- Anna Katherine Clemmons
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PITTSBURGH -- "Burn!"
Receiver Mike Wallace (real name: Burnell Micheal Wallace III, which Roethlisberger learned recently) grabs a grapefruit-size basketball made of athletic tape and takes aim at the "basket" (a trash can lined with a laundry bag). He stands just inside teammate and current roommate Keenan Lewis' locker, about seven feet away, and lines up his shot.
"Short! Short!" Roethlisberger yells as Wallace fires. The tape-ball falls in, and Wallace mimics a swish that might've been heard if they had used a real basket.
"That's right! That's right!" the 24-year-old yells, jumping up and down, his sweatpants sagging on his lean, 6-foot frame as he moves to the next shooting spot in the half-circle.
"He claims he won this morning, but I let him win," Wallace said aloud to no one in particular, banking his next shot against the pillar behind the trash can.
"You? Winning? That's an anomaly," Roethlisberger fires back before adding with a grin, "Do you know what that word means?"
Wallace answers his QB's snarkiness by nailing another shot. He boasts about his supposed winning record to the surrounding crowd of players (though he would admit later that he's "not very good" at locker room hoops).
Lewis, who has known Wallace since they were 6-year-olds playing Pop Warner football in New Orleans, laughs as his roommate's bravado continues. When asked about Wallace's hypercompetitiveness, Lewis smiles. "The only time Mike gets angry is when he doesn't have the ball."
Fortunately for Wallace, there's been little reason to fume. In two seasons in Pittsburgh, he has left defenses choking on his exhaust as a premier deep threat.
He'll be one of Roethlisberger's primary targets Sunday night when the Steelers visit the Baltimore Ravens in a key matchup of the AFC North rivals.
After finishing his rookie year leading the league in average yards per catch (19.4), Wallace is atop the stat sheet again. He again leads the NFL in that stat, averaging a a whopping 22.0 yards per grab on 36 receptions. He has eight touchdowns.
If he wins the average-yards-per-catch title again this season, he'll prove to be a rarity. Wallace could be the first player since former New York Jets star Wesley Walker in 1977-78 to lead the league in yards per catch in each of his first two seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In 27 career games -- and just 15 starts -- Wallace has 14 receiving touchdowns.
Just as important to the Steelers, fleet-footed Wallace has assimilated within the Steel City offense. He has learned under 13-year veteran receiver Hines Ward's wing. Wallace relies on speed. And as he has demonstrated on this November morning, Wallace has grown comfortable enough to taunt his team's starting quarterback.
"You're up," Wallace said to Roethlisberger, flashing another grin.
Growing up with fellow NFL 'futures'
Two years ago, Wallace never would have envisioned himself here. He said that coming out of Ole Miss (where he led the SEC in reception yards per catch his junior year and finished the 2009 season atop the Ole Miss record books in single-season all-purpose yards), he assumed Pittsburgh wouldn't be interested in him.
But in the 2009 draft, the Steelers selected Wallace in the third round, 84th overall. Twelve players later, Lewis heard his name called -- as the Steelers' very next pick. Both players were watching with their families in New Orleans, and Lewis' family lived about a 10-minute drive from Wallace's in the Algiers section. Lewis sped over to his friend's house, honking the horn and yelling out the window. The party lasted for hours, a medley of Saints fans making an exception to embrace another squad. "That was a great day for our block," Wallace said.
There have been hard times in the neighborhood, too. Like when his brother Reggie was arrested for selling drugs (he's still in jail). Or when his father's girlfriend's son was shot and killed. Wallace's mother, Sonjia, and his three sisters still live in New Orleans. He often flies them to Pittsburgh for games.
"He was always competitive in whatever he did, and, boy, he wanted to win," Sonjia said. "He even had to have the latest shoes, and his sisters would ask me, 'Why does Mike always get the shoes?' But when he wanted something, he wouldn't stop until he got it."
Said Wallace of what inspires his drive: "Where I come from, it's so easy to get in trouble. My brother used to get in trouble all the time -- he's still getting in trouble. But I kind of used my brother as a point of what not to do.
