The Return and Disappearance of Football Star Jackie Wallace

AP Photo/File

Fans called football cornerback Jackie Wallace The Headhunter. He played for the Vikings, Colts, and Rams. He played in two Super Bowls. But drug addiction undid the life his talent had built, and he found himself homeless in New Orleans. For The Times-Picayune, photojournalist Ted Jackson traces Wallace’s complicated life of triumph, tragedy, and redemption, and the ways the two men met at different points in their lives.

Their relationship started with a chance meeting under the Interstate 10 overpass, where Wallace told the photographer, “You ought to do a story about me.” That suggestion produced a 1990 newspaper cover story that brought Wallace’s struggle to light, and helped garner the support he needed to break the cycle the disease had trapped him in for so long. The two became friends. When Wallace disappeared after years of sobriety, Jackson went looking for him. Wallace disappeared again last summer. His friends and family are still searching.

During the offseason, a team representative called to say that Jackie’s Super Bowl ring would soon arrive in the mail. He told him there was no need for him to attend the team’s ring party.

Stunned, Jackie realized he’d been cut. His career was over. “Nobody wanted me after that,” he said. “It’s a tough moment when you realize you’re done.”

In the 1970s, an NFL contract didn’t create instant millionaires as it does now. In 1974, Wallace played for $27,500 a year and a $25,000 signing bonus. In his seven years in the league, he estimated, he made between $325,000 and $400,000, including bonuses for playoff appearances and the Super Bowls. That was good money in the ’70s, but like so many players of his era, Wallace never saved or invested a share of his earnings.

With no money to fall back on, Jackie struggled to adjust to regular life. For a while, he worked as a Class B gauger on an oil production platform. He said his yearly pay matched that of a year in football, but without the structure and discipline that a team sport imposes, Wallace’s attraction to alcohol began to take a toll.

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