Wesley Walls will be inducted into Panthers Hall of Honor
Former Panthers tight end Wesley Walls got the news recently that he will become one of four former Carolina stars inducted into the team’s Hall of Honor this fall.
Walls made five Pro Bowls in his seven seasons as a Panther from 1996-2002, and the Mississippi native was equally gifted as a storyteller.
Now a grandfather and a real-estate developer in Charlotte, Walls, 53, still knows how to spin a yarn. He also has some interesting thoughts on brain injuries, whether today’s NFL is safe and the tough love exhibited by his mother.
I did a phone interview with Walls recently and have turned it into a question-and-answer session with him here, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What are your favorite memories of playing for the Panthers?
A: My favorite year was 1996. We were just starting to play in Ericsson Stadium, which is today’s Bank of America Stadium, and the team was brand new. Coach Dom Capers and general manager Bill Polian, they brought in all these free agents. Me, Kevin Greene, Eric Davis — Sam Mills had come the year before, as had Brett Maxie and Lamar Lathon. So we had a lot of veteran football players on a 2-year-old football team. We came together as a team and we went undefeated at home.
They stuck us in the NFC West that year, and we were about as far from the West as you could be. We were in there with the San Francisco 49ers. They were kind of the standard-bearer for an NFL franchise. But we knocked them off twice that year. The first game was at home. Steve Beuerlein had to play in place of an injured Kerry Collins at quarterback. Everything could have gone wrong, but everything went right (and the Panthers won, 23-7, with Walls scoring both Carolina touchdowns).
Q: You eventually had two Pro Bowl seasons under George Seifert at Carolina. But before that, in 1996, you weren’t a Seifert fan after he buried you deep on the bench for the first four years of your NFL career in San Francisco, right?
A: Yeah, I had some hurt feelings from those days with the 49ers. So in the second Panthers-49ers game of 1996, I caught one in the corner near their sideline for a touchdown. That was my second touchdown of the day. Now I’m not a showboat. My little touchdown dance, that wasn’t about showboating, that was about celebrating hunting and just having a little fun (Walls sometimes pretended to shoot clay pigeons from the sky after scoring).
But that time, with that touchdown spike, I wanted to roll the ball over there toward Coach Seifert on the sideline. I tried to. I had a lot of respect for everyone on that 49ers team, George Seifert included. But at the same time, I wanted him to know I’m still around, I’m still in the NFL, and we just beat you at home.
Q: Were you surprised to join Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme and Jordan Gross in the first real class for the Panthers’ Hall of Honor?
A: Yes, and I was surprised that there was even a class. I want to thank Mr. Tepper for expanding the Hall of Honor. I’m the senior member of this group, that’s the good part about that. I do think that having someone from the early era would be the right thing. There’s a lot to choose from, so I’m just grateful I was selected.
Q: Your Mom, Betty Walls, has always been a big part of your early life. Describe her parenting style while you were growing up in Mississippi.
A: First of all, she was there for everything I did, every sport I played. And she was not afraid to question me on some of the decisions I’d made out on the football field or the baseball field. Her favorite sport was basketball, and that’s where I got most of the criticism.
She was a tough lady. She basically raised her siblings — two brothers and a sister. She kept that family together through some tough times when she was younger. So she could tell when somebody wasn’t giving their best. She wasn’t afraid to tell me if I hadn’t given my best, in a constructive way.
Q: How is she doing now?
A: She’s got cancer. She’s battling. She’s in an assisted-living facility in Oxford, Miss. She’s going to be 72 on June 13. She has good days and bad days. But she’s comfortable. We’re covering her up with attention. We’re visiting as much as we can. She’s got good support. She not only has grandchildren but she has two great-grandchildren, because my daughter and her husband have two young sons.
Q: Wasn’t your mother in the room when you got the call about the hall of honor?
A: Yes. When I got the call from Mr. Tepper, my Mom had just had surgery and was recovering in her hospital room. I got a call from an unknown number, it was a FaceTime call, and I just took it. Normally I wouldn’t have taken that call. And then Mr. Tepper popped up on the phone. I didn’t know what to think.
I was talking low because my mom was right next to me.
