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Amazing Feat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You are not quite sure how to ask the quarterback who beat Purdue with 254 yards passing and two touchdowns on Sept. 6 if he would mind, with all due respect, taking off his shoes and socks in the strength coach’s office.

The subject is broached delicately--tiptoed around, so to speak--until Chris Wallace senses where the conversation is headed and cuts through the awkwardness.

“You want to see my feet?” he says, smiling.

Wallace bends over and unties the lace on his left, black-and-white cross-trainer, then peels off his sock.

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“My pinky toe is curled in,” he explains.

The toe is shaped like a boomerang as it hooks toward its four companions; the outside of his heel is thick and calloused.

Wallace runs on the edges of his feet. They are out of alignment--the way your car tires are when the tread wears in one spot but nowhere else.

Wallace needs a new pair of cleats every three or four games. He goes through sports shoes like peanuts. His running style is a cross between a penguin and pigeon.

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People say he runs funny.

“It’s true, I do run funny,” he says.

Yet, Wallace would not trade his 10 toes for anyone’s.

“I love my feet,” he says. “They got me this far.”

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In his first month as a starting quarterback for Toledo, a Division I-A school in the Mid-American Conference, the junior Wallace has led the Rockets to a 4-0 record and passed for 1,075 yards and eight touchdowns. He ranks eighth nationally this week in total offense, averaging 298 yards per game.

Not bad for someone who shouldn’t be able to walk.

Wallace was born with severely deformed club feet, so hideous looking the nurses at Community Hospital in Springfield, Ohio, shut the door and closed the curtains before they set the swaddled newborn in his mother’s arms.

Chris’ tiny feet were lifeless and green, from a lack of blood flow, and faced 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

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Reda Wallace remembers them as “dangling, just hanging on.”

Doctors told Reda her son’s chances of walking were slim unless he underwent five painstaking surgeries, one each year starting at age 1. Reda was offered handicap stickers for her car and the phone number of a disabled children’s foundation.

The day after his birth on Nov. 4, 1975, Chris’ feet were broken and cast, then recast every six weeks for half a year.

“If he could remember one day of the pain, he would hate his feet,” his mother says. “I sometimes wonder why he didn’t pass out as a baby.

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Reda and James Wallace weren’t allowed in the room for the recasting procedures.

“They’d tell us to come and get him, and he’d be blue from holding his breath because of the crying,” Reda says. “It was a very hard time for us.”

At six months, Chris was fitted with orthopedic shoes and leg braces to start the painful process of turning his feet around.

After nine months, though, Reda had had enough of her baby’s wails.

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“Sometimes I’d just break down and cry,” she says sitting on her couch in Springfield, about an hour west of Columbus. “I felt like I was losing.”

Reda decided to defy her doctor’s orders.

After her husband, James, went to work, Reda would remove Chris’ braces and rub his feet in her hands.

“I would bend and talk to them, try to make them go straight,” she says. “When his father came home, I would put the braces back on.”

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One day, when Chris was 9 months old, in a scene out of “Forrest Gump,” Reda removed her son’s braces. The boy pulled himself up on the sofa and suddenly took off . . . running.

He hasn’t stopped.

Reda rushed Chris to the doctor, who said such a feat with his feet was impossible. Then he watched with his own eyes as Chris flip-flopped across his floor.

“He said it was a miracle,” Reda says.

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Reda promised God that if he allowed her son to walk, she would always give him the credit.

“I made a pact,” Reda says.

She might have gone to the newspapers years ago with the story when Chris was an all-state quarterback at Springfield South. But the family never sought to exploit.

Wallace is in his fourth year at Toledo, and his coach, Gary Pinkel, did not know of Chris’ background until Wallace revealed it recently to the hometown newspaper.

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“When I found this out with Chris, it hit emotionally,” Pinkel says.

Pinkel has a brother and sister who are confined to wheelchairs because of a rare genetic disease.

Wallace’s story has taken off since. A television commentator related the tale during a recent Toledo game and made the comparison to Gump, the fictional character who broke loose of his childhood leg braces and raced into the backdrop of American history.

Wallace does a pretty good Gump impression--"life is like a box of chocolates"--and gets a kick of it.

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“I actually kind of like the movie,” Wallace says. “He ended up beating the odds. That’s the one thing I see in it. Although he was fast. I got the slow end of the deal.”

Wallace, 6 feet 2 and 205 pounds, runs the 40-yard dash in an ordinary 4.8 seconds, but he is a good athlete with an exceptional arm.

