For many college football fans, the story of Michael Oher and the “Blind Side” is a very familiar one. In 2009, the movie, based off the hit book “The Blind Side: Evolution of the Game,” grossed over $300 million and featured stars such as Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock.
But before the movie, the book, and even Michael Oher himself, there was a player who redefined the meaning of the position, offensive tackle.
A native of Georgia, Steve Wallace began his path of dominance at Auburn University by being the front guy who blocked Heisman Trophy winner, Bo Jackson. Wallace then went on to block Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath and win three Super Bowl Championships in San Francisco for the 49ers.
In his 21 years of playing football, Wallace never witnessed a losing season. He’s remained humbled through his many triumphs and has given back to his community by teaching kids that they too can be great.
On and off the field, Wallace has understood that to be successful, one has to be appreciative of the things around them.
You played 21 years of football and you never had a losing season. How does a player accomplish that?
I think that’s probably one of my most incredible feats. When I look back at some of the greatest players ever, they have never accomplished that. The weirdest part of that is I started with a losing organization when I went to high school and we maybe lost only two regular season games. Auburn was losing when I got there and then the guys went out and made a tremendous commitment to work hard and play at their very best. In my first year, we wound up beating the university of Alabama to get rid of that nine-year losing streak to put Bo [Jackson] over the top. I was lucky enough to be a 17-year-old kid on the bottom of the pile. Then, with San Francisco, it was just winning; understanding the standards of winning and then having a couple of tough seasons and having to win six games in a row to keep a ten-game winning streak alive for 16 years. Just understanding the details of winning. The details, hard work and dedication and the outcome will be good results.
How did you remain humble through so many winning seasons?
Well, like Jerry Rice said, ‘you have to prove yourself year in and year out, because if your numbers go down as a receiver or as a player or if you’re getting the quarterback hit a number of times then you’re career can be over quickly.’ The one thing you learn in the NFL: if you have three bad games in a row, they will be looking for another guy immediately. So you just have to – like you said – stay humble and be very focused and realize that it is a privilege and an honor to be playing in that league.
How did you decide on Auburn?
That was a tough decision. I mean, in my last basketball game at Chamblee High School, I had Vince Dooley on one side and Coach Dye on the other side and you can only imagine. Half of the gymnasium was full of people trying to get autographs from Coach Dooley over there from Georgia and it was only Coach Dye’s second year. At the same time, Coach Dye promised me that I would play early and he promised me that we would win an SEC Championship and that we would have a chance at a national championship. We did as much as we could do. We came in No. 3 in the nation. The first-place team lost, the second-place team lost and you thought that the third-place team would automatically win it, but with the voters and the way things came out the No. 5 team, Miami, jumped over us to win it all.
What was Pat Dye like as a head coach?
Coach Dye was extremely tough. He’s a coach that always said, ‘we may not win every game but we will win all of the hitting battles.’ meaning that we would out hit every team on the field. It just taught you a level of discipline that, regardless of a tough situation in life, if you just keep plugging away – and with my belief in God – that something good will happen in the end. Those principles I still use to this day. Regardless of how tough a situation is, if I continue to endure then something good will happen in the end.
What was it like having Bo Jackson on your team/blocking for him?
Well, sometimes you have a tendency to take greatness for granted, but this guy was just on such another level. I mean, his speed. He was one of the biggest guys on offense and then one of the fastest guys on offense and then one of the strongest guys on offense and one of the quickest guys on offense… and then after a while, with him having all that god-gifted talent, it showed. If he wouldn’t have had injuries, he probably would have won at least two Heismans. I’m just glad and so fortunate that I was a part of the one that he won. He ran a lot of plays right behind me, so I felt pretty awesome that I had a part in it.
Were you two close?
It’s so funny that we weren’t. The funny thing about that is in my senior year I was trying to be a team leader and Bo didn’t like to practice a lot, so he kind of liked to relax and chill; then play big in the games. We often laugh about how I got in front of the team as a team leader and got on him. Then the next game, I think he had 285 yards. Then my next quote was, ‘Bo, if you’d like to take the rest of the year off in practice you are welcome to do so.’ We laugh about that all the time and now we are great friends. We both have a level of appreciation for each other now and he will come to Atlanta and visit me. The thing I like about our relationship now is that he doesn’t laugh around a lot of folks, but when he gets around me he is non-stop laughing.
What are some of the things you two do together in Atlanta?
We’ll go out to a great restaurant and I’ll kid with him and play with him. Then a lot of times we just sit back and watch the people. It’s fun to people watch when Bo Jackson is in the area, because people will start pointing. They want to come over, but they don’t want to violate that space and he’s a very private person. At least I make him sweet and kind to folks when they come over. But usually, it’s just a great time non-stop into the wee hours of the night. It’s just us laughing, kidding and all that goodness.
Is the Auburn-Alabama rivalry just as tense now as it was when you played?
