OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Faster than his ability to score 95-yard touchdowns, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace has gone from the worst season of his career to re-establishing himself as one of the NFL's top playmakers.
When it comes to redeeming oneself, it goes beyond football for Wallace. It touches close to home. He was there for his older brother Reggie, who spent five years in Louisiana state prison (2008-13) for selling drugs in New Orleans.
While his brother was locked up, Wallace put money each week into a prison expense account. When Reggie was released, Wallace gave him his Range Rover and set him up with a home.
"That’s my family," Wallace said. "We stick with him, no matter what the situation. He’s my brother for life. I would never turn my back on my family."
Reggie is doing well these days and is working as a plumber, Wallace said. He comes from a large family that includes three sisters and his older brother Reggie, who always had a nickname for everyone.
Mike Wallace was often called "Rock" because he never cried when he fell down as a kid. That still carries meaning considering Wallace's resiliency. He has surprised many by becoming the leading receiver for the Ravens, who play host to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night.
How much of an impact has Wallace made? He has more touchdowns (four) than the Bengals' A.J. Green (three). His 15.7 yards-per-catch average is three yards more than the Steelers' Antonio Brown (12.3). He has more 50-yard receptions (four) than the Falcons' Julio Jones (three).
This comes from a 30-year-old receiver who was traded by the Miami Dolphins and cut by the Minnesota Vikings the past two seasons. It was a year ago when Wallace set career-lows in receiving yards (473), yards per catch (12.1) and touchdowns (two) while with the Vikings.
After Wallace signed with the Ravens in March, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. called him and didn't have the conversation he was expecting from a player who is on his third team in as many seasons.
"I think you can have a lot of things that can make you doubt yourself," Smith said. "For him, he came in not really revealing that, but also not feeling it’s him against the world. I admired the way he’s handled himself. I know for a fact that I couldn’t do that."
Finding an unexpected ally
When Wallace was released by the Vikings, his top three choices were the Ravens, the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, the team he broke into the league with as their third-round pick in 2009. He just didn't realize how much his former rivals wanted him, especially after Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti criticized Miami for giving $10 million to Wallace the year before.
Knowing how much the Ravens needed to add speed, coach John Harbaugh called Wallace an hour after he became a free agent and Baltimore wouldn't let him leave his visit without signing a deal, causing him to miss a flight to meet his next team.
In a strange twist, the team that had the most faith in the ex-Steeler turning around his career was the Ravens. He signed a two-year, $11.5 million contract.
"We studied the tape, and I think everybody in the building knew he was still a good football player," wide receivers coach Bobby Engram said. "You bring him here to an organization like the Ravens -- the culture here, the toughness, the kind of guys we have in our locker room and just the men of character we have throughout the building -- I think he has thrived in that environment.”
Wallace knew he could still play at a high level. He just couldn't play at a high level for the Vikings.
Minnesota had a Hall of Fame running back in Adrian Peterson and a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings were going to run the ball more than throw it, and they weren't going to take any risks downfield.
"I had no doubts that I could still play," Wallace said. "I just had to put myself in a better football situation."
Fast player, fast start
Through eight games, Wallace has as many receptions with the Ravens as he had all of last year with the Vikings (39), produced 141 more receiving yards and scored two more touchdowns. He has been the most consistent weapon in a struggling Ravens offense, building an instant rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco.
Wallace ranks 10th in the NFL with 614 yards receiving and has totaled more than 100 yards receiving in back-to-back games.
"I always try to say when you have good players, it is not that hard to make connections like that," Flacco said. "That is what it comes down to -- the fact that you can see how talented of a player he is."
Last Sunday, Wallace became the first player in NFL history to score 95-yard touchdowns for two different teams. The latest one came against his former team and AFC North rival, which didn't go unnoticed.
After the game, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asked Wallace if the touchdown was longer than the one they had in Arizona.
"I didn't want to break it because I love you so much," Wallace told Roethlisberger. "I just tied it, brother."
Mentor, not malcontent
Over the years, Wallace has picked up some unfavorable labels. He was considered selfish in 2012 when he held out of Steelers training camp, and he was called a "coward" by former teammates Mike and Maurkice Pouncey. (Wallace later said their comments were taken out of context.)
With the Ravens, he has adopted a different role: mentor.
Wallace has gone out of his way to help wide receiver Breshad Perriman, whose first two seasons in the NFL have been rough at times. He persuaded Perriman to stay 45 minutes after practice to catch more passes on the JUGS machine. He also put his arm around Perriman and spoke to him for 10 minutes in front of his locker after a game last month in which two passes intended for Perriman were intercepted.
"Whatever he tries to teach me, he keeps me positive no matter what’s happening or going on," Perriman said. "He's been real big for me."
Likewise, Smith has become Wallace's inspiration. Wallace calls him GOAT (the greatest of all-time) and marvels at his longevity.
While Wallace doesn't think he'll be able to play until the age of 37, he has thought about his future.
"This is the last place I want to play," Wallace said. "I don’t want to go anywhere else. When I am finished playing football, I want to end it as a Raven."