Wendy Wallace couldn’t find her eldest son.
It was early one morning at Three Points Child Care Center, one of several small businesses the Wallace family owned in Tucson, Ariz., and the teen was once again trying to avoid his responsibilities, whether helping his father cook or keeping an eye on the kids.
“Levi Wallace, report to the office!” Wendy announced over the intercom.
He never responded. But he had to be somewhere on the two-building campus.
“I go looking for him and I go into the infant room and he’s actually in a baby’s crib pretending to sleep,” Wendy said this week. “Now imagine, Levi was like 16 years old, tall, lanky, he fit his whole body into a baby's crib, sleeping, you know, hiding from me. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh.’
“It's something that I tease him about all the time.”
That doesn’t sound like Wallace, whose relentless drive propelled him from the intramural flag football fields to a college football national championship at his father’s beloved University of Alabama. It doesn’t sound like the undrafted rookie cornerback who joined the Bills practice squad to begin last season, only to start the final seven games for the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL.
Levi’s maturation was abrupt. Two years after his mom found him hiding rather than working, Wallace graduated from high school without a single college football scholarship — not from a major Division I program, not from an FCS team, not even from a Division II school.
Wallace, the son of Air Force veterans, attended Alabama on the G.I. Bill. But by his senior year, after losing his dad to ALS and his best friend to a bullet, the quiet walk-on had earned a starting job with the Crimson Tide.
Wallace was nevertheless too skinny, too weak, too slow to make it in the NFL. That’s what the draft analysts said. But by the end of last season, the analytics website Pro Football Focus named Wallace the top rookie cornerback in the league. He rated just ahead of Cleveland’s Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick in the draft.
Wallace has maintained a grip on his starting job this season, outperforming his training camp competition, and he'll play a critical role Sunday, when the undefeated Bills host the undefeated New England Patriots at New Era Field.
“We trust him and we feel like we've kind of solidified that position, which was really flexible a lot a year ago,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said this week. “Levi's done a tremendous job of stepping up and helping us to feel confident that we have the right person in that role.”
Now, whenever Wallace returns home, pastor Warren Anderson Jr. has the young man stand and recount his story for the congregation at Living Waters Ministries.
Now, Tucson High football coach Justin Argraves uses Wallace as an example for his players.
“It’s real fun to just point out his story just because of how incredible his story is,” Argraves said. “And it’s a good example for these kids that regardless what you’re going through, Levi was in the same locker room. He did the same thing you’re doing and he had to endure the same trials that you’re enduring right now, but as long as you can stick to your guns, good things will happen.
“Levi was a really good high school football player. But when you looked at Levi, he didn’t have the build of an NFL player. He didn’t have the full-on dominance that you would expect. But that’s what was so special about him — was his work ethic and drive.”
Of course, that’s the story in hindsight.
But his newfound work ethic, alone, wasn’t enough to earn a starting job at Alabama. And neither was the extraordinary confidence it required to attempt to walk on to that star-studded program to begin with. There must be something more that catapulted Wallace from the Bills’ practice squad to the starting lineup in less than one season.
Wallace's mom once found him hiding in a crib, pretending to sleep.
“Oh, man, you found me,” Levi said.
He's spent the last five years opening eyes.
With all the resources poured into talent evaluation, how is a starting-caliber NFL player — a national champion groomed at Alabama, no less — passed over by every NFL team through seven rounds of the draft? It happens.
The Patriots have built one of the greatest dynasties in pro sports on late-round draft picks and undrafted players, beginning with six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, drafted in the sixth round with the 199th overall selection in 2000.
New England had 16 undrafted players on last year’s Super Bowl team. And an undrafted rookie has made the Patriots’ 53-man roster for 16 consecutive seasons, beginning with cornerback Randall Gay in 2004. Gay, similar to Wallace, won the BCS national title with LSU in 2013. He contributed to Super Bowl victories with the Patriots and New Orleans Saints.
Other unearthed gems: Adam Vinatieri, Malcolm Butler, Chris Hogan, J.C. Jackson, David Andrews, the list goes on.
Floyd Reese, the former longtime Tennessee Titans general manager, spent four seasons as a senior football advisor with the Patriots from 2009 through 2012.