Oh, yes. I love it for the simple fact that the fans have a what I call, ‘love-hate relationship.’ With the players, and I say this out loud, there is such a mutual respect. We do so many things with their guys and it is one of the most awesome things about the state. You know, the promination of Auburn guys and Alabama guys working together for the good of that state and blessing a lot of people with raising money for fundraisers for charities. We work together a ton and we love hearing their stories and they love hearing ours. It’s just an incredible, mutual respect. You hate these guys for the four years that you’re playing, but you have a true appreciation for the lives that they change after that.
What was your favorite Auburn memory?
Well, I have a couple. The first one is that Bo over the top. I had struggled all day long. Then my coach, Coach James Daniels, got in my face and said, ‘if you keep playing like this, we’re going to lose to Alabama.’ Then in the fourth quarter, myself and Jay Jacobs – you know, he’s now the athletic director – we started kicking Alabama’s butt and I truly said that I will not be the reason we lose to Alabama. In the end, they started running behind me as a true freshman and eventually that last play was directly behind me. Thank God for Bo’s jumping ability, because it was like everybody on that Alabama team knew exactly where we were going but we had enough movement on those guys to get a touchdown to win that game. That was one, and then also beating Georgia which was the other school I was going to go to because I had so many friends that went to Georgia. To beat them in Athens twice and then to beat them in Auburn once was just a crying moment, because I always want to beat the ‘Dawgs.
Are you still involved with the Auburn program?
Yeah, and I’m very thankful that Gus Malzahn has made it clear he wants more of the guys that were leaders and guys that present good role models and leadership to be around to help these younger guys that have never seen us play but to let them know what Auburn standards are and the level of expectations. That’s the neat thing; that Gus has risen the level of expectations. Hopefully the same thing will happen with Bruce Pearl and basketball and then again in baseball; the standards of everything that has to do with Auburn — whether it’s equestrian or swimming or softball. We expect good in everything we do and that’s a pretty awesome feeling.
How do you see Will Muschamp fitting in this year?
I’ve had a chance to talk to him every year at Jimmy Rane’s golf tournament and I pulled for him a great deal when he was on at Florida. He’s a guy I have grown to like and appreciate. I like talking football and strategy with him, so right now I am so excited with him being a part of the coaching staff. Now, he can just focus on one thing and he is a dynamic defensive coach. I think he’ll get another chance as a head coach, but I’d like to keep him here for seven or eight years as our defensive coordinator.
Who do you like on the Auburn team this year?
I love our quarterback [Jeremy Johnson] and I’ll say that very quietly. I don’t want anyone in the nation to know about our quarterback. From what I have seen, when you play with Joe Montana and Steve Young you understand the concept of making the right throws. When you watch this guy, you see he has the tendency to make a lot of professional throws and everyone can’t do that. That means he has the ability to throw the ball in a tight space under pressure, so I’m excited to watch this guy do his very best.
Where do you see the team finishing this year?
Not to jinx us, but I’d like to see us playing in the national championship game or, better yet, I’d just like to see us make it to the playoffs.
Which of the three Super Bowls with San Francisco was the most meaningful?
Well, that last one was and it’s pretty unique. With the second one, I was trying for the simple thought that I broke my leg in the first Super Bowl and so that was a bittersweet feeling; at least I was a part of a championship and I never thought I’d get back there. The third was one the most meaningful for the simple fact that the night before the game all of the players on the team pretty much sit around and watch ESPN. Then there was a guy on TV that said literally that the 49ers would lose the game. The reason he predicted that we’d lose the game is because myself, the blind side protector, would have a bad game and that the guy across from me, Leslie O’Neal, a six-time Pro Bowler, would beat me all over the field. The reason I wear that ring the most is because whenever he made that statement, all my teammates called my room that night and questioned it and were doubting me. At the same time, I knew in my heart that I was going to play well. That guy did not make a tackle all day. We wound up winning the game and he didn’t make a tackle all day.
What was the special helmet you wore in the NFL?
I started getting concussions frequently. One season I had three concussions back-to-back. That’s when I was a Pro Bowl player and I got frustrated because I missed three games because I had the concussion. If you don’t play the games, guys aren’t going to vote for you so I kind of lost that status and with that I just thought to myself that I wanted to prepare myself for life after. At that point I had nine concussions, including practice. Six in games over, at that point, nine years. I had three in one year and then another three in practices throughout my career. So in my ninth year, I had nine, so I wore that Pro Cap. It’s a half-inch rubber addition on the outside of your head to more or less absorb the blow. Then, I never had another concussion. I was kind of the poster boy as far as concussions, but at the same time I’m thankful that I was smart enough to do something about it. I mean, most guys just kind of take it for granted and play the tough guy role. I took the initiative to step up and say I wanted to do something so that I can be around and appreciate my kids when I get older. I was glad I did that.
Do you feel there is more the NFL can do to prevent so many head injuries?
