Once-promising hoops player Wallace following path to football Down Under

by | College Basketball Insider
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There was a time when Eric Wallace was considered a "can't miss" kid. The physically sculpted Winston-Salem, N.C., native received the verbal scholarship offer earlier than just about anyone else from Roy Williams, back when he was just a sophomore at Glenn High School.

The Tar Heels weren't the only ones interested, either. Everyone was seemingly in pursuit -- and why not? Wallace was a man-child, a 4.0 student, so polished with his words off the court and a dominant force nearly every time he stepped onto it.

Now, three college stops later at 23 years of age, Wallace is trying to get back on the map again -- in Australia. He's not Down Under to play hoops, though. He's trying to make the Australian Football League.

Despite the way his career has played out, Wallace isn't bitter about the path his college career took. It's not just words he sputters from his mouth, either. It's real.

Eric Wallace looks to find a new home playing Australian rules football. (AFL media)  
Eric Wallace looks to find a new home playing Australian rules football. (AFL media)    
"Everyone has a journey," Wallace said. "Mine went through three great schools. I don't really have any regrets."

He doesn't blame Thad Matta, his first college coach, for him leaving Columbus after just one season. He's accountable. That was his fault. He was young and, in hindsight, says he probably should have stuck it out at Ohio State.

He doesn't blame DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, either. Purnell took over for Jerry Wainwright, who recruited Wallace to DePaul, and informed him -- a year after he broke his fibula and tibia in a preseason workout -- that he wouldn't have a spot on the team due to a youth movement that involved his own guys.

"I wanted to stay at DePaul, but Purnell was put in a tough situation," he said. "I understood."

He doesn't blame the recruiting analysts that hyped him up coming out of Glenn High and Hargrave Military Academy. Or his summer league coach Brian Clifton. Or anyone else, for that matter.

"Not at all," Wallace said. "I had a great time in college, a great five years. I got a free education and was able to live in some unbelievable cities."

Five years, three schools and a grand total of 442 points. He's got a degree in finance from DePaul, and started a degree in public administration at Seattle University.

After Wallace concluded his college career at Seattle, where he averaged a career-high 9.4 points and 7.9 rebounds last season, he was optimistic the phone would ring. He was smart enough to understand the NBA wouldn't be calling, but he figured opportunities would present themselves from overseas teams.

However, his current scenario is one he never could have envisioned.

Wallace is in Melbourne, Australia, where he just took home "Best International Performer" honors at the AFL combine. He never did get the offer to play overseas basketball, but he was chosen by Draft Express founder Jonathan Givony -- who was brought on as a consultant by the league to help identify American prospects -- to attend a camp in Los Angeles for potential Aussie football players.

Wallace, 23, didn't know anything about the AFL. He had flipped through the channels and seen it once or twice, but he didn't know the rules. Wallace had some experience back in middle school playing football and he messed around a bit with soccer, but this was foreign territory. It was an oval field with 18 players on each side. There was plenty of kicking, no shortage of contact. No pads.

"I didn't know the rules," Wallace said. "I was confused."

But Wallace stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching games on his computer, trying to learn the rules. He studied the players, the history -- in preparation for the late-August Los Angeles tryout. He fared well enough to gain the invite to the AFL Combine, in addition to two other Americans, in an effort to make the league.

There are a few options if it works out for Wallace. The ideal, but unlikely, is that he signs with a team and is on the active roster -- which is also called the senior player list. Then there's the international scholarship, which means the team would pay for him to train back home. The most likely scenario for Wallace -- and the one he's hoping for -- is that a team inks him to its rookie list, which is a practice squad of sorts in which he can develop while living in Australia.

"Ideally, I'd rather the rookie list because I can learn the game and stay over here," Wallace said.

The 6-foot-6 ½, 230-pound Wallace has fared well thus far in his quest to get into the AFL. He was fourth in the vertical, top 10 in the sprint and has tested well in most of the other events.

"He's going up against guys that are 6-1 and 6-2 and he's faster," Givony said. "They are shocked because guys his size don't usually test this well. They love him here. They can't get enough of him."

"He's done magnificently," added Kevin Sheehan, the AFL's international and national talent manager. "I think there are teams that are seriously looking at him. There are definitely teams that are interested."

The success of former Canadian rugby star Mike Pyke, who has thrived in the AFL over the last few years, could also aid Wallace's chances. Sheehan said that Wallace and the Americans are ideal due to their size and athleticism for the Ruckman position -- in which they contest ball-ups and throw-ins.

"It looks like a jump ball," Wallace said. "They do it about 20 times a game. If your big guy can win that, it gives you more possessions."

But Wallace could also be suited to a defensive role, one in which he can shadow the opponent's top threat. The key, though, for Wallace is to work on his kicking abilities.

The money isn't what Wallace admittedly envisioned years ago while all the big boys were in pursuit. It's not comparable to an NBA salary, but Givony said that Wallace could make $70,000-80,000 if he is signed to an initial contract. An average league salary is around $300,000 and stars even make in excess of $1 million per season.

"I'm really falling in love with the game, getting addicted," Wallace said. "More than I could have ever imagined."

The vision, the one that began with Wallace dribbling the ball around his entire neighborhood back in the day, has faded. But it won't disappear.

"That's always the dream, it's always been the goal," Wallace said. "It's always what drives me."

"I was going hard right," he added. "But then the AFL approached me and I decided to take a step to the left. It's not basketball, but it's still being a professional athlete."

Just a short kick of 10,000 miles away.

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