By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
The firsts keep coming, fast and furious, for former Shenandoah University standout wide receiver Rico Wallace.
First paycheck as a professional? Done.
First catch from Carolina Panthers star quarterback Cam Newton? In the books.
First autograph? Taken care of, and Wallace is getting more and more practiced at that every day.
"It was kind of a crazy experience, just knowing that if I was at camp I'd be the one asking for an autograph," says Wallace of his first autograph request, which came during his first rookie mini-camp with the Panthers back in May. "I signed a lot of autographs that day."
The autographs, the attention -- it's all fine with Wallace, but he's keeping his focus on the next step in what he hopes will be the culmination of landing a coveted spot on the Panthers' roster. It won't be easy, probably even an uphill battle for an undrafted rookie free agent from a Division III college. But Wallace has gotten this far already, and he intends to make the most of the opportunity.
"It's definitely a great challenge for me," said Wallace, who wrapped up another three-day rookie camp on Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C. "I guess we'll see what I've got."
Wallace showed plenty during his time at Shenandoah, putting up eye-popping numbers for the Hornets during his senior season. Wallace totaled 67 catches for 1,241 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. Those are all school records, as is his five-touchdown receiving effort against Stevenson (a school and USA South Conference single-game record). Wallace earned second-team Division III All-American honors and first-team All-USA South accolades following that spectacular senior season, but more importantly surfaced on the radar of NFL scouts.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Wallace kept that momentum going with a stellar showing at the BSN Collegiate Showcase in Akron, Ohio. A few days later on March 16 at a Pro Day held at James Madison University, Wallace was showing off his skills in front of NFL scouts from several teams. Among them were two scouts from the Panthers.
Wallace's agent, Gainesville, Fla.-based Ryan Earls, said the Panthers were the team consistently showing the most interest from that point forward.
"They had two area scouts at JMU's Pro Day," Earls said. "From then on, we knew they were probably going to be the team."
Sure enough, on the final day of the NFL draft the Panthers called Wallace looking to make a free-agent deal. Wallace was intrigued by the team's shift to a West Coast offense, which meant greater potential opportunities to catch the ball. In serious need of an overhaul at the wide receiver position, Carolina signed four rookie free agents at that position alone. But that doesn't mean Wallace was just another nameless fringe prospect to the Panthers, not even then. His signing bonus of $7,500 might not seem a fortune, but it was the biggest bonus the team gave out to an undrafted rookie this year.
"I just think some of the guys they bring in they're just throwing against the wall to see what sticks," Earls said. "Some of those guys they just bring in as a body to fill out the camp. Rico's not one of those guys."
Wallace has been doing all he can to prove it ever since. At this week's rookie camp, he was catching balls from, among others, the Heisman Trophy-winning Newton. It was a bit different from snaring balls from former Hornets signal caller Danny Wright, but in the end to Wallace it was "just football."
"It comes in a little faster, a little more accurate," Wallace said of Newton's passes. "Danny's still my college quarterback."
On Friday, Wallace heads to Spartanburg, S.C., to take part in his first NFL training camp. The mini-camps have just been a build-up, as Wallace has spent his time soaking up the playbook and gaining the special teams experience which could spell the difference between making the roster or getting cut. That, and making the inevitable adjustment to the speed of the game.
Barring injury, he should be on the sideline for the Panthers' first preseason game on Aug. 11 against the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. That would be Wallace's second-ever visit to an NFL stadium -- he caught a Baltimore Ravens preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles when he was a senior in high school.
Even that is still a long way off for Wallace, who is focused on making the best showing possible at training camp and not on the team's steady roster shuffling at his position.
"I don't worry about it," Wallace said. "I figure it's all up to me. I feel like I'm getting a pretty good look."