Tight end Wesley Walls, who had the best years of his 15-year NFL career with the Carolina Panthers, is this week’s interview subject for “Sports Legends of the Carolinas.”
There are only five members of the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor who actually played for the team — Walls is one of them. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, a longtime Charlotte resident, a grandfather, and one of the best storytellers I’ve ever interviewed. Walls was a star for the Panthers from 1996 to 2002, making five Pro Bowls in a 7-year span.
Here are some highlights from our interview, conducted at Walls’ office in Charlotte. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
A much fuller version of this conversation — where Walls also talks about growing up in Mississippi and his connection to Elvis Presley’s childhood home — is available on the “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Scott Fowler: Of all the NFL teams you played on, you’ve said that the Panthers’ 1996 team was the one you remembered the most fondly. Why is that?
Wesley Walls: That team was kind of a hodgepodge of older free agents. It started really with Sam Mills in 1995. And then Coach (Dom) Capers went after Eric Davis and Kevin Greene…. It was just a good group of guys who had a lot of experience. I was already 30 years old and in my eighth year in the league.
We came together and sort of rode the coattails of our defense. They were really good. And we had a young quarterback in Kerry Collins, a young offensive line. A good running back in Anthony Johnson….
When I first signed here and flew in for the press conference, we (Walls and his wife Christy) drove in and just said, “Wow, this reminds us of Mississippi. It reminds us of home.” I think it may have been a Sunday and no cars on the road. It was just about 11 o’clock in the morning when we got here.
SF: Everybody’s at church?
WW: Everybody’s at church. And I said, “You know what? We’re going to like it here, Christy.”
SF: You mentioned the late Kevin Greene. That 1996 team went 9-0 at home, including a home playoff win. And sometimes didn’t Greene and Ric Flair get up to something after home games?
WW: Yes. SouthEnd Brewery was owned by some friends of ours. And so they invited all the Panther players after the game to come by. I think our first game was against the Falcons at home. We went and a lot of guys showed up — Steve Beuerlein, Kevin Greene. And Ric Flair would always be there. And that was about the time that Kevin was doing some wrestling…. And then Kevin and Ric, they started kind of playing up their match or whatever. Ric Flair would do his “Whoooo!” and Kevin Greene was (like) “You’re not the best — I am!” It was really a scene.
They would fall around on the tables, knock something over. Spill something. We knew it was fake. But if somebody’s just sitting there, having dinner, and the next thing you know somebody comes slamming into your table? It looks like a real fight. And those guys were really good at it.
SF: Before you ever got to the Panthers, you won a Super Bowl in San Francisco, and were there at the same time as two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young.
WW: Yeah, I tell people all the time: I got to play with Joe Montana. Steve Young. Kerry Collins, Steve Beuerlein, Brett Favre and Jim Everett. These are really good quarterbacks. I should have better numbers!
SF: Who was better in their prime — Young or Montana?
WW: When it counted the most, Joe was his best. If I had one game to play, in the Super Bowl, I’m calling on Joe Montana.
But Steve Young, what an athlete. Now Steve Beuerlein was the most accurate thrower I ever played with in my career. He just hit you in between the 8 and the 5 (Walls’ jersey numbers). It was so easy. But Steve Young — that guy could do anything.
SF: You grew up in a small town in Mississippi, and at one point in high school you verbally committed to Alabama, believing they would allow you to play quarterback. What happened next?
WW: The next day I got a call and they said, “Wesley, Archie Manning is on the phone for you.”
I thought it was one of my buddies, but it was really Archie Manning. He said, “I heard you committed to Alabama. Congratulations. What a great program. Great history…. But now Wesley, sometimes when they recruit you, they say they’re going to let you play a position but they really have no intention to ever let you play it.”
Then he said: “Wesley, when you get finished playing at Alabama, are you going to stay in Alabama? Or are you gonna move back to Mississippi?”
I said, “Well, I’m gonna probably move back home to Mississippi.”
He said, “Listen to what you just said — you called Mississippi your home. Maybe you should take that visit Ole Miss this weekend.”
And I said, “You know what, Mr. Manning? Yes sir.”
So I called Ray Perkins (then the coach at Alabama) and said, “Coach, I just wanted you to know I am going to take that visit to Ole Miss this weekend. I gave my word to them. And I’m going to keep it.”