Oh, I think they have done a great job in the last two to three years once the lawsuit came on. The NFL has done an absolutely incredible job as far as taking measures to prevent concussions. Like when I played, you automatically went back in the game to see how far you could continue to play because we always had playoff implications. We needed homefield advantage. And, so with the homefield advantage, you need to play the game so you’d continue to play even if you had a concussion. You could have had internal bleeding and literally died. So, the NFL changed that. I mean, they made a guy sit out for two weeks as a bare minimum. For me, it was automatic that I had to play the next week so that’s the difference. I think it is great for the game of football, because you’ve got all these moms that are terrified and I’ve coached kids for the last six years and I want the moms to know the game is much better than it was ten years ago — and much better than it was 15 years ago — because now they are teaching kids to tackle properly which is not including the head. You’re tackling a lot more with the shoulders With little league kids, you’ve got a 50 pound kid tackling a 60 pound kid and most moms assume their kid is automatically getting tackled by a guy my size. Think about it, most of those kids don’t know how to play the game. They’ve literally been in the world for six or seven years and, you know, they’ve only played the game for two or three, so they don’t have to face guys that are 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds. They play with kids that are 60 pounds or 70 and 80 pounds and they really don’t even know how to play the game. So, the game of football at a younger age is more safe than it is once guys start to train year round and get the muscles and get the strength and get the speed. It’s a lot less dangerous at a young age. It’s no more dangerous than soccer.
What was it like blocking for Montana?
It was pretty awesome. It’s funny how you’re playing second team for a while and then you get called to start your second year and you look back and Joe Montana is in the huddle. Then he’s throwing to Jerry Rice and you’re like, ‘oh my God, I’m out here.’ So your adrenaline automatically gives you a rush and your feet get quicker, you have greater concentration. It’s amazing how once you announce that name, or you recognize that name and you’re protecting that guy, how much quicker you move. I really enjoyed it and always gave it my all. If I do my job and give the greatest quarterback a chance to do his job, then 99 percent of the time there is a chance that we are going to win.
Who was the toughest defender you faced?
I’d say for sure Bruce Smith or Lawrence Taylor. Guys that not only tackle the quarterback. They tackle the quarterback, knock the ball out of the quarterback’s hand and then run it back for a touchdown. That’s what those guys did differently as opposed to just sacking the quarterback or hitting the quarterback. Those guys did three things. They did that and I always did well against them. To play against Lawrence Taylor eight times and only give up 1.5 sacks is really tremendous. To go against Bruce Smith three times and only give up two tackles was also tremendous. The bigger the game was, the better I played. That’s probably why I played 21 playoff games. To give you a comparison: in the history of the Atlanta Falcons — 49, 50 years — they’ve only been to 19 playoff games.
How do you think you’ve helped revolutionize the left tackle position?
You know, I took it for granted for years and never thought anything about it. It was just my job. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb or whatever and that was his job, so with me it was just my job and I didn’t realize the importance of it until they had to pay guys an astronomical amount. For a while it was the quarterback. You paid the quarterback first and then you pay the left tackle. I was the first guy to get a multi-year deal that was an eight-digit salary and it blew me away. The reason it happened is because Bill Walsh said that this is the second most important position on the field. I’m just a humble, naive guy that didn’t have a clue about that, but I did have a clue about putting that check in the bank. Bill Walsh, the head coach of the 49ers, brought it to light. He just said that this position is very important. Joe Montana struggled there for a few years, but then he felt a level of comfort on his blind side and it allowed him to become a better passer and quarterback who won two more championships. Now, we talk about Joe Montana as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and Bill Walsh said the main reason was because he felt protected on his blind side.
What are you up to nowadays?
Travel, speak. I do a lot of school stuff with colleges which I enjoy. I try to establish the credibility with students and let them know that I was just an average Joe. I just worked hard. I was not the best athlete in my neighborhood, not the best athlete in my school, not the best athlete in my college and not even the best athlete on my NFL team, but I accomplished incredible things because I continued to work hard. That’s what I want to tell these kids about; you too can become a champion, a champion for life, as long as you work hard then great things will happen. I also rent a lot of houses, so as long as the renters keep paying me then I will keep traveling and vacationing all over the world.
Talk about the Steve Wallace Foundation.
I told the 49ers by them allowing me to be in the NFL that I would never turn down anything and that’s what I did. Regardless of how far or if it was for free, I never asked a question. I just did it. So after that, I established my foundation. What I did for the first seven or eight years was just pay for going to schools, speaking. Whether it was three, four miles or hours away. Then, when gas got to be $4 and $5, I had to slow it down a bit because it just wasn’t feasible. Hopefully one day I will find a sponsor who wants to put his name on a great cause with a lot of incredible stories to more or less push kids and tell them that you, too, can become a champion. If I can find a sponsor that can help me take care of hotel bills and travel, then I will start doing it all over again.
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