Former Carolina Panthers tight end Wesley Walls sees NFL tight ends lining up in the slot, being used and getting paid like wide receivers, and thinks he played the position two decades too soon.
“I wish I was 23 again in this league,” Walls said.
Walls is 48 now, 11 years removed from his last NFL season. He’s a successful businessman, an empty nester and a soon-to-be member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Walls was one of 16 selections to the hall, announced last week by the National Football Foundation.
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He’s certain to be the only Hall of Famer whose touchdown celebration involved dropping to the end zone and firing off a few rounds from a make-believe rifle, a nod to his hunting roots along the backwaters of Mississippi.
Walls caught 450 passes for 5,291 yards and 54 touchdowns during his 14-year career, half of which he spent with the Panthers. Walls went to five Pro Bowls in a six-year span with Carolina, and led the Panthers in receiving in 1997.
But Walls is envious of today’s tight ends, who – with the crackdown on hits against defenseless receivers – can run freely across the middle of the field without fearing for their lives.
“You had to know where all those safeties were when I was playing,” Walls said Friday during a phone interview.
Walls sustained seven concussions in the NFL, and is among the nearly 4,900 retired players who sued the league over head injuries.
Walls, a senior vice president for a SouthPark commercial real estate firm, is in good health, notwithstanding his “fake hip” and a left knee that twice has been surgically repaired.
Walls said he joined the lawsuit as a precautionary measure to keep his family from facing a financial burden in the event he develops a debilitating condition when he’s older.
“I do think that some of the players are bitter, (and) just feel like the league doesn’t care enough about us anymore as soon as we get out of football,” Walls said.
But Walls said he knew the health risks when he signed his first contract in 1989, although he does wish the league had been more proactive in studying head injuries so players from his era weren’t returning to games with concussions.
Walls said he understands a number of former players are dealing with serious health problems, and he’s sensitive to their situations.
“Some of the guys feel like the game kind of used them, and was not there to help them when they’ve had some tough times,” Walls said. “I never really felt like playing in the NFL was something I could rely on the rest of my life.”
Walls and his wife, Christy, have been married nearly 25 years. Colton, the youngest of their three children, is at his father’s alma mater after playing football for a season at Clemson.
Walls maintains strong ties with the Panthers’ organization. He is friendly with coach Ron Rivera and Greg Olsen, the Panthers’ most prolific receiving tight end since Walls.
Walls played two seasons in Carolina with Steve Smith, the Panthers’ all-time receiving leader who was cut in March and signed with Baltimore the following day.
“I think he’s the best Panther to ever play,” Walls said of Smith. “But when change happens, it creates opportunities for other guys – younger guys, older players, new players. I think you’ll probably see Greg’s role increase.”
Walls thinks the Panthers will employ more two-tight end sets, as they did during Cam Newton’s rookie season in 2011 when Jeremy Shockey teamed with Olsen. Walls bumped into Rivera recently and jokingly told him he had one or two plays left in him.
When he received word last week he’d been selected for the hall of fame, Walls thought about Red Parker, the former Clemson coach who, as Mississippi’s offensive coordinator, convinced Walls to switch from linebacker to tight end for his senior season.
Parker saw Walls catching passes before a spring practice and asked if he’d ever played tight end. Walls said he’d played the position only once, catching seven passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in Mississippi’s high school all-star game.
Parker told Walls: “Give me two weeks at tight end and I can put you in the NFL.”
Those two weeks turned into 14 years, marked by clutch catches and an imaginary shotgun blast that remains one of the most unique touchdown celebrations in league history.
THREE EXTRA POINTS ON THE NFL AND PANTHERS
• Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice addressed the media Friday, three months after he was charged with assaulting his then-fiancee at an Atlantic City casino. Rice, who was accompanied by his wife at the press conference, apologized to the team but did not take questions.
I’d be surprised if the Panthers make defensive end Greg Hardy available to reporters this week when they begin the practice portion of their offseason program. While Rice has been accepted into a pretrial intervention program, Hardy’s misdemeanor charges of assaulting a female and communicating threats are still pending.
Hardy resumed voluntary offseason drills last week after taking some time away from the team following his May 13 arrest for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend at an early-morning afterparty at his uptown residence.
• Panthers kicker Graham Gano is opposed to moving the extra point back, saying it would give kickers for teams with domed stadiums or warmer climates an advantage. Gano also believes pushing the PAT back could result in an increase in injuries.
“If you back it up, there’s going to be guys going harder to block the kick,” he said. “You’re going to have guys coming in harder off the edge. You could see a lot more injuries.”
The NFL is moving the spot for PATs from the 2-yard line to the 20 for the first two preseason games this year. A proposal by New England to move extra points back to the 25 was tabled by owners in March.
• I caught up with Gano last week at a program hosted by Forest Hill Church senior pastor David Chadwick, who invited Gano, Panthers punter Brad Nortman, long snapper J.J. Jansen and former kicker John Kasay to speak at the church’s Ballantyne campus.
The specialists talked a lot about teamwork and the time they spend together during practices.
Chadwick asked Kasay, who retired as a Panther last May, if he ever missed playing.
“I really don’t,” said Kasay, 44, Charlotte Christian’s athletics director. “I went out and kicked and it hurt.”