I pulled myself out of the room to go talk to Mr. Tepper in the hall. And when he broke the news, I was totally caught off-guard. I still can’t remember what I said. He said not to tell anybody yet and I said, ‘Well, can I tell my Mom?’ He said ‘Absolutely.’
So I went back in the hospital room and was able to go tell my Mom that was a call from Mr. Tepper, who is the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, and they’ve selected me to the Hall of Honor. She said: ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘You remember Sam Mills? My name will probably be next to his.’
She said, ‘Well, you deserve it.’
That’s the best affirmation I could ever get from my mom. It was an incredible moment. Mr. Tepper didn’t know my Mom was having surgery. I’m sure he wouldn’t even have called if he knew. But where it happened, and the timing of it, made it more special than I could ever imagine.
Q: What are you doing now for a career?
A: I’m in the real-estate development business. I’ve been doing that now for about 15 years, since I retired from the NFL. We do retail projects like grocer-anchored shopping centers, or single-tenant type of retail developments like fast food, multi-tenant buildings, all retail and a little bit of industrial development, for a firm named Collett.
I do a lot of travel. I’m in the airports quite a bit. Real estate is one of those things you kind of need to see it and touch it. A lot of people probably think it’s easy – ‘Just build this’ – but there’s a lot that goes on before you can put even one shovel in the ground.
Q: How’s your health right now?
A: I’m 53 years old, and I still weigh about the same as I did when I played football (Walls played at 250 pounds). I still work out daily. It’s not the same intensity or the same type of workout, this is more about longevity and just to stay healthy. My typical workout is getting on an elliptical machine, going a certain distance in a certain time to burn a certain amount of calories.
Q: Are you worried about your long-term health?
A: The most important thing that concerns all of us (former NFL players) is, ‘How’s your brain?’ I really believe that staying in the workplace, managing these projects, having something other than to do besides golf, has kept my brain pretty sharp.
Overall I can’t complain for as long a career as I had. I had 11 surgeries – two ACL reconstructions, shoulder reconstruction, other shoulder and knee surgeries, elbow and finger surgery.
Now that finger surgery – that hurt. My finger gives me a little problem these days – more so than my knees. But I can go hiking. I can play golf. I can exercise. So I feel pretty good for a guy my age who played as long as I did (15 seasons).
Q: How many concussions did you have as a football player?
A: I think I had seven. That’s seven when they either had to come get me off the field or I took myself out of the game because I just couldn’t think straight.
But there are hundreds, probably, of just small concussions, of just getting your bell rung. I played linebacker in college (at Ole Miss) and also defensive end. But I would do it all over again, especially in today’s equipment and with today’s rules. The game is safer than it’s ever been.
Q: What do you like about the rules changes?
A: I like the concussion protocol. I also like the fact that they protect the receiver now down the middle. My No. 1 job as a tight end a lot of times was just getting off the line of scrimmage. If I could get off the line of scrimmage, I had a good chance of getting open.
And then if I was running down the middle, you had to know where those safeties were, or otherwise you might lose some teeth. The rules have taken that out of the game, and I think that’s awesome.
I also used to have some pretty violent collisions, especially on kickoffs, on special teams. Now you can’t even do a wedge (kickoff return) anymore. There used to be a (blocking) wedge, and I was a wedge-buster. That was a guaranteed headache.
Q: Should kickoffs in the NFL go away permanently?
A: It wouldn’t bother me a bit.
Q: Most of your best years in Carolina were with either Steve Beuerlein or Kerry Collins throwing you the ball, but you never played a single down with Delhomme, the quarterback entering the Panthers’ Hall with you. Do you know him well?
A: I do, because both the Delhommes and our family lived in the same Charlotte neighborhood for awhile. We also had some of the coaches, and Muhsin Muhammad and his family, and Kevin Donnalley and his family. We could have fielded the best neighborhood flag football team in Charlotte.
I did always want to play with Jake. We just missed each other in New Orleans and my body quit on me in Carolina, so I missed him here, too. He just seems like a great teammate. Now we’ll be teammates in the hall of honor. I’ll finally get to play with Jake Delhomme.
Q: I think when they have the induction ceremony this fall, you and Steve Smith both line up at midfield, then each run a route and catch a pass from Jake.
A: I would absolutely love that. Let’s do it.