From walk-on to reliable corner, Levi Wallace inspired by his late father, who led him to Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The radio-show caller stumped the host Monday morning, even though the University of Alabama campus was in the heart of the station’s listening area.

“Who is Levi Wallace?” he asked. “Where did he come from?”

Florida State fans probably had the same reaction Saturday night, especially after he came off the bench to help settle down the Crimson Tide defense during the 24-7 victory. The senior’s third-quarter interception was when many of them knew for sure how the No. 1 vs. No. 3 showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium would turn out.

“I don’t remember him going through recruiting or anything,” the radio caller continued.

That’s because he didn’t. Wallace was a terrific high school athlete on the other side of the country, but never had any Division I offers. He didn’t plan to play college football, just be a college student.

He’s on the Crimson Tide roster because of his father, Walter, who hailed from Tuscaloosa and was a big Crimson Tide fan.

The son walked on to the team in January of his freshman year in 2014.

Four months later, on the morning of the Crimson Tide spring celebration known as A-Day, Levi found out his father had died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was a 58.

Levi still played, and has been playing for him ever since.

“I think about him all the time right before I go out onto the field. I look up and thank him for the opportunity, for believing in me,” Levi said.

“He’s always on my mind.”

From Tucson to Tuscaloosa

Walter Lee Wallace Jr. was married for 24 years and spent 21 years in the Air Force. He also started and developed numerous businesses in Tucson, Ariz., including Three Points Childcare and Preschool, and coached the Arizona Titans Track Club.

He was close to his sons, Levi and Lawrence, and used to bring them to his hometown.

“His dad was just a great guy,” Tucson High Magnet School football coach Justin Argraves said. “He was always around, supporting the program, supporting Levi and Lawrence.”

Levi was a two-way standout who never left the field for the Badgers, and that’s not an exaggeration. He started at defensive back, going from corner to safety, played wide receiver on offense and was also the return man on special teams.

“Tremendous kid,” the coach added. “When I met first him he was like 6-foot, lucky to weigh 150 pounds. Just a respectful young man. Did everything you asked.”

Because of his size, Wallace didn’t get a sniff from any Division I programs and just some looks from smaller colleges. You can’t find him on any recruiting database, only as a college player who was added in later on.

But the plan all along was for both brothers to attend Alabama, taking advantage of a GI Bill benefit for tuition. Even when Argraves took over the program in 2011, Levi told him he would be attending Alabama, where he hoped to walk on, and younger brother Lawrence hoped to walk on the track team.

But the father was diagnosed with ALS right before Levi left for Tuscaloosa in the fall of 2013.

“I had a lot going on in my life, so I was really ready to let football go,” he said. “My dad just kind of convinced me, ‘Just see how good you are.’ I wanted to see how it is going up against some of the best athletes, some of the best receivers that come to the University of Alabama. I just wanted to see how good I was.

“He just said he believed in me, he always believed in me and my abilities. He said, ‘You’re a great football player, so you might as well give it a shot and see where things go.’”

It took two years of working, learning and developing, of coming back every day to measure up against those the university had already invested in, with no guarantees for tomorrow. Along the way, a former high school teammates was killed back in Arizona, adding to the grief he already felt for his father.

“It was real hard on Levi,” Argraves said.

But during fall camp last year Wallace was awarded a scholarship, along with his good friend, linebacker Jamey Mosley.

He subsequently saw his first game action in the season opener against Southern California, making his first collegiate tackle and breaking up a pass.

Wallace played 11 games, became a special-teams staple and stepped in when cornerback Marlon Humphrey had to leave the Iron Bowl with a leg injury. He saw time in the SEC Championship Game, the Peach Bowl semifinal and the National Championship Game.

“He’s one of the best technicians on the Alabama defense,” defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said at the time. “That’s why he’s out there.”

A regular part of the depth chart

Wallace came into this season with 11 career tackles, two passes broken up and a quarterback hurry, but has been in the mix at left cornerback since the early parts of fall camp, when Nick Saban called him, “one of the guys that we’re looking to create a role for.” He soon started splitting reps with converted wide receiver Trevon Diggs with the first-team defense.

Diggs started and played the first two series against FSU, when the Seminoles had drives of eight and 11 plays while tallying 127 yards and seven points. On one play in front of the Alabama bench, Diggs got shoved back by a wide receiver and landed on his rear.

Wallace was inserted for the subsequent possession and Florida State managed just 123 total yards the rest of the game.

He was credited with two tackles, but the play that made everyone ask, “Who’s No. 39?” was on the second snap following running back Damien Harris’ 11-yard touchdown run. Wallace made the correct read on a Deondre Francois attempt to Auden Tate and snared his first career interception.

“He understands the system, understands and can make the adaptations,” Saban said. “I think he was a little more comfortable in the game, being a big game, first game, all that. I think Trevon was a little nervous, a little anxious, made a couple of mistakes early. But I think it’s important that both of those guys can play well for us.”

Nick Saban-alabama football-crimson tide football
Levi Wallace: “Coach Saban does a great job of developing players, walk-ons and 5-stars as well. So hats off to him, all glory goes to him.” (Chris Kirschner/SEC Country).

Both will almost certainly play in Saturday’s home opener against Fresno State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), and with Alabama’s injuries, Mosley could be at strong-side linebacker depending on the Bulldogs’ formation.

So yes, there could be two former walk-ons starting on what’s been college football’s most imposing defense over the past decade, alongside the likes of Fitzpatrick, Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne …

“Ever since I came in, I couldn’t believe he was a walk-on,” senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said about Wallace. “He’s one of those under-the-radar guys and everybody inside the program knows how good he is. A guy who comes ready to work every day. I’m just glad he’s on our team.”

So was his dad, obviously, plus Wallace already has his business degree.

“I hope I made him proud,” Levi said.

The post From walk-on to reliable corner, Levi Wallace inspired by his late father, who led him to Alabama appeared first on SEC Country.

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