It didn’t take long for word of Diondre Wallace’s emotional moment during an on-camera interview minutes after the Towson football team’s inclusion in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to filter among the players and coaches on Sunday. But it didn’t qualify as a startling revelation.
“That’s him,” defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Lyndon Johnson said. “He’s a very spiritual and emotional guy. He wears his emotions on his sleeves.”
Added senior linebacker Chris Tedder: “He wasn’t the only one. You’ve got to be here to know. We put a lot of work in, and we were just glad to see our work mean we’re in the playoffs.”
Few players have come to embody the No. 16 Tigers (7-4) — who play host to Northeast Conference champion Duquesne (8-3) in a first-round game at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson on Saturday at 2 p.m. — like Wallace has. A Baltimore resident who drew serious interest from only a few Football Bowl Subdivision programs before graduating from Arundel, the senior middle linebacker endured three consecutive seasons without earning a postseason appearance prior to Sunday’s unveiling.
“I did get emotional after everything calmed down because it’s been a long ride,” he said. “I’m a senior, and there are teams that don’t have the opportunity we have, and we’re so grateful to be able to do that.”
Wallace has been an impact player since his arrival at Towson, starting the final six games of his freshman year in 2015 and starting 29 of 33 games over the last three seasons. This fall, he ranks second on the defense in tackles with 81 and is the only player on the roster with two forced fumbles, one full sack and one interception.
“His voice makes a difference on defense, and his leadership, too,” Tedder said. “Without that, we wouldn’t be who we are out there.”
Johnson, a former assistant coach at Connecticut and Maryland, spends many nights in his office until midnight or so and tends to sleep there on an air mattress. He said he can count on at least two of those nights involving hour-long strategy sessions with Wallace and Tedder.
That work ethic spills over to the practice field, according to Johnson.
“He’s a kid that I don’t have to say things twice to get him to work hard,” he said. “He’s always going to be a guy who is at the front of the line in all of our drills and he’s going to give me great effort when we do our individual technique and development periods. He’s a guy that’s going to work at it. I don’t have to yell and scream to get him motivated. So in that regard, you always want that as a coach. As long as a kid is willing to work, you can work with that.”
Wallace cites former Tigers and current San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ryan Delaire as an influence. And he has struck up friendships with former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and former Gilman graduate and current New York Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland to help hone the finer points of leadership.
Wallace, who is majoring in criminal justice, also finds time to get involved with the community. He has volunteered at area youth football clinics around the area, visited children at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, and read stories to children at five elementary schools in Baltimore and the surrounding counties.
One of his trips to Johns Hopkins in September 2017 included meeting Colin O’Hara, a 5-year-old boy from Bel Air who has battled an immune deficiency and needed a second bone marrow transplant. Colin’s mother, Samantha O’Hara, said a mutual friend connected her son to Wallace, who brought a football signed by every Towson player.
“It was very sweet,” Samantha O’Hara said, adding that Colin, now 6 and a Ravens fan, returned to his first-grade class at Emmorton Elementary School at the start of the school year. “Colin still has that football on his nightstand. It was really nice to have that support and know that he took the time out and had the players sign it and told them about Colin and our story. It was just very special to know that we had that support and the people praying for him.”
Colin’s battle hit home with Wallace, who lost a brother, Darien Davis, to terminal brain cancer in 2003 and a sister, Rykell Wallace, to breast cancer in 2011.
“There are obviously things that we can’t control, but if you can put a smile on someone’s face or show someone that you care about them, it just means the world,” Wallace said. “When you see these kids’ faces when you stop by to say hello or see how they’re doing, it means the world to them.”
Wallace hopes to make the leap to the NFL, and Johnson said the linebacker has the physicality of former Huskies and Washington Redskins linebacker Alfred Fincher, the speed of former Connecticut and Canadian Football League (CFL) linebacker Maurice Lloyd, and the football IQ of former Terps and CFL defensive end Kenny Tate.
Wallace’s strongest selling point, according to Johnson, is his 6-foot, 233-pound frame.
“That’s hard to find — guys that can run and still have the girth that you need at the point of attack,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough combination, especially now in this day and age when the game has changed where everybody is running the spread or hurry-up play. As the linebackers get smaller and smaller, it’s hard to find the guys that are a little bit thick in the body and can still run at the same time, and he has that quality.”
Joining Tigers players like Delaire, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Jordan Dangerfield and New Orleans offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod is the next dream for Wallace, but he said his top priority is helping the team get past Duquesne.
“We don’t want to look past anybody because Duquesne is a great football team and made the playoffs for a reason,” he said. “So we respect them, and we respect what their program has to offer. We want to make sure that we’re focused on getting better and getting ready for Saturday.”