Just a few short years ago, Levi Wallace thought his football career was over.
He graduated from Tucson (Arizona) High School with exactly zero scholarship offers and zero recruiting stars to his name.
It wasn't until a conversation with his late father inspired Levi to walk on to his college team that his path to the NFL truly began. And he wasn't going to walk on just anywhere—he was going to walk on at the University of Alabama.
Fast forward to today and Wallace is a second-team All-SEC selection, a two-time national champion, and a top cornerback talent for the 2018 NFL Draft. Here's the story of how a skinny kid with big dreams managed to make it at the most intense and talent-laden program in the country. This is Levi Wallace's path to the pros.
Growing up in Tucson, Wallace's life had structure from an early age. That was a fact his father, Walter Wallace, made sure of. Walter served in the Air Force for 21 years, and he raised his two sons to honor many of the same principles he'd come to cherish in the military. For a young Levi, much of that structure took the form of participating in as many sports as possible.
"We were a close family," Wallace says. "My dad was in the military before I was born, (so) having a lot of structure and discipline is something he harped on a lot. We played every sport you can think of. My parents always showed up and supported us in everything we did."
On fall Saturdays, the family gathered around the TV to watch the Crimson Tide. Walter was born in Tuscaloosa and had grown up in the shadow of Bryant-Denny Stadium. He passed his love for Alabama football onto his sons, whose bedrooms were covered with Tide memorabilia. Alabama wasn't quite the dominant force they've now become back then, as they finished in the AP top 10 just twice between 1995 (the year Levi was born) and 2007, yet the family's passion never wavered.
When Levi was in middle school, he began working out with his father. His dad was striving to get in better shape, and Levi often trained right alongside him.
"In middle school, I started lifting weights with my dad," Wallace said. "He just wanted to see how far I could push myself. With him, he was trying to lose weight. We'd run on the track or do the elliptical or the Leg Press, stuff like that."
Although Levi admired his father's commitment to fitness, it was his perseverance as the family's bread-winner that really left an impression. "I just saw the way he worked, trying to feed his kids and trying to feed his family. Seeing that—he didn't really say too much, he was more of a man of action. Just seeing his work ethic definitely motivated me and my little brother to do what we do now," Wallace says.
Walter also coached a local track club, the Arizona Titans, which helped Levi and his brother, Lawrence, develop a love for the sport (Levi was particularly partial to the long jump).
At Tucson High School, early morning workouts with the football team became a way of life for Wallace. That tradition was initiated by head coach Justin Argraves, who preached the importance of outworking the other teams in the Badgers' conference. After practice, Wallace would often work on his hand-eye coordination with assistant coach Ovean Moore.
"After practices, I was always out there catching balls with coach Moore. I dropped a couple balls in high school and I was always disappointed in myself, so he always stayed after with me. Throwing tennis balls to me, footballs, it didn't matter. (Just) trying to make me a better player, so I appreciate him for that," Wallace says.
While Wallace would develop into an excellent player, his talents went largely unnoticed by college programs. That was in part due to his rail-thin physique, as he'd had trouble packing on muscle mass during his adolescent years despite a commitment to the weight room. But as graduation loomed and Levi weighed his options, Walter's health suddenly faltered. He was soon diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, sending Levi into a panic.
"My dad had gotten sick towards the end of my senior year. I offered to stay home and help with my mom and tend to my dad, but my dad wasn't having that. He wanted me to get my education. He said I wasn't going to sit at home and do nothing with my life. He wanted me to go to school, and because of his GI bill (from his service in the Air Force), I was able to go to Alabama for free," Wallace says.
While he had once dreamed of walking on the team at Alabama, Walter's illness consumed much of Levi's focus. He enrolled at the school with the intention of getting a business degree and becoming a pharmaceutical salesman, prepared to walk away from competitive football for good. After his first semester in Tuscaloosa, he returned to Tucson for winter break. His father, in ailing health, convinced him there was no harm in trying to walk on. Walter told Levi he'd always believed in his abilities and that his son would never know how good he truly could be if he didn't take advantage of the opportunity.
"My dad—he believed in me. He was the one who convinced me to walk on. No one believed in me but my family," Wallace says. "I owed it to him to keep pushing. I never quit anything in my life before."
Inspired, Levi contacted the team about joining their walk-on tryouts ahead of spring practice. He survived the initial cuts, and soon found himself participating in the Crimson Tide's brutal offseason workouts. "The first person I remember seeing was Amari Cooper, and seeing his work ethic in the weight room. I automatically figured I had to have the same kind of mentality if I was going to make it there and be able to compete with some of these guys," Wallace says.
When spring practice began, it only took Wallace a week or so to realize he could hang. Squaring off against 5-star receivers who were often bigger, stronger and faster than he was, Wallace had to win with technique. While many walk-ons flame out quickly inside the hyper-competitive program, Wallace looked destined to stick with it for the long haul. But as Alabama's annual "A-Day" spring game drew near, Walter's condition turned bleak. Knowing he didn't have much time, he told his wife, Wendy, that should he pass away before A-Day, the family should wait to tell Levi until after the game. He didn't want Levi to miss out on the experience.
Walter passed away on April 18, the night before the game. While Wendy did her best to keep the news from Levi, a family friend let it slip on social media. Levi was devastated when his mother confirmed the news, but knowing that his father would want nothing more than him to play, he suited up for the game. Levi played in Tuscaloosa that Saturday in front of 73,516 Crimson-clad fans. In Walter's obituary, words confirmed what Levi had long known to be true—"The title of Dad was the title he loved best. Raising Levi and Lawrence to have moral and good character was his most important job."
For the next two seasons, Wallace toiled in relative anonymity on the Crimson Tide's scout team. There, he lined up across from mega-talents like Cooper, ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley. With every rep, he earned a little more respect.
