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From Tucson to Orchard Park: How Levi Wallace Has Beaten the Odds

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One of Buffalo’s key contributors in their win over the Steelers was CB Levi Wallace. Despite many calling for his benching, he stepped up with an interception and three passes defensed in the 25-16 victory. Many have labeled him as an underdog all season, but this mentality is something he has thrived upon from the beginning.

Structured Upbringing

Levi Wallace was born on June 12, 1995, in Tucson, Arizona. And right from the jump, Wallace grew up in a structured household. Both of his parents, Wendy and Walter Wallace, were in the U.S. Air Force and expected discipline and leadership.

“We’d have a time when the boys would go, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re just being so hard Dad.’ It was just a very disciplined home in reference to that, but it was just also filled with so much love – so much love. And I think that they still feel it to this day,” Wendy Wallace said.

But there was more than just discipline in the Wallace household. Levi and his brother Lawrence had a strong relationship with their father. No matter if it was a doctor or school appointment, Walter was there, according to his wife.

Wallace’s father Walter was a big influence on his life (Photo via SEC Network)

“And so, he did everything with them growing up. I remember him telling me, he said thanks for having these boys for me because you had them but they belong to me. And literally that’s how he felt. He literally would be at everything,” she said.

Once Wallace’s father retired from the military, the family opened a laundromat and a preschool, which Levi and his brother were expected to work at.

They were put in charge of stocking the vending machines at the laundromat. Seeing this could be an uninteresting job, their father made a deal with them. If the machines were filled and serviced, Levi and his brother would pocket the profits. If not, their parents would receive the money.

This instilled pride and hard work in Wallace, furthering the bond he had with his father.

But there was another special bond Wallace and his father shared: their love for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Bonding Over Alabama Football

Wallace’s father grew up in Tuscaloosa and instantly became a fan of Alabama football. Looking back, Wallace remembers watching those Saturday afternoon games with his father.

“He always had us watching the games, even though they were bad when we first started watching,” he said.

But it was more for Wallace. Growing up, he had a poster of Bryant-Denny Stadium pinned above his bed.

I will get into his time at Alabama later. But, we must take a look at how the young Wallace found a passion for football.

Football Becomes a Lifestyle

Like any young kid, Wallace wanted to play football. And he began his journey at six years old, playing for the Tucson Youth Football and Spirit Federation Redskins.

Once his youth days were over, Wallace switched from club football to high school football, attending Tucson High Magnet School.

Playing for the Badgers, Wallace was a workhorse in all three phases of the game. He was a wide receiver, cornerback, and the team’s primary punt and kick returner.

Wallace had a role in every aspect of the Tucson Badgers gameplan.
(Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star)

But Wallace’s stats were not spectacular. In his junior year, he amassed 676 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. And his defensive stats looked average with 4.0 tackles per game and four turnovers.

Looking past the stats, his high school coach, Justin Argraves, told Tucson.com they did not show the true Levi.

“He was a skinny, rangy, lanky kid,” Argraves said. “But he had an absolutely great work ethic and a great attitude.”

Stats aside, Wallace had aspirations to play college football. His Next College Student Athlete recruiting profile says it all.

Levi Wallace’s Personal Statement on his college recruiting profile

But his profile did not attract the attention of college coaches. Well, except for Division II Western New Mexico.

With the offers not rolling in like he hoped, Wallace knew he needed to prove everyone wrong. So, he decided to attend the school his father wanted him to go to.

Wallace Makes Father’s Dream Comes True

After graduating from Tucson High School in 2013, Wallace chose to attend the University of Alabama. But his father had a major factor in the decision, transferring benefits from his GI bill to pay for Levi’s education.

But the day before Levi went to Alabama, the Wallace family heard some heartbreaking news: Walter Wallace was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ALS.

Wallace (left) with his father and brother Lawrence (Photo via SEC Network)

Levi wanted to return home to be with his family. But his father refused, according to his mother.

“It was not an option. He said, no, this is what you are going to do,” she said.

Once at Alabama, however, Wallace’s dream of playing under Nick Saban did not become a reality at first.

“I played intramural football for a semester and got second place in the championship. Then I decided to walk on,” Wallace said.

That intramural performance must have showed something, as Wallace made the Crimson Tide as a walk-on in January 2014.

Levi Wallace talks with the SEC Network in 2017 about his journey from Tucson to Tuscaloosa.

Just three months later, Wallace was slated to play for Alabama in their annual spring game. But 24 hours earlier, there was a tragedy, as Walter Wallace’s courageous battle with ALS ended.

Wallace’s mother did not tell him about his father’s passing until after the spring game, keeping a promise her husband said days earlier.

“If I die, do not tell him, because I want him to be able to play in the game, cause he has worked so hard. It was the hardest thing I had to keep from Levi.”

However, Wallace learned about his fathers passing on social media and called his mother. His coaches asked if he still wanted to play, and Wallace fought through the grief and hit the field. It turned out to be the best decision.

Wallace Waits in the Wings

After the spring game, Wallace was put on Alabama’s scout team. He was not promised a roster spot by any means, but he continued to put in the time behind the scenes.

During his freshman and sophomore seasons, he sat on the sidelines behind Marlon Humphrey and Cyrus Jones. But former teammate Calvin Ridley did not know why Wallace was not on the active roster.

“I was like, ‘This guy is really good. I don’t know what we’re doing,’” Ridley said to ESPN in 2017.

After the Crimson Tide won the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship, things looked to change for Wallace. But he was still stuck behind Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick on the depth chart.

Despite sitting for two years, Nick Saban awarded Wallace with a scholarship during 2016 fall training camp.

Levi Wallace after he was put on scholarship for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
(Video via Alabama Football)

Saban had high praise for the gritty Wallace afterwards.

“We’ve had a lot of walk-ons through the years that have done a really good job of becoming contributors to the team,” Saban said. “Levi’s probably done it as well as any of them.”

With the scholarship in his back pocket, Wallace was ready to show why he deserved playing time.

2016: Wallace Becomes Depth Corner

Although on scholarship, Wallace saw limited action for the Crimson Tide in 2016. But he made the most of his opportunities.

In his first career game against USC, Wallace had a tackle and pass breakup. This started a spur of confidence from the Alabama coaching staff who began to work him in more regularly.

Even though he was not starting, Wallace managed to be a key player on special teams, recording a career-high three tackles in Alabama’s 48-0 win over Kent State.

He matched his career-high six weeks later against Mississippi State. But his immediate punt return tackle against the Bulldogs was the real highlight, as Wallace was awarded special teams player of the week.

Levi Wallace’s true rise was just beginning, and he showed his true abilities just two weeks later.

Wallace Earns Limited Opportunity

During Alabama’s match-up against Auburn, Marlon Humphrey exited the game with a hamstring injury. With Humphrey out for the rest of the game, Alabama needed someone to fill the void.

And Levi Wallace stepped in, recording two tackles and helped hold Auburn to 116 yards passing in a 30-12 Alabama win.

With Humphrey returning a week later against Florida, Wallace went back to his special teams and depth role. He did not see any action the rest of the season.

Alabama eventually defeated Clemson in the National Championship, so Wallace did get a ring for his contributions. But it was time for him to take what was rightfully his.

2017: Opportunities Grow for Wallace

With Marlon Humphrey leaving for the NFL Draft, Levi Wallace was primed to take over the starting cornerback position. But defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had other plans, choosing Anthony Averett over Wallace.

Once again, Another barrier was built in front of Wallace, blocking him from success. But the senior lit the defensive flame right out of the gates against Florida State.

Entering in a relief role, Wallace recorded his first interception and two tackles in a 24-7 win. His performance earned him defensive player of the week honors.

Wallace recorded his first interception for the Crimson Tide against Florida State. The performance solidified his starting role. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

Noticing his effort, the coaching staff awarded Wallace with his first career start against Fresno State a week later. He recording one tackle.

This stretch of starts for Wallace continued throughout the season. But it was not a fluke, as the six-foot cornerback proved his worth against Ole Miss. The senior had two interceptions, returning one for a 35-yard house call.

Levi Wallace returns an interception for a touchdown against Ole Miss on September 30th, 2017. (Photo by Vasha Hunt/AL.com)

The national media began to take notice, giving Wallace SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance.

Placing the accolade in his pocket, Wallace kept trucking with a five tackle performance against Texas A&M.

Two weeks later against Tennessee, however, Wallace had his best game for the Crimson Tide. In the 45-7 win, he set a new career high in tackles (six) and had the first of his two career sacks. The stat line landed him in the spotlight again for SEC Defensive Player of the Week.

