With one year of college eligibility remaining, Wesley Walls was strictly a defensive end.
Five years into his NFL career, Walls was a tight end with 11 receptions and a half-season as a long snapper to his credit.
Now, he’s a member of the Panthers' Hall of Honor.
“It was all worth it,” said Walls, part of a class of four players recently honored by Carolina. “Everything you go through as a player on and off the field, and the hard work you put into it, for them to put your name up there, it’s all worth it.”
Years before Walls first wore a Panthers uniform in 1996, he feared his pro football career might be over barely before it started. In the first game of his senior year at Ole Miss, Walls dislocated his shoulder, but continued to play through what became an All-American season.
After he was drafted by San Francisco, Walls said the shoulder popped out on him again during his rookie training camp, and he ended up playing limited snaps, mostly on special teams, catching four passes along the way. That was pretty much par for the course his first three seasons in the NFL, when he managed to play in all but one game, but predominantly as a blocking tight end or special teamer.
He went through shoulder reconstruction in 1992, and the 49ers’ former second-round draft choice returned to his native Mississippi to rehab, but also to explore career options beyond football.
He did recover and managed to stick with San Francisco, albeit in a limited role. After the 1993 season, he was fortunate to have a job.
“I got signed by the Saints,” Walls said. “They were the only team that wanted me, and that was as a long snapper.”
But in New Orleans, Walls was able to stay healthy for the first time in a long time, and he blossomed into a reliable tight end over the next two seasons.
From there, Walls went about making an indelible mark on the early history of the Panthers.
“My career was over almost before it started,” Walls said. “Then I came to Carolina, and all this good stuff happened to me.”
The first year of Panthers football in 1995 was Walls’ last year in New Orleans and marked easily his most productive season as a pro to that point – 57 receptions in his seventh NFL season. The Panthers, led that first year by former Saints linebacker Sam Mills, were placed in the NFC West with New Orleans. So the teams met twice that year, including a Week 8 game at the Panthers’ home away from home, Clemson’s Memorial Stadium.
“Flying into Clemson, it looked just like Mississippi – bunch of pines and hills,” Walls recalled. “And I thought the world of Sam. I remember talking to Sam after that game and saying, ‘Hey, if you need a tight end next season...’”
In those days, the free agency window opened at midnight, and when the time came Walls was on the phone with Panthers head coach Dom Capers at 12:01 a.m.
“I was on the first flight out,” Walls said. “I was a Panther by noon.”
For the better part of the next seven seasons, Walls was an invaluable cog in Carolina’s offense. His first season produced the first of five Pro Bowls, when he caught 61 passes for 713 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those were monstrous numbers at the time for the position, one that was starting to be redefined by eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez.
"He was a tight end ahead of his time in my mind," said Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, who was in Carolina's front office for Walls' final four seasons. "Look at how the NFL is now; just imagine how many balls he would catch these days with the way we throw the ball and the way tight ends are used. He was an exceptional pass-catching tight end. Great hands, ran great routes. He was a go-to guy.
"His teammates loved him – the quarterbacks really loved him. They knew where to go on third down."
Walls wasn’t just a one-year wonder. Staying healthy for a stretch of four seasons, his averages from 1997-99 were similar to his production from that first season, capped by a 12-touchdown outburst in 1999 that tied the single-season NFL record for tight ends.
He slowed a little his final three years in Carolina, but remained a red-zone factor throughout; his 44 touchdowns in seven seasons with the Panthers remains a franchise record for tight ends. Greg Olsen has 37 in eight seasons with Carolina.
While quarterback Cam Newton has been a constant for Olsen, Walls did it with a mish-mash of quarterbacks – predominantly Kerry Collins his first two years, Steve Beuerlein the next three and Chris Weinke and Rodney Peete the final two.
Walls laments missing out on Jake Delhomme, headed to the Hall of Honor with him. Delhomme joined the Panthers right after Walls left, signing with Carolina in the spring leading up to the Super Bowl season of 2003.
“I finally I get to see my name next to Jake Delhomme,” Walls said. “I remember begging Coach (John) Fox when he fired me – I kid him about it all the time – ‘Can you not let me play one more year? We’re going to be good.’ But it was best for the team. Not best for me, but best for the team because I would have been crying about not getting the ball.
“A lot of people thought I was a selfish football player, but I always thought, ‘Hey, if I catch 10 passes, that’s going to give us a better chance to win.’”
Walls lives in Charlotte to this day.
“The '96 season was a special, special year for the Panthers and for me, too. That was a breakout year for me. We were 8-0 here that year. We sent a message to the league that we were for real,” Walls said. “And when I got here, this city felt like home to me. I’m not just talking about the players; I’m talking about the community as well and the fans. I felt so comfortable here. I never owned a home before I got here, but I set down roots.
“When you set down roots, it grows on you.”
Photos of tight end Wesley Walls throughout his career as a Carolina Panther.