This was late March. Wesley Walls’ mother, Betty Walls, was in recovery from difficult cancer surgery at Baptist Memorial in Oxford. Family was gathered.
Wesley, the former Ole Miss and NFL football star, was in the room with his mother when his cellphone rang. It was a face-time call, and Wesley didn’t recognize the number.
“Usually, I don’t answer when I don’t know the number, but for some reason I answered that one,” Wesley remembered last week.
Soon, he was glad he did. The call was from Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, and his news was especially good. Tepper had called to tell Wesley Walls that Wesley had been selected for induction into the Panthers’ Hall of Honor. Wesley – Steve Smith, Sr., Jake Delhomme and Jordan Gross – will join the late, great Sam Mills as the only players thus far in Carolina’s Hall of Honor.
“For me, it was some exciting news at an otherwise miserable time,” Walls said. “My mind was all over the place that day, but that was a welcomed call, a call I will never forget.”
Tepper asked Walls to please not tell anyone else for a month or so, to which Walls responded, “I won’t tell anyone else but I’ve got to tell my mother.”
To understand why the news meant so much at that time, you first must understand the relationship between Wesley Walls and his mother.
“Throughout my athletic career, going back to childhood and then high school, my mama was not only my biggest fan but also my toughest critic,” Wesley said in a phone conversation earlier this week. “You hear all the time about Little League daddies; well, she was a Little League mama.
“She supported me fully, don’t get me wrong. But she would ask the tough questions, like ‘What were you thinking when you threw that ball over there.’ She was always trying to motivate me to do better, to be as good as I could be.”
Betty Walls, a smart lady, didn’t go to college because she was raising Wesley, but she raised him and Wesley’s younger sister, while working her way up to an executive’s position in South Central Bell.
“No matter how busy she was, she made sure I got to every Little League game and practice, every junior high game, every high school game,” Wesley said. “She always made sure I had something good and healthy to eat when I got home. She always had a hug when I needed it.”
Betty Walls wanted her son to become a great basketball player, and he had some potential in all the major sports, but it soon became apparent that he was meant to be a football star. He played quarterback in high school in Pontotoc but switched to defensive end, linebacker and tight end at Ole Miss. He excelled at all and Ole Miss fans will really appreciate this story from Wesley.
“I committed early to Alabama,” Wesley said. “Ken Donahue offered me a scholarship after watching me play and he said it came with one stipulation. I had to commit right then and there and cancel my other trips. I didn’t even think about it. I said, ‘Yes.’”
Wesley went home and told his mother, thinking she would be really excited. Wesley says his mama tried to act excited, but he got the feeling she was disappointed. His feeling was confirmed when an uncle called to tell him that, in reality, Betty Walls was disappointed he wasn’t at least considering nearby Ole Miss.
“So when I went to Alabama on my visit, I told Coach (Ray) Perkins that I was going to have to take my visit to Ole Miss,” Wesley said.
And he did. And he loved everything about it. He committed to Ole Miss, and signed with the Rebels.
And when he told his mother?
“There was no doubt she was extremely excited,” Wesley said.
Weeks later, Wesley told his mother he was going to summer school at Ole Miss so he could get ready to play as a freshman.
“You really think you’re good enough to play as a freshman?” she asked.
Says Wesley, “That kind of stung at the time. Now I know she was just trying to motivate me. It worked.”
The rest, as they say, is history, College Football Hall of Fame history. He played defensive end, linebacker and tight end for the Rebels, sometimes starting on both offense and defense in the same game. He was an All American as a senior and went on to a 15-year NFL career during which he was five times an All Pro. He played for the 49ers, the Saints, the Panthers and, finally, the Packers. Probably his best years (1996-2002) were with the Panthers. He caught 450 NFL passes, 54 for touchdowns. He will be remembered as one of the greatest red zone receivers in the history of the sport.
So let’s go back to that Baptist Memorial hospital room in March when Wesley had just finished his Hall of Honor phone call.
The mother asked the son, “Who was that?”
The son explained who had called and what it was about. “The Hall of Honor, what’s that?” the mother asked.
“It’s like a Hall of Fame,” the son answered. “It means my name goes up on the stadium, just like Sam Mills.”
The mother – the biggest fan and often most honest critic – opened her eyes and looked straight into those of her son.
“That’s good,” she said. “You deserve it.”