Off street, Wallace finds wedded aisle of warmth

John Steadman

December 30, 1992|By John Steadman

Sleeping under a bridge offered a harsh lesson in homeless reality. It personally and painfully conveyed to Jackie Wallace how far a man could fall. He had played on two Super Bowl teams, the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams, but the affluence and importance of football didn't prevent him from being caught up in drunken stupors -- induced by drugs or alcohol -- and too many nights of huddling around a trash bonfire to keep warm.

The Carrollton Avenue Overpass in New Orleans, close by Interstate 10, offered a roof over his head. He dropped a weary body on a wire bed frame, covered by cardboard, and closed his eyes to the world, not caring about the past, present or future.

He walked the streets by day and, when it was time to "go home," found his way back to the underside of the overpass, where he tried to hold off the night chill with whatever kind of anti-freeze was available, be it marijuana, wine or crack cocaine. A bad scene.

Now the turnaround in his life, thanks to men and women with love and care in their hearts, has been dramatic. We sat there in the Lighthouse Chapel Baptist Church, located in northwest Baltimore, with Lenny Moore, the Hall of Fame halfback, and his wife, Edith, and listened as a hopefully recovered Jackie Wallace repeated the marriage vows in a ceremony conducted by the Rev. Beaufort R. Williams.

"I have a new life, a fresh start and I have to support this woman," he said later, referring to his bride, Deborah Jean Williams. "I can't tell you how wonderful I feel. I guess you could say I made a life-saving comeback. I can't take all the credit because so many others were in my corner giving encouragement and showing the way."

The fact Wallace's picture turned up on the front page of the nTC New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1990 as part of an illustrated story on the homeless led to a chance at rehabilitation. One of his former coaches, Burton Burns, recognized the former halfback at St. Augustine High School, and went to get him from under the bridge.

It didn't take much persuasion. "I was disappointed in myself, but could do nothing about it," he said. "I went back to St. Augustine, where the principal, the Rev. Matthew O'Rourke, gave me a place to stay. Father O'Rourke and the alumni tried to get me help."

They had heard of the Tuerk House in Baltimore and the work of a proficient, caring director named Dr. J. C. Verrett. Wallace was subsequently sent to Baltimore, the city where he had once played as a defensive back for the Colts, and was given treatment and counseling. Then a long stay at the Weisman House and regular visits to the Wyman Park Recovery Center.

"I met my wife when she came to the Weisman House to drop off clothes for her brother, who wound up being my best man. I liked her a lot but never thought that early introduction was going to turn into love and marriage. I'm lucky. I can't put it into words how it is."

One of the first men in Baltimore to befriend Wallace, when he was down and trying to get up, was Earl Jones, who had worked in the circulation departments of the Baltimore News American and Afro-American. Jones was a counselor and gave Wallace the protection, guidance and vigilance he needed.

For the last 10 months, Wallace has worked with the transition crew at the Baltimore Arena, setting up and taking down baskets, goals, scoring tables and other equipment for the various functions that are scheduled there. He hopes for something better in the way of a job opportunity but is not complaining.

"What this long experience tells me is regardless of what happens to you that you have a chance to turn things around, to climb back up and get on your feet. It shows when friends get together and gather around you that you can be helped. I have a lot of people to thank."

A second-round draft choice of the Vikings in 1973 from the University of Arizona, he got a $25,000 signing bonus and a salary of $27,500. The two Super Bowl rings he received from the Vikings and Rams have long since gone into pawn but hopes someday to recover them. "That's not important; my life is," he explained. "At one point, I had a dependency on females. Then I started subbing drugs for women.

"The nickname on the street for cocaine is 'girl' or 'she.' Don't take me wrong. I put the blame on Jackie Wallace, no one else. Certainly not on my first wife and the other females I knew. But drugs destroy your judgment. What I had was a disease. Now I'm cured, but I have to keep working to stay straight. I can't let down."

As the music of the wedding faded away and the reception began, those crowding around offered congratulations and extended best wishes. Some contrast: from living under a bridge in New Orleans to taking a partner for life. It's appropriate to hope they live happily ever after.

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