"Even though he had a great heart, just always following the wrong crowd or just doing the wrong stuff. I didn't want my mom to have to see me in jail. He's older; he's still in jail. I didn't want to see my mom cry, didn't want to see her struggle to pay our bills and help him in jail. So I used sports to stay out of trouble."
In his senior year at O. Perry Walker High, playing for coach Frank Wilson, Wallace had 60 receptions for 1,039 yards and 19 touchdowns, setting several school records. He had realized his natural gift for speed years earlier, when he tried out for the junior varsity squad and challenged the older players to footraces. Wallace said he "smoked 'em," and he hasn't stopped running -- or challenging others -- since.
Wallace planned to attend Oregon State with Lewis until he fell a point shy of a qualifying ACT score. He sat out the fall semester and passed the ACT. When he learned that Wilson had been hired as the running backs coach at the University of Mississippi, Wallace decided to follow his coach and mentor to Oxford, Miss.
Current New England Patriots halfback BenJarvus Green-Ellis was Wallace's roommate for several years at Ole Miss. The two had met and become friends years earlier while playing football in New Orleans, where they still work out together in the offseason along with Lewis and San Diego Chargers
wide receiver Buster Davis.
"We had a competitive household in everything from video games to who got to practice first," Green-Ellis said. He knew that Wallace could beat him in footraces but that the 5-foot, 11-inch, 215-pound running back had the advantage in the weight room, "so we were pretty much 50-50," Green-Ellis says of their overall tally with a laugh.
In Wallace's early years in Oxford, the Rebels used a run-heavy offense. But before Wallace's senior season, Ole Miss hired Kent Austin, now the coach at Cornell, as offensive coordinator. Austin came directly from the Canadian Football League, where he had run an offense dominated by the passing game.
"He was an absolute perfect fit," Austin said of Wallace. "We tried to utilize his skills the best that we could deep dig routes and comebacks, because we wanted to use his vertical threat and speed."
Ole Miss finished the season 9-4 and earned a trip to the 2009 Cotton Bowl, where Wallace caught a 41-yard touchdown pass in the Rebels' 47-34 win over Texas Tech.
"He's always coming up with the tough catch, making the big plays," Austin said.
Despite sharing offensive playing time with Green-Ellis as well as Kansas City Chiefs rookie wide receiver Dexter McCluster, Wallace felt confident his collegiate numbers would attract NFL teams. Running the 40 in 4.33 at the draft combine also didn't hurt his chances.
"It's hard not to notice his speed," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It was something unique that we thought he could bring to the group."
"They had good receivers, but they didn't have anyone that could stretch the field as well as he can with the speed that he has," Green-Ellis said of Pittsburgh. "He brings another dimension."
Big shoes to fill
Entering Steelers' camp as a rookie, Wallace said his strongest motivators weren't necessarily earning a spot or showing up his veteran position holders. Looking at the crowd of fans, he saw a sea of "86" and "10" jerseys, the numbers worn by Ward and former Steelers wideout Holmes, respectively.
But there was not a single "17" jersey.
I'm a guy who's jealous. I love seeing other guys shine, but I don't want anyone to outshine me.
”-- Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace
"I was like, 'I gotta do something about this,'" Wallace said. "I'm a guy who's jealous. I love seeing other guys shine, but I don't want anyone to outshine me."
His mission appears to be working this season. According to the NFL, Wallace has sold 50 percent more jerseys this year than at the same time last year (fom April 1–Oct. 31).
When he learned in April that the Steelers had traded 2008 Super Bowl MVP Holmes to the Jets, "I was like, 'This is my shot,'" Wallace said. "It's going to be big shoes to fill, but anytime anyone gives me an opportunity, I don't want to let them down. Now I feel like it's another step in the direction I want to go."
Wallace said he's determined to eclipse 1,000 reception yards this season, earn a Pro Bowl selection and a Super Bowl ring. Through Week 12, his 792 total receiving yards rank him 12th among league receivers.
