited Levi when they were doing activities and such. He was able to walk alongside them to see how a foundation operates behind the scenes. He became very interested and he said, 'This is something I'd really like to do.'"

Last March, just before he joined the Steelers, he made that dream come to fruition starting The Levi Wallace Foundation. He established the network to make it possible in his hometown with Wendy Wallace as president to help underprivileged youth.

Recently, the foundation earned its 5013c status as a non-profit charity and Wallace has big plans.

"It's to send kids to school so they don't have to be walk-ons," Wallace said. "I get a lot of messages from kids at home in Arizona that love me and watch me every Sunday. 'I want to be like you. I want to walk-on.' I'm like, 'Listen, walking on is for the birds. It's not for the faint of heart.' If I could send kids to school with scholarships, not just athletically, but academically, too, it is just relieving the burden for single-parent households or low-income households, that's my job. That's what I want to do."

Among so many other things. At Christmas, Wallace's foundation took children shopping in both Tucson and Pittsburgh. There are bigger things brewing, as well.

"We have been doing a lot of stuff for the community," Wendy Wallace said. "Levi is very passionate about being the driving force behind it. He sends a list every year, 'This is what I want to do, the causes I want to support.' We've been, as a board, able to support him. He's been into a lot of stuff very quietly, a lot of stuff. He's very active hands on it in every aspect. He's very intentional about it."

Very much like he's very intentional about his career and how he attacks opposing wide receivers each game.

He's still a technician, much the same way he was back in his Tucson High days.

In his first season with the Steelers, Wallace recorded 48 tackles, 13 pass defenses and four interceptions in 15 games.

And nobody should doubt Wallace is working hard in the offseason to build toward 2023. He's learned from a very early age to work hard.

"My mom's favorite words are, 'We do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do,'" Wallace said. "That has kind of stuck with me and propelled me to where I'm at today. She's such a hard worker. She's the president of my foundation. She's a rock star. She gets everything done. She takes care of business and doesn't take no for an answer. Everyone ends up loving her. She's just a kind soul, who's easy to talk to. But she's also a businesswoman who is super smart and super educated. I definitely got my mindset from my parents for sure."

It would have been easy to quit any number of times. But that's just not Wallace's mindset.

It's been a heck of a journey, one worthy of having a movie made about it.

"Yeah, I just need to find a good director," Wallace joked.

But what would Walter Wallace think of how things have worked out for his son?

"I don't know. He wasn't a big words type of guy," Wallace said. "Obviously, he'd be proud of me. But I think we'd probably just be playing pool, talking mess to each other.

"It kind of sucks when you're 18 and you lose your dad. I didn't even have facial hair yet. I didn't know how to shave. It's kind of funny thinking about those things. In high school, you're not thinking about those things. You're kind of doing the opposite stuff that he's telling you and pretending to be like a man. Now, I feel like those conversations would be different. I don't know what he would say, but I know he would definitely be proud of me."

Of that, Wendy Wallace has no doubts.

"It's been interesting to say the least. It's his journey. And it has not been a hassle-free journey, to say the least," she said. "He's had some challenges along the way. But through it all, he has persevered. As a result, everything you see now has been part of the process, the hard work, the dedication, the discipline from his dad's military background — don't give up. Even though he did not have any of the offers coming out of high school at all, it was always a matter of just saying that, 'You know what? This is what I'd like to do down the road. And maybe if an opportunity presents itself, I'd like to give it a try.'

"His dad encouraged him along the way. He would tell him, 'These guys are good, but you're pretty good, too. Let's see what happens.' And he did."

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