Watching on TV from across the country, Carmen Wallace ’97 winces as the New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe takes a vicious hit from two New York Jets. The following day’s sports pages reported that Bledsoe suffered internal bleeding. “He should have gone out of bounds,” says Wallace. “My guess is that Drew was frustrated and was trying make something happen.”
Wallace has more than a casual fan’s interest in Bledsoe. He’s part of a team of sports agents that represents Bledsoe, as well as several other NFL stars, at Athletes First in Newport Beach, California.
A popular Blue Devils forward from 1993-96, Wallace claims to have lived a charmed life. “People have a hard time believing this, but I actually got a scholarship to preschool,” he says. “I must have been good at coloring in the lines.”
The preschool was part of the tony Tower Hill School, a private school founded by the Dupont family in Wallace’s hometown, Wilmington, Delaware. Wallace—one of the school’s few African-American students—lettered in basketball, baseball, football, and track. “Basketball was my best but least favorite sport,” he recalls. “I played the game mostly in the driveways of rich kids.”
As a first team All-State hoopster, he caught the eye of Coach K and then-assistant Tommy Amaker ’87, M.B.A. ’89 during at Nike’s Five-Star Basketball Camp. They were at the camp to recruit another player, but came away impressed with Wallace and Steve Wojciechowski. “Toward the end of the game, Wojo threw me an alley-oop pass, I jammed it, and the next thing I knew, Coach K was calling me from Barcelona.”
Krzyzewski told Wallace that he hadn’t played against top-flight high school competition and that Delaware wasn’t exactly an athletic hotbed, but that he’d get a fair shot at earning playing time. In Wallace’s freshman year in 1993, he covered and was routinely schooled by senior captain Grant Hill ’94 in practice. He played sparingly in games, but was a member of the team that took a magic carpet ride to the final game of the NCAA tournament.
Early in Wallace’s sophomore season, Krzyzewski left the team with a bad back and assistant Paul Gaudet took over. Says Wallace, “It seemed like we lost every game by one point. By the end of the year, I finally began to get my opportunity and had a breakout ACC tournament. I believe that adversity breeds friendship, because my closest friends in the world are the guys from that year: [Kenny] Blakeney, [Trajan] Langdon, [Jeff] Capel, [Eric] Meek, Wojo.”
With Krzyzewski back the next season, Wallace broke into the starting lineup and was seemingly on his way to stardom when he blew out his left knee towards the end of the year. After a summer of extensive rehabilitation, he spent most of his senior year as part of a second unit that saw considerable action. He wore a knee brace and played despite having lost most of the cartilage. His career ended before the NCAA tournament when he tore a quad muscle. Says Wallace, “It was an incredible senior year. We beat Carolina for the first time since I had arrived and started our run of first-place finishes in the ACC. We haven’t lost the ACC since.”
At six feet, five inches and 190 pounds, Wallace played mostly as an undersized power forward who brought the Cameron Crazies to life with his acrobatic dunks. Fans nicknamed him Snake, The Smiling One, and The Human Pogo Stick. “A lot of teammates didn’t go out much or talk much, but I was always accessible,” says Wallace, whose popularity lives on through a fan website. “I’m a social bunny, a man of the people.” He returned to Durham last summer to play in Grant Hill’s alumni charity game, an event that he hopes becomes an annual ritual.
After graduation, Wallace weighed his options. He knew that his knee couldn’t pass anyone’s physical and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his majors in history and sociology. Joby Branion ’85, a former Duke football player and an attorney who worked for sports agent Leigh Steinberg, thought so much of Wallace that he called the boss and put him on the phone with Wallace. He was invited to California and hired on the spot.
Last February, several of the firm’s associates, including partner David Dunn, left Steinberg to form Athletes First. At the time, Wallace was in charge of the Lennox Lewis account. “It was a huge risk,” he says. “We walked out with no clients and no money.” Soon, several big names gravitated to the firm, whose principals had nurtured them and negotiated their deals. Steinberg is currently suing Athletes First for representing former clients.
“The sports agent biz is a lot like it has been portrayed in Jerry Maguire and Arli$$,” he says, referring to the film and the HBO sitcom about sports agents. “It’s twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week. I’m traveling constantly and never far from my cell phone,” he says. At age twenty-seven, he’s still honing his negotiating skills. He says he feels his strength is knowing myriad salary cap rules that have changed the face of professional football in recent years.
Before his dog died a few months ago, the pair ran together every morning. Still a bachelor, Wallace has given up basketball for golf and recently moved into a new beachfront apartment in Newport Beach. Says Wallace, “I’ll always wonder how far I could have gone in basketball if I hadn’t gotten hurt. But that’s in the past. I’m a sports agent now, and I couldn’t be happier.”
--Bill Glovin is senior editor of Rutgers Magazine.