Last week Eric Wallace was catching passes from a couple of high school quarterbacks in Kernersville.
This week he’ll be pulling down throws from Cam Newton.
Crazy transitions are nothing new for Wallace, the former Big East basketball player and ex-Aussie Rules Football player who signed a free-agent deal with the Panthers on Monday. Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton was waived to make room for Wallace.
After making his way up I-77 to Huntersville (where he’s staying with ex-Panthers tight end Brandon Williams), Wallace was still trying to get his head around the fact he’s on the roster of his boyhood team.
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“It’s unbelievable. It’s still kind of surreal,” Wallace said. “But I’m just going to do what I have to do, work hard, hopefully stay on the team and hopefully help Carolina one day in a tremendous way.”
It’s unbelievable. It’s still kind of surreal.
TE Eric Wallace on signing with the Carolina Panthers
Williams, who met Wallace through a mutual friend, took his own circuitous route to the NFL after playing small-college basketball. But Williams, now with the Seahawks, has nothing on Wallace.
Wallace hasn’t played American football full-time since he quit in eighth grade to concentrate on basketball. He averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds as a junior at Glenn High in Kernersville, and enrolled at Hargrave (Va.) Military as a senior.
Despite receiving an offer from North Carolina as a sophomore, Wallace signed with Ohio State and played sparingly in his only season under Thad Matta. Wallace transferred to DePaul after his freshman season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.9 rebounds during the 2009-2010 season.
But a leg injury and coaching change prompted Wallace to change schools again after he’d completed his finance degree at DePaul. He finished his career at Seattle University and hoped he might have a shot to play professionally overseas.
Instead, Wallace attended a combine in Los Angeles for the Australian Football League and was one of three Americans to get invited to a second tryout in Australia. Wallace, 6-6 and 260 pounds, said athletic big men do well in Aussie Rules, a blend of soccer and rugby.
Wallace was intrigued with the prospect of becoming the first American to play in the AFL.
“There’s some asterisks there ... but yeah,” Wallace said of his pioneer status in Australia. “That was what drew me over.”
A former Kangaroo
Wallace played three seasons for the North Melbourne Kangaroos as a ruckman, a position which involves catching the throw-ins through any means necessary.
“If I were to put it plainly, it’s to be the big fella, the enforcer,” Wallace said. “Kind of like being a center on the basketball team and move the little guys out of the way.”
Beginning salaries in the AFL are about $80,000, plenty for a single guy in a city annually listed among the world’s most livable. But Wallace missed his mom, dad and younger sister in Winston-Salem.
“I’m big on family,” he said. “And Australia is probably as far as you can go.”
So Wallace, 27, moved back to the States with an eye on giving America football a go. Former DePaul assistant coach David Booth, a scout for the New Orleans Pelicans, helped get Wallace an invite to the Saints’ rookie minicamp in May.
Though he wasn’t offered a contract, Wallace returned to the Winston-Salem area and kept working out. He went to his old high school to lift weights and catch passes from “any quarterback who was willing to throw.”
About a month ago Wallace stopped by the Greensboro training facility owned by Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl, but Proehl wasn’t there. Wallace returned a couple more times before meeting Proehl and making his pitch.
“I literally went to Proehlific Park and knocked on his door for an entire week,” Wallace said. “I finally tracked him down, shook his hand and said I want to play for the Panthers.”
Wallace said Proehl responded with a “chuckle,” but told him to come back the following day to work out. Wallace said he ran 40 yards in 4.67 seconds for Proehl, who “was impressed enough to stick his head on the line for me and call the (other Panthers) coaches.”
Wallace had to wait three weeks before the Panthers’ coaching staff and front office returned from vacation. He came to Charlotte on Monday for a workout and left with a contract from the team he has followed since their inaugural season.
“I’ve been a Panthers fan since 1995,” he said. “I’m a Charlotte Hornets/Carolina Panthers fan. I haven’t had any other teams.”
But starting this week he’ll have a new home in the dorms at Wofford. Wallace plans to arrive in Spartanburg on Tuesday, a day before players are required to report.
Wallace wants to get a jump start on his latest – and biggest – career move.