Jackie Wallace is eating lunch while sitting on a concrete bench in Hopkins Plaza. The weather is cool, the sky is clear and Wallace is enjoying life. Watching planes fly overhead. Waving at kids. Cracking jokes with a few of his working buddies.
Then Wallace sees a homeless man searching through trash cans. His pants have huge holes, and a once white sweat shirt is nearly black. The sleeves have been ripped out, the collar is torn down to his chest, and a fresh, large scar covers his nose.
"That was me, but I thank God it's not me anymore," said Wallace, 44, a former Baltimore Colts defensive back and New Orleans native.
"And that could be me again," said Wallace, an operations specialist with the Baltimore Arena the past three years. "I've got to stay on top of this problem every single day, every single minute of my life. I pray to God that I never go back."
During the past 15 years, Wallace has waged a hard-fought battle against the relentless and consuming forces of alcohol and drugs. It was a journey that included a tumultuous fall from the NFL with his own life being tossed among the debris and ruins under a bridge in New Orleans. It cost him two Super Bowl rings, time in prison and extensive treatment in a Baltimore rehabilitation facility.
Only in the past five years has the turbulent ride subsided. Wallace has found peace with God, bought a house in northeast Baltimore, remarried and forged new friendships.
He has gained 80 pounds, and he preaches to any youngster about the short-lived career of a professional football player.
"I am a miracle," said Wallace. "Jackie Wallace should be dead. All the cocaine, all the alcohol. It just goes to show you that God can help anyone, no matter how hopeless or helpless the situation appears. Only now does my life have meaning. I no longer have to put on airs. I can be myself.
"People don't believe his story. They laugh at first," said Edgar Williams, 58, security chief at the Baltimore Arena. "They say, 'Yeah, right, you played with the Vikings? The Colts?' Then they say, 'All of this couldn't have happened to you.' But it did."
The homeless life
A balled-up windbreaker in a clear plastic bag was his pillow, and the mattress was old cardboard. Newspapers were neatly stacked, and a jug of clean drinking water was always close by. He showered once every three or four days with a garden hose he hooked to the outside faucet of a warehouse before employees arrived in the morning.
Almost every morning, Wallace drank three cans of cheap beer for $1.09 for breakfast and at night slept only a few feet from cars whizzing by his head at 60 to 70 mph.
That was his life for three weeks in summer 1990 underneath the Carrollton Avenue bridge of Interstate 10 in New Orleans.
"My first night there was heaven, because all my problems were gone," said Wallace. "I had no fear. I wasn't getting wet. The cars driving by provided me with air conditioning. Only once in a while teen-agers drove by shooting out the window. It was just me, Mr. Jack and Mr. Daniels looking for answers on why I was out of pro football."
Wallace's six years in the NFL had been fairly successful. He was a second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1973, and, in his second season, started at right cornerback in the Vikings' 16-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl IX.
Wallace later played two seasons each for the Colts and the Los Angeles Rams. He played in Super Bowl XIV in 1980, this time with the Rams, who lost to the Steelers, 31-19.
That turned out to be his last game.
Wallace was furious after losing the championship to the Steelers for the second time. Only minutes after the game, Wallace had a confrontation with Rams owner Georgia Frontiere in the locker room.
The rest is unclear.
"I don't know if there was a confrontation, but something probably happened," said Pat Thomas, a defensive assistant coach with the Indianapolis Colts and a former Rams teammate of Wallace's. "The next year, he wasn't on the roster. Players wondered why he disappeared."
Frontiere did not return calls about Wallace for this article.
Wallace said: "I can't separate fact from fiction. Some people told me I got indignant with her. Actually, by that time in my life, I was having blackouts from drinking and wasn't thinking very clearly. I would play well, but fuss and fight with coaches. I would tell general managers what they should do and how they should play me.
"At the start of next season, I went to training camp, and my stuff was gone," he said. "I went to the 49ers for an informal tryout, but didn't make it. You don't go from the Super Bowl to not in the league. That's when I went back to New Orleans to find out what the hell was going on."