"Guys were telling me, 'I think you could start anywhere else—I don't know why you walked on here, you should be going somewhere else and playing.' That just kept motivating me," Wallace says.
While every position is held to a high standard at Alabama, defensive back may be the most scrutinized. Nick Saban came up coaching the position and still plays a huge role in their day-to-day duties. Saban emphasizes technique above all else at the cornerback position, and Wallace often executed his assignment with surgical precision.
"(Coach Saban) makes sure we have our defensive plan down before he gets to the rest of the team. He's always around us, throwing balls, leading drills. He takes it personally," Wallace says. "He gave me the nickname 'The Technician' because I paid attention to detail, just like he does…He always complimented me on how I play at the line, being patient and using my hands, things like that. I just kept working on it every single day, (even) practicing in the mirror at home."
In the meantime, Scott Cochran and the Alabama strength and conditioning staff helped Wallace build a body fit to compete in the SEC. During fall camp of his junior year, Levi was awarded a full scholarship. He appeared in 11 games throughout the 2016 season, largely on special teams or as a third cornerback, totaling 11 tackles and two pass break-ups.
He would've played more if he hadn't been stuck behind Marlon Humphrey on the depth chart. Humphrey was a first-team All-America selection in 2016 before being selected by the Baltimore Ravens with the 16th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. With Humphrey's departure, the starting left cornerback spot was open for competition in Tuscaloosa. While Trevon Diggs started in the role during the team's first game of 2017, Wallace replaced him at halftime of that game and snagged a key interception. From that point on, the job was his. While he didn't take the fact he was a former walk-on starting at a key position on the best team in the country for granted, Wallace never let the magnitude of the moment overwhelm him. After all, he knew there were plenty of hungry players eager to take his spot should he lose focus.
"(It was) eyes forward. It's Alabama, we have many great players on our team. I mess up one week, they can put somebody else in," Wallace said. "(I was) just trying to stay focused on my responsibilities, taking it one game at a time."
Film study played a key role in Wallace's breakout 2017 season. Playing alongside known talents like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Anthony Averett, opponents often zeroed in on Wallace. The more intel he could bring to the game on Saturday, the more confident he felt. "I just studied (receivers) mechanics coming off the line. What they do against press, against guys playing off them, how many times the quarterback looks their way, how much they use their hands, how big, how physical they are. (I was) trying to win the game before it even started," Wallace said.
Wallace would then relay that intel to members of the scout team so they could give him a great look during practice. With Wallace being a former scout team soldier himself, his teammates were always quick to comply. "I'd go to the scout team, and I'm really good friends with guys on the scout team because that's where I started, and I'd ask 'Could you possibly do this in practice this week? Because that's what (the upcoming opponent) will do," Wallace said. "And they had no problem with that. It just helps us all get better. I think that's what separates Alabama—everyone's bought into the system."
Wallace continued to grind like he was still a walk-on, as the thought of an opponent outworking him made his stomach churn. "You may be bigger or faster than me, but you're not going to outwork me. I like to keep that mindset and I think that prepared me for this past season," Wallace said. Between all that work, Levi found time to graduate with a business degree last August.
Wallace had a spectacular 2017 season, totaling 48 tackles, 15 passes defensed, 3 interceptions, 4.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. He helped the Crimson Tide defense limit opposing quarterbacks to a meager 5.5 yards per attempt, the best mark in the nation. The dream season culminated with Wallace starting in the National Championship game against Georgia, where the Crimson Tide emerged victorious. Before every game Wallace played at Alabama, he pointed skyward and thanked the man who'd always believed in him. "Right before I go out onto the field I look up and thank him for the opportunity, for believing in me," Wallace told The Crimson White. "I just try to play for him."
With his storybook career at Alabama over, Wallace turned his attention to the NFL. To help him prepare for the draft process, he turned to EXOS in Phoenix, Arizona. STACK caught up with Wallace on location ahead of the NFL Combine. At the time, he was utilizing a 4,000-calorie-a-day diet to help quell claims that his slender frame could be a detriment at the next level.
Wallace is soft spoken, but he assured us he's a different animal on the field. "I don't talk a lot, but when receivers get me riled up, I probably talk more than Richard Sherman," Wallace says.
Speaking of Sherman, he—along with Darrelle Revis—are two players Wallace strives to model his game after. Since arriving at EXOS, Wallace said he'd seen improvements in his speed and explosiveness. "EXOS does a great job of honing in on what you already have and making it that much better," Wallace said. "I'm loving what I'm seeing." He was also wearing a shirt that read "Piss Excellence" during our shoot—a phrase that is something of a personal mantra for EXOS founder Mark Verstegen.
Wallace had a solid showing in the combine events and was impressively fluid during the defensive back drills. His 32 3/4-inch arms also stood out, as that's freakishly long for a 6-foot tall cornerback. Sherman, who stands 3 inches taller than Wallace, registered an arm length of 32 inches at the Combine. Wallace may be on the precipice of realizing his NFL dream (CBS Sports ranks him as a top-100 talent in this year's draft class), but his work ethic will not change with his circumstances. In his mind, he's still that zero-star recruit trying to make a name for himself. Wallace's path to the pros could've been less arduous at inferior programs, but he carries no regrets.
"You have a dream, you go take it. No one believed in me but my family, and it was a lot of hard work, but I'm glad it paid off. It paid off tenfold. I'm glad I took the chance to walk-on at Alabama. If I could do it all over again, I would," Wallace says. "Even if I had a bunch of offers, I would. I wouldn't be the same player without it."
Photo Credit: Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images, Icon Sportswire/Getty Images, Joe Robbins/Getty Images, SEC Network