Wallace’s Playoff Performance

With the Crimson Tide rolling into the College Football Playoff, Wallace looked to keep his defensive tear alive. And against Clemson in the semi-final, he matched his tackle mark with six and had two pass breakups in the 24-6 win.

This was arguably Alabama’s best defensive performance, forcing Clemson QB Kelly Bryant into throwing two interceptions.

Levy Wallace breaks up a pass intended for Riley Ridley during the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship. (Photo by David J. Phillip/ The Associated Press)

Wallace balled out on the big stage, and it was no secret his draft stock was rising. His championship performance against Georgia wasn’t as special (three tackles, one pass breakup), but it was enough for him to secure another championship ring.

Levi Wallace walked away from the 2018 National Championship in a sea of confetti and two rings on his finger. But the win was not the most emotional part of the night. After finding his mother in the stands, they pointed to the sky in honor of his father.

His father never saw him suit up for the Crimson Tide, but Wallace knew his father would be proud.

“I know I definitely wouldn’t be here without him. He was the first person to believe in me.”

Wallace’s career was complete at Alabama. In the Spring of 2018, he graduated with a degree in business. At this point, some would have walked off into the sunset. But for Wallace, his competitive edge craved more.

Combine Invite

Coming out of college, Wallace’s stats were not spectacular (59 tackles, three interceptions and 17 passes defended). But his grind paid off, as he was invited to the 2018 NFL Combine.

He had many private interviews with NFL teams, but did not answer any out of the ordinary questions. He rather let his combine performance do the talking.

Levi Wallace during the 2018 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Indiana.
(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

But his performance was lackluster at best. His 4.63 forty yard dash was fourth slowest among DBs, and he did not participate in the bench press. Despite the performance, Wallace said he was thrilled with his results.

“It gave some teams the opportunity to learn about me and test my football IQ, especially with the scheme we play at Alabama. It was just great to show my talent, on and off the field,” he said.

His performance showed in the mock drafts, as many predicted Wallace would go in the 7th round. He thought otherwise.

“People are still doubting me,” Wallace told Tuscon.com the night before the draft. “I went against top-tier receivers and locked them all down, and I feel like my numbers speak for themselves.”

As the picks dwindled down, Wallace waited for his cell phone to ring. It never did.

Signing With Bills

The former Alabama standout was now an undrafted free agent. It was another hurdle he needed to jump over. But the Bills gave him a chance, signing him to a three-year, $1.7 million contract on May 1st, 2018.

And during the first day of rookie minicamp, Sean McDermott said Wallace’s story was powerful.

“To meet him and to read about his story, we’ll see about this weekend and how he handles himself, but that’s a great story,” McDermott said.

“If you want to write about anything, that’s a great story to sink your teeth in this weekend here.”

2018: Signs of Star in Making

It was not guaranteed that Wallace would make the Bills roster, much like his tryout at Alabama in 2014.

But he stayed throughout the entire preseason, only to be released during the team’s final round of roster cuts. The coaching staff could have easily let Wallace walk. However, the Bills signed him to their practice squad the next day.

Throughout the season, Wallace waited for his call up. And the Bills finally did before their Week 10 game against the Jets. There was a deeper meaning to the game; Wallace would start.

He did not blow up the stat book (one tackle), but he appeared in all 56 defensive snaps.

The defensive staff saw something they craved from Wallace: grit and toughness. And he was rewarded with a starting job for the rest of the season.

Wallace earned more confidence with every start, eventually recording a career-high eight tackles in Buffalo’s 24-12 loss to the Patriots in week 16.

Levi Wallace breaks up a pass intended for DeVante Parker during Buffalo’s 42-17 win over the Miami Dolphins in 2018. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Bills could not have asked more from Wallace. He had 37 tackles and three passes defensed in just seven games. The opportunity also gave him a chance to learn from the rising defensive superstar Tre’Davious White.

But it wasn’t just the Bills who noticed Wallace’s contributions. Pro Football Focus rated him as their best rookie corner (85.3) over 4th overall pick Denzel Ward.

Accolades aside, Wallace told the Democrat and Chronicle during locker cleanout that his rise was just beginning.