"When he comes to work every day, he's coming to be the No. 1 player, not just the No. 1 receiver," said wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery.
Although Wallace has one last-second, game-winning catch on his résumé (see his catch against the Green Bay Packers in January 2009, which earned him the team's Joe Greene Great Performance Award for best rookie showing), an increasing number of his receptions this season have been eventual game winners.
In Week 9 versus the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers set up a play 39 yards from the end zone to open the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger handed off to WR Antwaan Randle-El, who ran deep into the pocket before launching a high, arcing pass for Wallace. Already in the end zone, Wallace stopped, took a few steps back toward the ball and outjumped his double coverage to snag the pass and score.
"That's the biggest thing, trying to slow him down," Ward said of Wallace. "It's hard to run a route full speed and stop on a dime. You have to have great body control. He's working on that every day, and he's getting better and better."
Learning from 'big brother'
Ward said his and Wallace's relationship is reminiscent of a big brother, little brother. The familial lessons have paid off and have helped Wallace distance himself from his coach's moniker referencing the receiver's velocity.
"Coach and I, we tease him all the time and call him a one-trick pony because he can run fast," Roethlisberger says. "But you look at the touchdown he caught [against the Bengals]. It was a jump ball; he went up and got it and adjusted. That's what I always tell him he needs to improve on is adjusting to balls. He's showing he can do that."
And although Wallace admits he is bothered by the "one-trick pony" nickname, he continues to use his fleet feet.
"Wallace is a true speedster," said Baltimore cornerback Chris Carr, whose Ravens will face the Steelers this weekend. "He's got greater speed than probably 98 percent of the wide receivers we face. That poses a lot of problems, and he's very good at catching the deep ball."
In the Patriots' 39-26 win over the Steelers on Nov. 14, Ward left the game early with a concussion. Wallace finished with a team-high eight receptions for more than 136 yards and two touchdowns. In the Steelers' overtime win over the host Buffalo Bills in Week 12, Wallace caught a key 17-yard pass from Roethlisberger on the Steeelers' game-winning drive.
"He wants to be a great player, and part of being a great player is developing a complete game and improving yourself in all areas," Tomlin said. "He's a willing worker and the signs of it are showing."
Wallace might show some swagger during locker room hoops, but he is humble about his gridiron talent. He'd rather talk about what he needs to improve upon than reflect on his best catches; instead of discussing who "might" be the fastest or the league's most talented receivers, he would rather walk onto the field and prove his mettle.
One of high school coach Wilson's favorite Wallace moments occurred several years ago. Wallace was practicing in New Orleans and had heard about former LSU running back and track star Trindon Holliday -- now a Houston Texan
-- who would go on to run the 100 meters in just under 10.0 seconds.
"All the boys are back together [in New Orleans], and Mike said, 'I'm faster than him [Holliday],'" Wilson remembers. "I'm like, 'Mike, he went 9.99.' So everyone's trying to set this match up with Mike against Holliday."
The competition never happened, but the point was clear: Wallace didn't think he might win -- he knew he would.
Randle-El said he thought about challenging Wallace to a footrace when he joined the Steelers this season. But he quickly realized his mistake.
"I ain't racing against Mike," Randle-El laughs. "My teammates told me, 'Go ahead and say you're going to race him, say you can beat him.' And then Mike got hot and said, 'You think you can beat me?
"Get up there -- I'll take off after you and still beat you.' He's very confident, but he really has the speed. He can run like the wind blows."
As to his basketball skills? There's work left to do, after Roethlisberger nails each of his baskets and tallies another win.
The quarterback raises his arms in triumph as Wallace walks away, shaking his head and already talking about the next rematch. The game might be casual, but Wallace is serious: He must win. He must be the best.
"He knows that he's a good player," Montgomery said of Wallace. "And sometimes when guys know they're good, they stop trying. But I haven't seen anything like that from him. He won't stop because he wants to be great."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.
Ultracompetitive Steelers WR Mike Wallace has gone from little-known sleeper draft pick to every defensive back's nightmare, Anna Katherine Clemmons writes.