Wesley Walls was Greg Olsen before Greg Olsen.
Walls, now 50 years old, played tight end for the Carolina Panthers from 1996 through 2002. He was named to five Pro Bowls and amassed 324 receptions for 3,902 yards and 44 touchdowns while with the team. Olsen, the Panthers' current Pro Bowl tight end, just passed Walls on the all-time list for receptions and receiving yards last season – but Walls still has 15 more career touchdown catches.
We caught up with Walls recently as he was on his way to Louisiana for a weekend of tuna fishing.
What have you been up to since retiring from the NFL in 2003?
Walls: "I've been working in the real world. Right after football I started working in the commercial real-estate development business. … We do shopping centers and restaurants and sort of single-tenant lend-lease developments."
It sounds like you've made a very smooth transition into what we would call civilian life.
Walls: "Well, I always was kind of preparing myself for life after football – because I thought I was going to play just one year. I thought the 49ers were going to let me go after they got a good look at me in that first training camp (after San Francisco chose Walls in the second round of the 1989 draft).
"I had an engineering degree at Old Miss. And throughout the years, I had taken some graduate classes and worked some internships. Just trying to prepare myself a little bit for life after football. As a tight end, we can make the quarterback money – but I knew I was going to have to do something once I was finished playing. … Besides, I was too young. I was 37 years old when I finished playing. I knew it wouldn't be long before my wife was putting me out the door and saying, 'Get a job.' I'm not that good of a golfer or a fisherman. So I knew I couldn't do that for a living."
Despite you joking that you wouldn't last a year in the NFL, you lasted 15 and had a heck of a career. What was the key to your productivity and longevity?
Walls: "I really do think that attitude I had my whole career, where I was always like, 'I don't know how much longer I'm going to make it' served me well. … That always kept me humble, to be honest. That kind of work ethic and attitude carried me through the next 10 years of my career after I left San Francisco."
It seemed like as soon as you signed with the Panthers as a free agent in 1996, it was a perfect fit. What were your initial impressions of the team?
Walls: "Everything goes back to '95. We came out to Clemson when I was with the Saints. I had played with Sam Mills in New Orleans, and he had left to come to Carolina. So we're playing down at Clemson – and I can remember flying in. It kind of reminded me of Mississippi. The pine trees, the oak trees, just the terrain. I thought it would be kind of cool if I got the chance to play in Carolina. I thought it would be a good fit for me.
"I knew I was going to be a free agent after that season in '95. So I had my eyes open. A lot of people were talkin' up the Panthers, what kind of team they had the first year. They had some great leaders. I knew Sam, had played with Sam and really respected Sam.
"And so when free agency came, Coach (Dom) Capers was the first guy who called. He called at 12:01 that night and had me on the first flight the next morning. … And Coach Capers told me, 'Wesley, if you give us a chance here, it's going to be the perfect fit for you. We're going to make you a star.' " And obviously you found that very appealing?
Walls: "I felt like just giving me a chance to start was all I was looking for. When he said he was going to make me a star, I knew it was where I needed to be. And he was right. We had a young quarterback in Kerry Collins. I was kind of his security blanket. Kerry and I had a special relationship. We kind of knew what the other was thinking a lot of times, on and off the field.
"Kerry really trusted me on the field, and that kind of led to all the receptions and touchdowns. We had one heck of a defense that kept putting us in field position that was perfect. We'd win the field-position battle and next thing you know, you were in the red zone – and that's where I made my living."
You eventually caught more than your share of balls from other Carolina quarterbacks, including Steve Beuerlein. Do you think current Panthers' fans realize you truly were Greg Olsen before Greg Olsen?
Walls (laughing) : "They remind me all that time that Greg Olsen is breaking all my records, catching all those touchdowns. They have a great way of keeping me humble, I can tell you that. We have a lot of fun with it. Greg is a great guy, first of all, and I've enjoyed watching him over these last few years.
"I'm a little envious, no doubt about it. I wish I could play in this type of system. I mean, they're throwing the ball around 40 or 50 times a game. You can get free runs down the middle – no contact like it used to be. The hand contact down the field, they can't bump into you like they used to. I'm like, 'Wow, I wish I could have played in a deal like that.' But that's just the nature of this game. It's gotten better. They're better at protecting players, thank goodness.
"And these guys are much more athletic, putting up points and numbers that I never thought would be achievable at the tight end position. But the way the game's being playing right now, there will be somebody else who will come along one year – and Greg will be doing what I'm doing now, looking at it and saying, 'Golly, I wish I could still play.'"
View the top photos from the tight end's Pro Bowl season.