''OK'' Wallace readies for first NFL start

Updated: October 27, 2006, 2:55 AM ET
Associated Press

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Yes, an injury to Matt Hasselbeck means Seneca Wallace is set to make his first NFL start at quarterback Sunday when the Seahawks play at Kansas City.

But Wallace says Donald "Norv" Cross, a now-retired deputy in the Sacramento, Calif., County sheriff's office, also played a part in getting him to this point.

"He has been a guy that was a mentor to me growing up," Wallace said this week. "Anytime -- times like this -- he would call me and just encourage me to be positive at all times. "

Wallace was a fifth grader in Rancho Cordova, Calif., outside Sacramento, in 1988 when he met Cross. Cross was beginning a volunteer program for African-American boys, then called "Here's Looking at You in 2000." Today, it's called "OK" -- for "Our Kids." Cross has a web site, www.okprogram.org, and has added programs in Indianapolis, Monroe, La., and Little Rock, Ark.

Cross was alarmed at the percentages of African-American males who were jailed or victims of homicide. He started "OK" to provide role models, plus conditions conducive to good study skills.

"We wanted to make an environment where it was cool to work hard in school and compete for high grades," the 48-year-old Cross said.

Wallace was one of the first volunteers. And he's involved with "OK."

"Seneca was always a quiet kid," Cross said Thursday in a telephone interview. "The program helped Seneca with his confidence that he could do well in school, that it's OK to work hard and be smart."

Cross brought Wallace to Saturday study halls that included discussion groups led by area "everyday men," as he called them -- white- and blue-collar workers who made an honest living, not NBA stars like Sacramento's Kings.

"Although I know every kid wants to be a professional athlete, I wanted them to see role models who work every day, go home and take care of their families," Cross said.

Those in the group who completed 90 percent of their homework and regularly attended school during a grading period were rewarded with outings: bowling, camping, barbecues and laser tag.

Wallace was as strongly bound to his family as anyone in the group, especially to his mother, Linda Wallace. He was also, as Cross said, "never in trouble, so he was a good role model for the other boys who did have problems."

One of Cross' first reward trips for his group was to the annual East-West Shrine game, a college football all-star game then played in Palo Alto, Calif. While there, Cross told Wallace he wanted to take a future group to see Wallace play in that game.

Wallace became the fastest, most skilled player on any field through his years at Cordova High School. He was an offensive and defensive star who earned a scholarship offer from Oregon State, even though Wallace remembers his team only won two games his senior season.

"He's just a fierce competitor," said Max Miller, again Cordova High's coach after leaving the school when Wallace was a freshman.

The summer after Seneca Wallace graduated from Cordova, Linda Wallace was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"It was devastating for him," Cross said.

That happened just after Wallace had learned he didn't have enough English credits to satisfy NCAA playing requirements. He lost his Oregon State scholarship and returned home.

But buoyed by news his mother didn't have cancer but an early and treatable form of leukemia, Wallace restarted his college playing career. He went to Sacramento City College and became a junior college All-American. That led to a scholarship from Iowa State.

By 2002, he was a Heisman Trophy candidate. His 6,201 total yards shattered the school record. He scored 41 touchdowns -- 26 passing and 15 running -- in 25 games over two Cyclones seasons.

And, yes, he got that invitation to the East-West Shrine Game.

The Seahawks drafted him in the fourth round in 2003. Coach and quarterback guru Mike Holmgren was in the NFL minority, convinced Wallace was a passer, not a receiver. But in three years, Wallace played in six games, all in meaningless duty backing up Pro Bowler Hasselbeck.

Yet Wallace never stopped trying to improve, even off the field. That's what impresses Holmgren most about his new most important player.

"He has a learning disability, reading situations. And he was willing these last couple of offseasons to go to a school that helped him with that," Holmgren said. "That to me is a special thing."

On Sunday in Kansas City, the resilient Wallace gets his special chance.

And Cross will be watching on a big-screen television with "OK" program alumni at a pizza party in Sacramento.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index