“New England does this better than anybody in the league right now, which is they know exactly what they want their players to look like,” Reese said. “They know how big, how fast, how heavy, whatever it is, and consequently, all those guys aren’t first-round guys. Those are guys that you can get later on in the draft, and they’re willing to take them if they meet all the other criteria.
“We always felt like with the undrafted free agents, we wanted somebody that fit our criteria, that had one thing special about them. Just one thing. It was either he was really fast, or he had really good hands, or he could really jump, or he was really instinctive or he was really tough, or there was something that kind of separated him. And for us, those were the perfect free agent kind of kids.
“I don’t know Wallace. I remember him coming out. But there is something really special about him. I’m guessing he has some trait, something that makes him special and gives him the opportunity to play.”
The Bills signed 12 undrafted rookie free agents immediately following the 2018 draft. Five remain with the team, somewhat Patriot-esque.
What’s so special about Wallace?
What sets him apart?
“I don’t even know,” Wallace said. “I thought I could do everything pretty well. So I don’t know a scout’s mindset, what they’re looking for. I played the ball well. I tackled.”
He also earned a nickname. Alabama coach Nick Saban called him "The Technician."
“Coach Saban just liked how I played corner,” Wallace said, “and he said that whatever he said to do, I did really well, better than everyone else.”
Like keeping his feet close together in his stance for shorter strides, and his hands raised and ready to disrupt deep routes, and the proper positioning to pin the receiver toward the sideline.
Wendy Wallace noticed her son’s aptitude for the game back in Pop Warner.
"I don't think I've publicly said this, in all of the times anybody asked me questions about Levi," Wendy said, "but one of the things I always picked up about Levi at a very, very early age, was, 'Oh my gosh, Levi is so good at reading the offense.' He has a knack for that.
“If he was on defense, he could look over and know what the offense was doing. And if he was on offense, you know, vice versa. He was probably 7 or 8. That's when I noticed it. And that is the God's truth. Levi knew exactly which way a player was going to go.
“I don't know where it came from. And when he got older and started playing high school football, he would get the playbook and this kid came home and looked at it once or twice and he would have it all down. It's just one of those gifts that he has.”
His teammates have noticed, too.
Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a two-time Pro Bowler who was undrafted out of California in 2005, said Wallace is “a very smart and intuitive player.”
“I actually saw that about him even last year when he was like a practice squad, fringe guy,” Alexander said. “I was like, ‘Man, this dude can play ball.’ Just the way he approaches it, his film study, I think his athletic talents, being long, rangy, can run, and then being — I’ll give him a little credit — ‘Bama tough.’ He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there, either, when he has to. So having all those characteristics and then who he is as a person, as far as being humble and wanting to learn, has allowed him an opportunity to play and he’s been able to stand up.
“I consider him a little brother because he’s cut from a similar cloth as I am, and so I’m a guy that’s always in his ear, staying on him, trying to push him as best as I can, because I think he can be a premier corner in this league, especially coming from being an undrafted guy, one of those guys that can kind of rise up and really display what people may have missed with him, not drafting him."
The Bills’ secondary, as a group, trumpets the notion that it doesn’t get the respect and recognition it deserves from national media.
Cornerback Tre’Davious White, after his two interceptions last weekend against the Bengals, went on NFL Network and chirped to Deion Sanders about how he’d been out of the spotlight for too long. White was a first-round pick out of LSU in 2017, and Googling his name and “shutdown corner” turns up nearly 32,000 results.
Safety Micah Hyde was the Big Ten defensive back of the year in 2012 at Iowa, a fifth-round draft pick by the Packers and has made the Pro Bowl.
Safety Jordan Poyer was a Walter Camp All-American at Oregon State, a seventh-round pick by the Eagles and has been a regular starter since 2016, his final season with the Browns.
Even nickel corner Taron Johnson, the 2017 Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year at Weber State, was a fourth-round draft pick last season.
Out of that group of starters, if anyone can genuinely say they’re not offered the respect or attention they deserve, it’s Wallace. But he doesn’t complain.