Wallace, only 29 then, found that he couldn't cope. He missed the grand lifestyle, the days of wearing double-breasted suits, cardigan sweaters and custom hats. He missed the weekly parties, the nightclub circuit and the pretty women.
Wallace would have anxiety attacks during the preseason, and still could envision himself playing before large crowds. He even wanted to feel the pain from injuries again.
Sometimes, Wallace would drink himself back into that world.
"There was an awful lot of partying and drinking going on back then," said Joe Ehrmann, a former defensive lineman and teammate of Wallace's with the Colts. "Back then, society wasn't aware of the problem, and we certainly weren't aware of the problems, either. Jackie was always a nice and personable guy, a congenial fellow. I never thought it would grip him like that."
Wallace said he can't remember exactly when his mother died (it was 1982, of lung cancer), only that her death took him into deeper depression.
Shortly after the funeral, a cousin invited him to ease his pain by snorting cocaine.
"It was all downhill from there," said Wallace. "My mother was my comforter, my enabler. She always said don't worry, things would be all right. But after she died, I said the hell with all of this. Society had betrayed me, and I was going to make them pay. I was going to drink, lie, cheat, manipulate and let all the bad qualities come out."
In the next eight years, Wallace went through a series of jobs, spent time in prison for writing bad checks, lost two mortgages, used and stole food stamps and sold his two Super Bowl rings for $1,500 so he could buy Christmas presents for the woman with whom he was living.
Wallace eventually moved into another housing project with his cousin until he stole her food stamps and was forced to live
under Interstate 10.
And Wallace didn't want anyone to know. He didn't call any of his former teammates or coaches. Not even one of his brothers, who is an ordained minister.
"When you're playing pro football, you're always concerned about people who want to hang around you, that they want something. You don't trust people," said Wallace. "I kept that mentality after football. I was also too prideful to tell any of my teammates. I didn't want them to know, to see me in this condition."
An angel arrives
Wallace's angel came with a camera case.
On July 3, 1990, New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer Ted Jackson was on assignment searching for homeless people. He found Wallace a few yards away, reading the newspaper.
"That night I had prayed and asked God to give me the opportunity," said Wallace. "I knew I wasn't supposed to live like this. This was my chance. I asked him, was he looking for a story? So I gave him one."
Jackson said: "At first, I didn't believe him, but he told the story in such a way that I had to check it out."
On July 6, Wallace's story was on the front page. That evening, some friends and alumni from the prestigious high school Wallace attended, St. Augustine, waited for Wallace under the bridge, and asked him if he wanted to get treatment in Baltimore under a former St. Augustine principal at Tuerk House.
Wallace agreed and spent 28 days in extensive treatment. He later was moved to Weisman House, where he met his future wife, Deborah. They were married on Dec. 5, 1992.
A positive man
Wallace is like a traffic cop at the Baltimore Arena. Arms flapping. Mouth going. Constant motion. On this day, he's holding a staff meeting. He emerges from the locker room with a smile on his face.
"Jackie is a pretty personable guy with a positive outlook," said Sheldon Bean, 35, an assistant football coach at Northwood Recreation Center. "I had him over to talk to our players one time. He told them about education, about not taking anything for granted. He told them about how fame and fortune can be taken away, but education is yours forever."
Everyone seems to have a story about Wallace's generosity during the past three years. If it's just a pat on the back or a word of advice, Wallace is there to make an offer.
"I recommended Jackie for the job because I saw a person who had the personality and attitude to do something for himself," said Williams, the Arena security chief. "He wanted to become responsible, wanted to work. It has paid off exceptionally well."
Wallace recently purchased a four-bedroom house on a half-acre lot in Govans. And he celebrates his sobriety every July with a party. There's even talk about starting a family.
"To go from under a bridge to having a house and a wife is quite an accomplishment," Wallace said. "I'm happy, the wife is happy, the dog is happy. You know, when I was about to leave that Tuerk House, they asked me where I wanted to go.
"I told them I'd go anywhere they wanted to send me," said Wallace. "Well, almost. They've got a lot of bridges in Baltimore, and it snows a lot here. I don't want to go back to any more bridges."