UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State cornerback Mike Wallace invited two of his best friends to visit him in State College for Arts Fest in the summer of 2010. Stanley and Stephen Spottswood just had graduated from high school and never had experienced college life or the parties that go along with it, let alone the parties that define an evening on the weekend of Arts Fest. So this night was quite the debut.
They walked from fraternity house to fraternity house. There would always be a line outside with people getting turned down, but that never happened to them. Sure enough, some frat dude always would be like, 'I know Mike Waaaaallz,' drunkenly proclaiming Wallace's hip-hop moniker, and they would all get into the party.
"There are like 40,000 kids that go to Penn State," Stanley Spottswood said, "and he knew 20,000 of them."
Everyone seems to know Mike Wallace here or his not entirely alter alter-ego: Mike Wallz. He never made a lasting impression in the defensive backfield for Penn State, playing in eight games in four years, but has established a presence as a hip-hop artist in State College.
His resume: Four albums with his former group, Primary Element; a solo album; numerous Primary Element performances in State College; numerous music videos on YouTube. This past fall, you may have heard one of his songs playing over the loudspeaker before Penn State home football games, or you may have watched him open for Big Sean at Rec Hall. And in January, he was a headline solo performer at The State Theatre.
He has attained the highest levels of college fame. His good friend Paige O'Donnell said she refuses to walk across campus with him because she knows he'll get stopped by people "like eight times."
But college-level fame is what it is. As almost any non-Paterno will say, you can't live in State College forever and that axiom counts doubly for entertainers. So, communications degree in tow (he graduated in December), Wallace is ready to move on, planning to leave for New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Nashville this summer with his manager, Aidan Graven. He aspires to start a full-time music career. He wants the name Mike Wallz to be just as recognizable outside the Happy Valley bubble.
"I mean, realistically it's going to be hard, but it's going to be fun, so it's not going to seem hard," Wallace said. "It's going to be a journey, an adventure."
Wherever Wallace goes, he almost always has Apple-white earbuds in his ears or, more often, hanging outside of his collar (when people stop to chat you up every two minutes, it's tough to keep them in your ears for too long). He must be around music at all times -- he calls it a welcome disease.
His mother attended a performing arts high school and played the flute. His father introduced him to go-go bands, the music of Wallace's hometown of Washington. Wallace learned to play the tuba, piano, trumpet and trombone. By middle school, he also was reciting the lyrics of favorite albums by Eminem and 50 Cent. By high school, he and his friends were freestyling in the cafeteria. The Spottswood twins owned recording equipment, and one day he wrote some lyrics for the first time and rapped over a beat, not entirely pleased when he heard his own voice on the playback.
"In a word," Wallace said "I [stunk]."
But he kept rapping. They were in high school, so why not have fun? They called themselves Primary Element and, just before Wallace moved to State College in the summer of 2009, they finished their first album.
Wallace came to Penn State as one of the top high school defensive backs in Maryland. He had a goal of making the NFL. Music was a hobby, a "by the way" factoid he could toss out in conversation to the new friends he met.
At his dorm in Porter Hall, he would play the Primary Element album often. His roommate, wide receiver Justin Brown, liked it. His next-door neighbor, Seth Lietzel, started listening. Then, almost everyone at Porter started listening.
Wallace soon began volunteering at a since-closed night club called the Mezzanine. He would videotape concerts of artists such as Lloyd Banks and Fat Joe, making promotional videos for the club's managers. In return, he hoped they would remember his name.
In November of that year, Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller was playing at the Mezzanine. Primary Element was given the opportunity to open, but Wallace had to sell 50 tickets. He sold twice that many, Primary Element opened, and they hung out with Mac Miller afterward.
After that, he started taking music more seriously. With Best Buy gift cards in the swag from the Capital One Bowl, he already had bought his own recording equipment and continued to make music with the Spottswoods, although they attended college in Columbus, Ohio. Primary Element earned enough respect that the popular hip-hop website Global Grind started featuring their songs and did a Q & A with the group before the release of their fourth album in 2011.
Football wasn't progressing in the same way. He said the old system never worked out for him and, when he thought he made the most of his opportunities, the playing time never came. The songs he would write and record at the Nittany Apartments weren't just for fun. He needed the release.
"I felt like I was running on a hamster wheel, driving myself insane," Wallace said. "When things don't go the way you expect them to go, it can get ugly. Thankfully, I had that outlet to keep my sanity and keep my esteem."
Last summer, he started as the host for a show on the student radio station, the Lion 90.7 FM. Every time major hip-hop artists come to State College, he and co-host O'Donnell attempt to interview them for the show.
The conversations double as opportunities. Wallace meets the rappers, the managers, the crew members, every connection he can make. He has Juicy J's and Wiz Khalifa's numbers on his cell phone. Maybe all of it can help as the hardest part of his journey begins.
He talks of extending the connections so he can present his music to someone who will like his sound enough to want to help him package it so it's even better and heard by many others. The process is every bit as difficult as it seems.
Stanley Spottswood said Wallace always has been the type who refuses to follow. He wants to be out in front. It's magnetism, pulling him toward the crowds and the crowds toward him.
"He likes the public eye," Spottswood said. "He excels in the public eye. ... He likes to go make moves to see different artists and make moves in the industry."
Wallace often thinks back to that night at the Mezzanine from 2010. Miller hadn't accomplished grand success then, either. One year later, though, his indie-label album made its debut at No. 1 in the country.
He remembers hanging out with Miller and others for a while at his hotel. They talked about music and the challenges of making a lasting career. Wallace said Miller wished him luck. Wallace told him he would be there with him one day. And he still believes he will.
"You can think about the chances of you not making it all you want," Wallace said, "and you're going to be in the same place you are right now. Or you can think about the slight chance that you will make it and embrace that and acknowledge that more consciously than you do anything else, and you're going to be fine."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mdent05. First Published April 22, 2013 4:00 AM