That soiled curtain of lies, secrecy and self-deception that addicts use as their front line of defense has been parted by Jackie Wallace, who went from the euphoric heights of playing in two Super Bowl games to being down and virtually out. He was living under a bridge in New Orleans when found -- broke financially, physically and almost spiritually.
At night, he slept on a wire bed frame with a covering of cardboard. Other homeless men were his "roommates." His shelter was the Carrollton Avenue Overpass in New Orleans, adjacent to Interstate 10. At least he had a "roof" over his head.
Now, he has been rescued by friends and is a resident of the Weisman House, in Baltimore, a halfway facility for recovering alcoholic and drug victims. "For a time I thought New Orleans was my problem," he said. "But it wasn't that at all. It was me, Jackie Wallace."
Wallace played for the Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams as a free safety. He was with the Vikings in 1975 when they lost a Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers and then with the Rams in 1980. He had gone to St. Augustine High School in New Orleans and then to the University of Arizona, where he was a mathematics major, with a minor in accounting. He didn't graduate but accumulated 94 credits, and is now determined, at age 39, to get a degree.
How did he go from being a successful student and football player to a street person? "It started with alcohol in college after games when you had parties and, years later, it led to using crack cocaine," he said. "I remember when I was with the Colts [1975-76], I'd be studying game films in my apartment with Lloyd Mumphord and drinking a wine called Blue Nun. I drank it first over ice but then straight out of the bottle. I kept watching even if it was a blur."
But it was after football when serious problems emerged. The addiction began with alcohol, then marijuana and eventually crack cocaine. When was the first time? "It was after my mother passed," he said.
"I was coming from the funeral, feeling low and a cousin mentioned he had something that would pick me up. I went to his place and he gave me a hit of cocaine."
Wallace doesn't blame anyone but himself. He talks of a "weakness for females" and the drinking led to bad decisions, even to his first marriage that lasted three years and relationships with three other women. "I started subbing drugs for females. The nickname for cocaine is 'girl' or 'she' and it became my mate. Don't get me wrong. I put the blame on me, no one else. Drugs destroy your judgment."
The two rings he earned for being on Super Bowl teams have long since been pawned. "I had this female dependency I told you about and wanted to buy Christmas presents in 1982. So I let the rings go in hock. Maybe they'll turn up someday but that's not important. My life is."
As a second-round draft choice of the Vikings in 1973, he got a $25,000 signing bonus and a salary of $27,500. The most money he earned in a year was $67,000, with the Rams, including the Super Bowl share. After he was released, Wallace didn't work for a year but then went with an off-shore oil drilling company and soon "my addiction was kicking in."
He went to lesser paying jobs, menial callings, including stretching dough in a bakery and caring for the ovens. How much did it cost to maintain a cocaine habit? "You could buy 3.5 grams ranging anywhere from $225 to $375. The largest buy I ever made was $1,500 worth on Valentine's Day, 1989. But the greatest moment in my life occurred on the past Fourth of July.
"I was under the bridge when a photographer, Ted Jackson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, found me. He was doing a story on the homeless. It was printed on page one and a lot of my old friends responded. I was tired of the way I was living and how I tried to manipulate women. I even broke in their houses after they got rid of me to steal.
"I said, 'God help me.' And then I made it stronger, 'God help me, please,' And He did. An assistant coach, Burton Burns, at St. Augustine High, an all-black school, came to get me from under the bridge. The principal, the Rev. Matthew O'Rourke, let me stay at St. Augustine. He and the alumni were trying to find me a place where I could be treated."
New Orleans offered drug rehabilitation centers but then it was suggested that in Baltimore there was the Tuerk House, headed by a caring director, Dr. J.C. Verrett. Wallace came here July 10 for 28 days of treatment. Now he's a resident at the Weisman House with twice-a-week visits to the Wyman Park Recovery Center.
"I met a man named Earl Jones, who was once at the Baltimore News American and the Afro-American. He's one of my counselors. During the 28-day program, I had a lot of help from Debra Lawson. We call her Bambi. Before I came here, I never thought I'd be able to do anything with my life. Now, with God's help, I know I can."
With the Vikings, Colts and Rams, there were problems for Wallace. He didn't realize it then but is aware he was a "non-conformist," even to the way he wore his uniform. "I said the wrong things at the wrong time," Wallace said. "I didn't do what coach Ted Marchibroda required with the Colts.
Wallace appears more than contrite. He knows he can never chance another drink or, in the language of a recovering addict, "if you take the first hit it won't be your last and that's why you need to totally defeat the urge to even try it."
It's Wallace's hope that after he has completed the therapy and counseling that he'll be able to find a role in teaching or coaching. "I was blessed to get this opportunity to live again. I'm blessed to be around people who are helping me. And I'm blessed to know I can be a better person than I ever was or thought I could be. I am pleased to have been a pro football player. I dearly love the NFL.
"What I had with the addiction was a disease. It was particular to me. Like my brother might have sickle cell anemia and I wouldn't. But I had an addiction and others in the family didn't. My story isn't all that unique. I can read about athletes with unusual behavior and see alcoholic or drug problems written all over it."
Jackie Wallace has made a comeback to reality. He wants self-respect and to be a productive human being, all the while guarding against another drink or drug indulgence. The memory of sleeping under the bridge reminds him of how far a man can fall.