He said: “Don’t you do it. They’re going on probation. They’re gonna try to pay you a lot of money, surround you with a bunch of pretty girls and change your mind.”
And I was like: “Dang. Yeah!”
(Note: Walls ended up going to Ole Miss, playing both ways as a defensive end and a tight end, and Ole Miss did end up going on probation).
SF: With the Panthers, you were released just before the 2003 season — on your birthday, I believe?
WW: I knew my time was coming. I had a clause in my contract on March 1, when I had a big bonus due. So it was about Feb. 25th, and I hadn’t gotten a call from anybody. I’d been just trying to stay under the radar, and maybe they’d forget about it.
But sure enough, here’s a call from Coach (John) Fox. He said, “Wesley, can you come down and see me today?” I said, “Sure, coach.” I know what he wants.
He says, “Wesley, you had a great career here. We want you to retire a Panther. It’s just time for you to retire.”
But I wanted to play another year. So I thought about it, and the next day I came back and told him that, and we hugged and he said, “You know what I’ve gotta do.” And so he released me on February 26th. Well, all my football cards have my birthday as February 26. And so the paper, the media and everybody said, “Coach Fox releases Walls on his birthday.”
And that hurt him. He called me and said, “I’m so sorry about that.” And (Panthers general manager) Marty Hurney said the same thing, that he didn’t know it was my birthday.
The truth of it is that my birthday is March 26. But I let Foxy and Marty think they cut me on my birthday for a long time. I finally told them (Laughs).
SF: You did play that one last year, with Green Bay. Did you have any regrets about your time with the Panthers?
WW: I have one regret — how it ended. I was frustrated…. I acted up, and kind of turned into somebody I really wasn’t. And you become ungrateful, and that’s the antithesis of me. I am so grateful for the opportunities that I had here, that I had back in high school. All the people that God put in my life at just the right time.
But I was not a good guy in the locker room (his final year with the Panthers). And then I went up and played in Green Bay, and for the first time in a long time, I kind of smelled the roses. I became grateful again in Green Bay. I became humble. Humility is a character trait that is not mentioned enough, because when you’re humbled — and life has a way of humbling you — you see things a lot more clearly.
SF: Didn’t you and Dale Earnhardt Sr. do an autograph signing once together in Mississippi?
WW: Yes, I had just signed with the Panthers and I had a car deal. A car dealer was letting me borrow a car and I would do some autograph sessions for them, down in Jackson, Miss. And so he called me up and said, “Look, we’ve got a racecar driver coming. We want you here with us too.”
So I drove down to Jackson and drove right past the dealership and there was a line — I mean about a thousand people. I’m like, “Geez! I hadn’t been back in a while but I didn’t know anybody missed me this much!”
So I come around and park. I’m waving to all the people in the line, saying, “How y’all doing?” And I start walking to the front and a guy says, “No, no. That’s Dale Earnhardt’s line. You’re going to sign over here.”
I looked over there, and all that was in my line was seven of my cousins.
SF: What did making the Panthers’ Hall of Honor mean to you?
WW: When I go to games and I look up and see my name up there in the stadium, I’m still pinching myself a little bit. It’s the greatest recognition that I’ve ever received in my life. I mean, it validated my work here, really. My whole career.
And at the same time, one of the most special moments about it was when (Panthers owner Dave) Tepper called me to tell me that I’ve been selected to the Hall of Honor, my mom had been diagnosed with colon cancer. She was in the hospital and they were trying to operate to see if they could save her.
And so she just finished her surgery. And we just got the news that it was inoperable, stage four. It was terminal. And then I got a call from an unknown number and it was Mr. Tepper… He told me, and I asked him if I could tell my Mom. So I walk in there after that phone call and I told her and she said, “What’s that mean?”
I said, “Well, my name gets to go up on the stadium next to Sam Mills. And she looked at me and said, “You deserve it.”
So some of the worst news and some of the best news and I got to share it with probably the most influential person in my life on that day — probably the worst day of her life…. It was terrible. But it was special in some way, too.
For much more from this interview and to hear other “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” interviews, including my conversations with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Muggsy Bogues, Jake Delhomme and Danny Ford, subscribe to the “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” podcast. New episodes drop every Wednesday, and bonus content is available exclusively on Apple Podcasts.
Next week: South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley.