HOUSTON - Carolina's Al Wallace took a long, circuitous route to today's Super Bowl. Starting with Jacksonville, the veteran defensive end played in Philadelphia, passed briefly through Chicago and Miami, and wound up with the Panthers in a 2002 trade.
Seven years, five teams, one improbable success story.
Wallace, a four-year starter at the University of Maryland under Mark Duffner, lost his 1999 season to a fractured and dislocated ankle with the Eagles, and was cut by two teams the next two years. Having essentially missed three straight years, Wallace admits he was ready to give up football and pursue a career in education until the Miami Dolphins called in 2002 with an offer.
By July, though, he was traded to Carolina, coming off a 1-15 season, and he wasn't happy.
"Coming from the Dolphins, I didn't know any of the guys and none of the names [of the Panthers] sounded familiar," Wallace said. "I didn't realize until I got here how special this team was. Coming here was a blessing in disguise."
Wallace, 29, played a key role in the Panthers' defensive line rotation as a reserve. He had five sacks and nine quarterback hurries in the pass rush with two interceptions and 38 tackles. He also played an important role on a special teams unit that blocked five kicks in the first two games. He has started six games the past two seasons.
"He has been a diamond in the rough for us," said coach John Fox. "He has made big plays."
Wallace was recruited out of Delray Beach, Fla., to play wide receiver in Duffner's run-and-shoot offense in 1992. But it wasn't long before the Terps realized he was a growing young man and had special talent on defense. "I added 40 or 50 pounds in my first three, four months at Maryland," he said.
Taking the edge off
"We were trying to take a little bit of the edge off, give everybody a chance to relax," coach Bill Belichick said. "It's been a good, hard week [in Houston] with a lot of concentration. We figured we'd lighten up a little here and be ready to go [today]."
Word from the boss
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was Fox's choice to talk to the team during its pre-Super Bowl walk-through.
"I asked him if he wouldn't mind speaking to the team - not as the owner, but as a player who played on a similar stage in similar circumstances," Fox said.
Fox always has someone speak to the team the day before the game, and he chose his boss, who as a wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts caught a touchdown pass in the 1959 NFL championship victory over the New York Giants.
Fox declined to divulge the contents of Richardson's six-minute speech.
"It was private," Fox said.
Landing on his feet
Safety Rodney Harrison's nine-year career in San Diego came to a screeching halt last February when new coach Marty Schottenheimer released him in what became a purge of the Chargers' senior-most veterans. Also subtracted were linebacker Junior Seau and fullback Fred McCrary.
Harrison rebounded nicely, landing with the Patriots, where he has become a leader on one of the NFL's best defenses. He isn't shy about saying that Schottenheimer made a mistake.
"I wasn't cut [because of my] contract," Harrison said. "I'd been there for nine years and was underpaid. It was just a matter of some guy thinking he knew it all."
There was also a knock that Harrison had slowed down. But he's got a rebuttal to that, too.
"People can say speed is good, but if you don't know where you're going, how fast can you be?" Harrison said. "A lot of times, rookies are confused. ... [Patriots rookie safety] Eugene Wilson may be faster than me, but since I've seen some things over my career, I might beat him to the ball."
Panthers center Jeff Mitchell feels like more of a contributing member in the team's Super Bowl push than he did the first time he was here with the Ravens in 2001.
"This has been more rewarding for me so far," Mitchell said. "It's more rewarding being part of an effective offense. Not that we weren't effective in Baltimore, but there were quite a few games where we didn't have much to do with the win."
The write stuff
Much has been made of the fact that Panthers general manager Marty Hurney was a sportswriter before getting into NFL management, first with the Washington Redskins under Bobby Beathard. He is actually the second ex-sportswriter running an NFL team, with the Giants' Ernie Accorsi, and the latest in an impressive line.
Hurney, a native of Wheaton, Md., worked for the Montgomery Journal, the now-defunct Washington Star and The Washington Times.
"I'm proud of Marty," said Accorsi, who took the 2000 Giants to the Super Bowl. "If Red Smith would have left the writing profession, he would have probably led teams into the Super Bowl, too. And remember, Tex Schramm, Pete Rozelle, Harry Dalton, Frank Cashen and Gabe Paul all were either sportswriters or PR guys before they became general managers."