Mike Wallace pulls in the winning touchdown pass as he's defended by Packers Josh Bell.
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The mystery of Mike Wallace isn't altogether found in his full name, which actually is Burnell Michael Wallace III.
The mystery isn't altogether found in that mercurial quickness, either.
It isn't so much a result of his energy level, one that allows him to play Call of Duty video games until the wee hours, or his litany of Steelers mentors.
It isn't so much a by-product of his environment, the Cut Off section of Lower Algiers on New Orleans' West Bank, or the precariousness of a place where one brother was killed, another went to prison on drug charges and a sister was the target in a shooting that claimed a friend.
It isn't so much a consequence of his sunny attitude or his bright eagerness.
True, all of these facets help to make up the 23-year-old man who surged to the Steelers' forefront through this season and into national attention last Sunday, when he scored on his team's first snap and on the final, winning play of a 37-36 free-for-all against Green Bay. A No. 3 receiver did that. A rookie.
But the answer to how a first-year player, a third-rounder who was the 84th player drafted last April, can achieve so much so quickly -- his 17.9 yards per catch fourth among NFL regulars and his 609 yards fifth among rookies -- isn't located in his name, his feet, his hands, his adrenal glands, his past or his soul.
Mostly, Mike Wallace's sudden Steelers success comes from his heart and head.
He feels it.
"His confidence," Shay Hodge was saying over the phone this week. While Wallace and the Steelers (7-7) were preparing for Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens (8-6) defense they face at 1 p.m. today at Heinz Field, this University of Mississippi receiver was feeding his son and talking about what nurtures one former Rebel in particular.
"We call it swagger. Ole Miss didn't throw the ball that much our first few seasons, handing it off all the time, and we used to watch other teams' receivers and I'd say, 'We're not as good as them.' He'd snap at me, 'Man, we're good. We just don't get enough chances.'
"When we had the coaching change [with Houston Nutt arriving before Wallace's senior season in 2008] and started throwing the ball, he was like, 'I told you.' He always had that swagger.
"It works for him now, all that confidence he has," Hodge said. "'Cause I remember when he was coming out [for the draft], I was like, 'When I get to the league, I don't want to start or play my first year, I want to sit back and learn from all the guys who have been there.' He looked at me, 'You're stupid. When I get there, I want to play, and I want to contribute right away. 'Cause I know I'm as good as they are.'
"Once again, he proved it."
He is proving it, all right. Thirty-four receptions, five fewer than he compiled in one fewer game in college a year ago. With 11 plays of 20-plus yards and four plays of 40-plus yards, he ranks 10th and 28th, respectively, among all NFL receivers -- and those ahead of him average more catches.
Minnesota receiver Percy Harvin, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, Denver running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive stars such as Brian Orapko of Washington and Green Bay's Clay Matthews figure to garner most of the league's Rookie of the Year votes, but the Steelers' winner should be a runaway.
"Every time I text him, 'Good game, I wish you got the ball more,' " Hodge said, there came the same response from his former Rebel teammate: "Yeah, man ... these dudes can't check me.' "
"Not being cocky, it's just knowing my capabilities," Wallace said. "That's my nature. I just feel like nobody can stop me if I'm in the right situation, one on one."
Lest anyone forget, Nate Washington used to man this same No. 3 receiver position, and Wallace needs just six catches and/or 29 yards to surpass Washington's 2008 totals, which were good enough to earn him free-agent wealth with Tennessee. Wallace's two touchdowns last week nearly equaled Washington's three all last season.
"I'm just happy for him," Hines Ward said of Wallace. "He definitely has helped to replace Nate Washington, who was a locker-room favorite and another wideout that we took under our wings."
To Ward, the secret to Wallace's success after beating out incumbent Limas Sweed, now on injured reserve, and free-agent Shaun McDonald, since released: careful usage.
"You know what, I think [it's] the way we utilize him. We don't put him in certain situations where we ask him to go out there and do a lot of things. We don't ask him to read 'hots' or anything. If they're continuing to double [team] me and Santonio [Holmes], there are going to be a lot of opportunities one-on-one. I like the chances one-on-one."
Ben Roethlisberger added: "He's a guy, you've got to let it go early, and you've got to really throw it [far]. The first play of the game Sunday, he was 50 yards down there. I think he'd outrun everybody's arm when he's doing that speed. ... He's come a long way. And he's going to continue to improve and grow. The sky's the limit for him."
To retrace Wallace's rapid steps, go all the way back to the Cut Off, across and down the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter. He started playing in recreation leagues around Algiers, often competing year-round against a kid from nearby Terrytown named Keenan Lewis. Football, basketball, baseball, track, they ran into, around or past one another. At O. Perry Walker High School, Lewis and Wallace starred together, aligned together. They headed together for Oregon State, until Wallace -- by his accounting -- fell one point short on the ACT.
"He would never tell anybody, but he played D-line in high school," Lewis said. "Had four sacks one game. His natural position is D-line. He'd be a great defensive end in the 4-3."
He was kidding, right? This 6-foot, 199-pound smiling speedster with a faux-hawk hairdo as a bulked-up, snarling pass rusher just isn't easy to picture. Funny thing is, visualization has been their foundation.
Lewis, a fourth-round draftee and reserve cornerback, said they learned it from O. Perry Walker coach Frank Wilson: "He pretty much built us on it. Every time you're out there, visualize yourself making that play."
Wilson was the one who induced Wallace into leaving Lewis alone in Oregon State and staying closer to home. Their old coach was hired as a Mississippi assistant about the same time Wallace discovered his ACT retry qualified him for Oregon State, so instead of the Great Northwest he changed his course north for Oxford, Miss.
"It was a good move," Lewis said.
With Nutt following Ed Orgeron as coach, with Burnell Wallace deciding to go by the middle name that friends and family always called him ("and I ain't going back"), this returner-receiver became the Rebels' second all-time leader in all-purpose yardage with 1,910 and second all-time in receiver touchdowns with 15. His kick-return capability, of which he averaged 24.6 yards per return as a senior, intrigued NFL scouts. Once the Steelers opened the door, Wallace bolted through it.
"I think it's a New Orleans thing, also," Lewis said, ascribing his lifelong friend's rise from the crime-wracked community. Wallace, after all, was close to the brother who was shot to death, Arnold. Reggie was imprisoned on drug charges. A sister, Jahlisa, wasn't hit when shots were fired and killed his friend Jamal Dorsey.
"Where [Lewis and Wallace] are from, that's the way guys get out," said safety Ryan Clark, a fellow West Bank native who first heard of Wallace's high school exploits from his little brother, Chaz. "There aren't a lot of people who can afford to send kids to college. ... I think, growing up in a place like where they're from, they've been through Hurricane Katrina and all that. They've been through a lot of things in life. So football is just football."
"We know his whole life story," Ward added. "We all came from a situation in our lives where we all overcame something. That's what makes us great players, where we came from and how we got here."
And, in a some small way, how Wallace arrived so swiftly. So confidently.