“Football is about opportunities and what you do with them. Just moving to the offseason, keep building on that. Find out ways how I can be better; be one of the top corners in the league for next year,” he said.

2019: Full-Time Starter

With his 2018 performance turning heads, Wallace came into training camp as the starting cornerback opposite White.

And just like his first start against the Jets in 2018, Wallace started his 2019 campaign with five tackles and two passes defensed in a 17-16 victory.

Wallace was consistent early, holding his covered wide receivers to under 100 yards for five-straight games. But not everything was perfect for the second-year corner.

In weeks six through ten, Wallace allowed over a 100 point passer rating when targeted. His worst game came against the Browns, as Jarvis Landry had a field day, recording nine receptions for 97 yards. One of the receptions was a 24 yarder late in the fourth quarter that sealed the Browns victory.

Despite the struggle, Wallace clamped down on his mistakes. He did not allow over 65 yards the rest of the season.

However, an ankle sprain during an interception in a meaningless 13-6 loss to the Jets ended his chance to play in the wild card game against Houston.

His presence was severely missed in the game against Houston. Kevin Johnson, Wallace’s replacement, gave up five completions on five targets in the loss.

It was a shame Wallace’s season had to end the way it did, as he had worked so hard to get to that point. The game’s outcome could have been much different if Wallace was in the starting rotation.

2020: Up and Down

Going into this season, things looked a little different for Wallace. For starters, the Bills signed veteran defensive back Josh Norman in the offseason. Many saw it as a tactic to push Wallace to a different level. He saw it much differently.

“For me, I have god-given talent, and I am a competitor at heart. The competition just brings out the best in everyone as we push each other, ask questions and there are no egos in this room,” he said during an August press conference.

It was not just the competition either that fueled Wallace’s demeanor. He put on 10 pounds of muscle to be more physical at the top of routes and eyed another chance to start.

Since that talk, Wallace has had his share of struggles. In Week 2 against Miami, he gave up 119 yards and a touchdown to mostly DeVante Parker and Mike Giesicki.

But Wallace silenced the critics against the Rams with an interception and looked to be on solid footing. That is until an ankle injury a week later against the Raiders landed him on Injured Reserve.

Wallace suffered an ankle injury against the Raiders, missing three games. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Sitting out three games, Wallace watched as Josh Norman took over the starting duties. And despite becoming a meme after Derick Henry stiff armed him into next week, Norman had 13 tackles in Wallace’s absence.

But once Wallace returned against the Patriots, the same gritty competitor was back.

Even though he missed the Bills’ Week 10 loss to the Cardinals due to COVID-19, Wallace kept opposing wideouts under 70 yards receiving for three consecutive weeks.

Wallace looked to have turned the corner on his subpar performances, until Buffalo’s matchup with the San Fransico 49ers.

49ers Matchup and Follow

Let’s face the facts: Levi Wallace was awful against the 49ers. Giving up the most receiving yards in his career (160), everything seemed off for the third-year player.

And once again, the media called for Wallace’s benching. But his defensive coordinator stepped up to defend him after the game.

“There were some other times where he was in position and was able to help us making some tackles,” Leslie Frazier said.

With Josh Norman healthy, though, it looked to be a matter of time before Levi Wallace lost his starting job. That is until Sunday night.

Wallace is Ballin

In arguably Buffalo’s toughest game of the season, the team needed someone to step up. Yes, Taron Johnson had a pick-six. But Levi Wallace came to play.

He had his best performance of the season when it mattered most, giving up only two competitions on eight targets. And do not forget his acrobatic interception that ultimately put the nail in the coffin for any chance of a comeback attempt by Pittsburgh.

Listen here: the Bills have found their answer at the CB2 position, and it’s not even close. Throw out the fact that Norman had more snaps (32 vs. 25). This interception has solidified Levi Wallace as the starter for the rest of the year.

Grit and Determination

Levi Wallace has been behind the eight ball all of his life. From walking on at Alabama to now starting for the first place Buffalo Bills, it doesn’t get any better than that.

He has truly beaten the odds, but his career is just beginning. I see him as making his father proud for many years to come as a cornerback in the NFL.

What do you think about Levi Wallace’s story? And do you believe he is the answer for the Bills at the CB2 position? Let me know by connecting with me on Twitter @BenBlakely18.

Stats Sources:

Pro Football Reference

University of Alabama

MaxPreps