If there’s one thing Pinkel knows, it’s quarterbacks. As a former assistant under Don James at Washington, Pinkel coached future pros Hugh Millen, Chris Chandler, Mark Brunell and Billy Joe Hobert.

Pinkel says Wallace is a unique, if not polished, talent.

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“He’s got as good of poise under pressure as any of those guys I’ve been around,” Pinkel says. “My point is, ‘Wait till he gets good.’ I’m serious.”

Chris is the fourth and last child of Reda and James, grade school sweethearts raised in Springfield and co-workers for nearly 30 years at the local truck manufacturing plant.

With their work bonuses, the Wallaces helped put three older children--Jimmy, Althea and Vinita--through college.

Chris is eight years younger than his nearest sibling, and Reda worried about him well before his birth.

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“This baby never kicked,” she says.

She told everyone who would listen something was wrong.

Once, while out shopping with her sister, Reda remarked: “ ‘This baby doesn’t have any feet. Don’t bother buying any socks.’ It didn’t make me feel sad. I thought if that’s the way it is, it would be all right.”

Reda was sedated during the birth and remembers her doctor standing over her when she awoke.

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“What’s wrong?” she said.

“You were right,” the doctor said.

Reda is not sure why she was so calm during the whole ordeal, why she was convinced her son would be OK, or why she turned her back on medical science.

Chris said it was “mother’s intuition.”

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Reda can’t explain it.

“I’m not saying don’t listen to doctors,” she says. “But there’s no other way to tell this story. I did go against what the doctors said. I wouldn’t advise anyone doing that.”

Reda never sheltered Chris when he was growing up, even though it pained her to see her son tripping over his feet as he played with other kids.

It was clear Chris was a gifted athlete from the time he began playing T-ball at 5. He would later earn the nickname “Stickman” for his skills with a baseball bat. Reda has in her home a box of 35 home run balls Chris hit during his Little League career.

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There was considerable concern, though, when Chris’ feet started aching badly when he turned 13.

“I thought all of this would come back to haunt me,” Reda says.

The pediatrician told Reda the aches were growing pains.

It was the last time she would need to take her son to the doctor.

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Chris was never bothered by his feet. He thought they made him special.

His only sad childhood memories are of the brown leather orthopedic shoes--"horrible and uncomfortable"--he was forced to wear.

But his mother even exchanged those for tennis shoes against her doctor’s advice.

“Sometimes people would talk about how I run,” he says. “About how my feet stuck in. But I’d always say “I’m just glad I’m running, period.’ ”

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His mother’s faith in him has driven Chris all his athletic life.

“I wasn’t supposed to walk, so how could words stop me?” he asks.

When he got older, Chris threw all his old braces and shoes in the trash.

Wallace set five state records as quarterback for South High, teaming with all-state receiver Dee Miller, who now plays for Ohio State.

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Wallace was recruited by some major colleges--Tennessee, Michigan State, Cincinnati--but committed to Toledo soon after his campus visit.

“This is the best-kept secret in Ohio,” he says.

Wallace’s patience would be tested.

He had thrown only 15 passes in three seasons before this year, waiting two seasons, plus a redshirt year in 1994, behind Toledo’s record-setting quarterback Ryan Huzjak.

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There were plenty of questions about handing the team over to Wallace.

“I felt the doubt, anywhere I went this summer,” Wallace says. “I was going to turn that doubt into belief. That’s how I was brought up. Not going to walk? I walked. Sitting out three years? I endured it.”

Wallace said he saw the fear in his teammates’ faces when Toledo faced Purdue, a Big Ten foe, in the Rockets’ home opener.

But he quickly ended the speculation, leading Toledo to a 36-32 victory.

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Reda was so nervous she almost didn’t attend the Purdue game.

“I was just so proud,” she says.

Wallace was even better the next week, throwing for 356 yards and four touchdowns in the team’s 38-35 victory over Eastern Michigan. Wallace drove his team 71 yards at game’s end to set up the game-winning field goal with no time remaining.

Wallace says he wouldn’t change a thing about his life, especially the beginning. He has long had an affinity for the disabled and freely offers his time.

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“I don’t tell them there could be a miracle,” he says. “I don’t want to set anybody up. But I want them to be proud of themselves. I talk to kids after games and they say I’m an inspiration to them. If I can inspire anyone, I’m willing to do it.”

Even before his story was known, Wallace often sought out his coach’s disabled brother, Greg, a regular around the locker room.

“This is an awesome opportunity for me,” he says. “It’s like the defense getting a fumble on the two-yard line. You’ve got to score. I’m trying to take advantage. He gave me the chance to walk. My mom is loving this right now. I just want to give her the best life I can.”


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