“I don’t really care about it,” Wallace said. “I just want to play football. Whether I get it or not, I know I’m out there giving the best that I can. I know my teammates see it. That’s all that matters.”
White, echoing Alexander's assessment, said he’s been impressed by Wallace's attention to detail.
"From OTAs last year, he was ready, he was seasoned, and he was a guy that was willing to learn and you could tell he wanted to be great," White said. "I’m not surprised by the success he’s having with the way that he works and the way he comes in and goes about his craft. He came in last year and was on the practice squad, and he was able to show going against our first-team guys that he could play in this league.
"He has all the intangibles, he has the skill set, the long arms, he can track the ball well in the air and he plays to his help. He knows the defense. He knows the spots he’s supposed to be and when a play is there for him, he’s making them."
Johnson also cited Wallace’s intelligence.
“When we came in, because we both came in together, what caught my eye was just how quick he learned the defense and how smart he is — because he was telling me stuff,” Johnson said. “I feel like that’s his biggest attribute, his mind. He’s just a step ahead of guys.”
“He’s very smart,” Poyer said. “He understands our defense for one, and he trusts the guys around him. That’s really all you need. And he’s very talented. So you put all those together, it makes a really good corner, especially in this system.”
Wallace said he primarily played “man” coverage at Alabama, but didn’t have too much trouble learning the Bills’ zone concepts.
“Maybe that’s what I do best,” Wallace said. “I have a high football IQ. I think that just goes with Alabama and the crazy plays that we had there, that I was able to pick up. These are way simpler than the ones we had at Alabama.”
'We have to have a plan'
In Tuscaloosa, Wallace could bulk up in the weight room and hone his techniques under the tutelage of Saban, one of the greatest college coaches in history.
He just needed the motivation and work ethic, which took maturity, which took time.
Levi was raised in a household that his mother called a “well-oiled machine.”
Wendy and her late husband, Walter, shared a military background and Type A personalities. They instilled a sense of discipline and responsibility in their children, Levi and his younger brother Lawrence, by assigning “age appropriate” chores from the time they were toddlers.
“At age 2, the requirement was that you had to make your bed,” Wendy said. “I didn’t care how the bed looked, but he had to make the effort.”
Toys were thrown away if they weren’t picked up.
“Those are just consequences,” she said. “And even as they got older, we always talked about time management, organizing yourself.”
Wendy, who worked in an administrative role, was always organized.
Walter, an airplane mechanic, was disciplined and thorough.
On Christmas morning, he’d require the boys to read the instruction manual for each gift before opening the next present, to learn how it worked.
Levi’s parents were always awake long before sunrise.
“And the boys hated it all the time,” Wendy said.
“Why can't we sleep in?” they whined.
A quote from the 2007 movie, “The Great Debaters,” served as a mantra.
“We do what we have to do, so we can do what we want to do,” Wendy said, citing Denzel Washington’s character, a demanding professor and debate team leader in the 1930s Jim Crow South.
"And in our home, we always had a plan," Wendy said. "And what I told them along the way is, 'We have to have a plan. And guess what? That plan is going to get tweaked along the way. But if you don't have a plan, if you don't have a vision, if you don't have an outlook, if you can't think of any kind of purpose — you have to kind of have something in your mindset as to what you want to do. And if you don't have that, you don't have any direction. You don't know where you're going, you're at a standstill.' So we always talk about, ‘What is the plan?’ "
Levi had long planned to play football at Alabama. His father was from Tuscaloosa, and plenty of family remained in the area. But he wasn’t a star in high school, and his team didn’t accomplish much.
Tucson won seven games in both his junior and senior seasons. The first time, the Badgers were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. The second time, they had closed the season with five consecutive victories, winning the final game in a blowout, but missed the playoffs.
Wallace, with no scholarship in hand, found out his playing career was over the next day.
“I thought we were in the playoffs,” Wallace said. “I didn’t even take that last game serious. We blew that team out like 55-0. We were letting a bunch of backup players just get in. ‘Go ahead. We’ve got another game next week. Go make plays.’
“I didn’t realize that was my last high school game, so I cried the next morning.”
Argraves, the Tucson coach, addressed his heartbroken players.
“You guys did a tremendous job,” he recalled saying, “but like in life, man, sometimes you don’t get what you want, even though you busted your tail for it. And that’s just a growing up-type thing. You’ve got to learn to deal with it, you know?
“It teaches you how to deal with adversity real quick. Luckily, that wasn’t life or death. That was just high school football. But that’s the great thing about high school football. Stuff like that kind of helps you once you start dealing with bigger things in life.”
Walter was diagnosed with ALS shortly before Levi left to begin his freshman year at Alabama, but he and Wendy traveled to Tuscaloosa for Thanksgiving.
That weekend, the family watched the 2013 Iron Bowl game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn — the notorious “Kick Six” game — from their hotel suite. Auburn tied the game at 28-28 with 32 seconds remaining, and Alabama attempted a potential game-winning 57-yard field goal with 1 second on the clock. But the kick was short, and Auburn’s Chris Davis caught it in the end zone and returned it the length of the field for the winning score.
Levi stormed out of the room.
He credits this loss, and not his father’s diagnosis, for his motivation to try out for the team.
“I felt like they weren’t doing good enough, and I felt like I could help,” Wallace said. “I was tired of watching Alabama lose when I needed them to win.”
Walter died in April 2014, the day before Alabama’s spring game, never seeing his son wear a Crimson Tide uniform. Levi chose to play.
“I don’t remember exactly how I felt,” Levi said. “When I’m on the football field I block everything out. I don’t even remember the game, honestly. I don’t remember if I had any tackles or pass breakups or anything like that.”
Two years later, in 2016, Levi’s best friend and high school teammate, De’Antae Fuller, was shot to death in a Tucson parking lot in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday.
The murder remains unsolved, Argraves said.
Levi honored his friend by changing his jersey to No. 39, a combination of his favorite number (32) and Fuller’s number when they played together (8), minus the number Fuller wore his senior year (1).
“For an adult, dealing with a loss like that is hard enough,” Argraves said, “but for a kid at his age, to deal with losing your best friend and losing your father, for any normal person, that can destroy somebody. But in Levi’s case, he’s got that drive and determination. He didn’t let it bring him down. It lit his fire.”
Wendy said she talks to Walter when she prays.
She said she knows he’s watching from heaven, that her late husband has not only seen Levi play for Alabama, but start and win a national championship, that he’s not only seen Levi make it to the NFL, but start and contribute to one of the best secondaries in the league.
“I think about that all the time,” Wendy said. “And I truly believe that God has just allowed Walt to be the boys’ guardian angel. And I talk to Walt and say, ‘I know you saw the game. Do you see him now?’
“I also believe that his spirit radiates so much within the boys. I know he’s just beaming with pride in heaven. I honestly believe that. And I believe that had he been here — and I don’t know for sure — but I believe that had he been here, still here, physically on this Earth, that Levi’s story would have been different. There would have been a different outcome.
“This journey, everything that Levi has gone through, everything from the day that he was born all the way up to the day that his father passed away, has prepared him going forward. … Because he’s had to have that grit, he’s had to have that determination, he’s had to have that perseverance, and don’t think that he would have had that same amount, or the intensity that he has had in order to get where he is. The motivation. I don’t know for sure. That’s something we will never know. But I believe that God has put inside of Levi a drive and a desire and a focus and a will.”
Levi struggles to pinpoint the source of his motivation, whatever fuels the drive he lacked when he was younger, whatever has compelled him to transform himself from a freshman playing flag football into an NFL starter.
“I don’t even know, honestly,” Wallace said. “I just do it. I feel like somebody’s probably told me that I couldn’t, maybe. I love to prove others wrong. But then I just love football ..."
Is it the memory of his father? His best friend? Does the game serve as an escape?
“Football’s not an escape for me," Wallace said. "Football is just the job that I have and something I love to do, but life happens, so I don’t think you can really block out life. That’s just something you have to deal with. Not everything’s perfect.
“I’m just persistent, I guess. Things get to me, but I try not to let them dictate my life too much. Of course, I’m sad and I miss those two every day, but life also goes on. This is the reality now, so I do the best that I can with my life to honor them every single day.”