'I am an Auburn man:' Jonathan Wallace has no plans to transfer

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 4, 2014 

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Last month, 14-year-old Andrew Wade was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. It left the Brookstone eighth-grader -- a huge Auburn fan -- fighting a battle he and his family never saw coming.

On Christmas Eve, Auburn quarterback Jonathan Wallace went to visit Andrew after being told through a Facebook post about the boy's plight.

During the visit, Wallace took one of the half dozen wrist bands off his arm and gave it to Andrew. It read: "Rak Chazak," a Hebrew saying that means to be strong. It is a war cry for strength and courage during battle.

"He told me if I stay strong, I will get through this," Andrew said. "I have to have faith and not give up."

Wallace knows a thing or two about faith and perseverance during struggle.

After starting four games last season, Wallace will go into Monday night's BCS championship game as the third-string quarterback behind two players who were not even on the roster a year ago.

But the sophomore has never given up, and he said he will not transfer when the season is done.

Wallace, through his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, visits area middle and high schools spreading the message of faith and perseverance.

"That is one blessing in my life, to be able to share my faith with others," he said.

And that was the message he took to Andrew -- who has Ewing's sarcoma, a

rare bone cancer -- last week at Midtown Medical Center in Columbus.

"I told him that you have to fight through life's adversity," Wallace said. "Life brings us many challenges, but you have to fight on."

Andrew's father, Columbus businessman Tripp Wade, could not have been more impressed with the young man who walked into the hospital.

"I kept thinking he was going to be looking for the door or something," Tripp Wade said. "He stayed for almost an hour and really spoke to Andrew about courage and struggle."

Keep fighting

To understand where Wallace is in his journey, you need to understand where he came from.

As a quarterback at Central-Phenix City two years ago, he drew attention from college scouts across the South. He committed to Southern Miss, but that fell through when the coaching staff changed. Then he decided to go to Central Florida. On the eve of signing day, Auburn came in with an offer and he took it, opting to play in the Southeastern Conference one county from home.

The first year at Auburn didn't go like anyone planned.

The Tigers started three quarterbacks in a season that saw them lose every SEC game and finish 3-9. By the time Auburn reached Georgia and Alabama on the schedule, Wallace was the starter.

Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs, a former Tiger football player, watched Wallace last season as the Tigers struggled and Wallace was thrown into the starting role.

"Last year was very difficult," Jacobs said. "I would see him in the complex, and he showed a maturity that I had never seen in a freshman before. He would look you in the eye, talk to you and carried himself well. I hold him in the highest regard."

By the time the season was over, Coach Gene Chizik had been fired and former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was the new coach. Wallace was recruited by Malzahn to play at Arkansas State, where Malzahn spent one year as head coach.

"The first thing that Coach Malzhan said was to forget everything that happened last year," Wallace said.

Easier said than done for Wallace.

Malzahn gave Wallace a chance to win the starting quarterback job in the spring and early fall practice. By the time the Tigers opened the season against Washington State, Wallace was buried at third on the depth chart behind starter Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson.

Wallace didn't quit trying despite the disappointment.

"Jonathan Wallace is one of the biggest winners on our football team," Malzahn said Saturday. "He has nothing but winner in him -- his attitude, he's a competitor."

Wallace has played in five games this season, attempting just five passes and completing two. Despite the lack of playing time, Wallace has stayed positive, Malzahn said.

"He really doesn't get to play much," the coach said. "But you never see any frown, any negativity. He's always encouraging, and that's hard to do. Guys like him -- and specifically him -- is the reason we are here."

Wallace smiled when he was told what his coach said about him.

"It's good to hear that," he said.

Wallace not only didn't pout, but he embraced his new role.

"There are always going to be struggles in life and you have to learn how to fight through it," Wallace said. "I am taking it one day at a time, trying to get better. I have had to embrace the challenges, and I have had to embrace my role."

He has not asked to be moved to another position.

"I love being a quarterback," Wallace said. "It is what I have been playing my whole life and I will continue to fight."

And he has not thought about transferring to a school where he could get more playing time. Ask him about it and he ends the discussion with a simple sentence.

"I am an Auburn man," he said.

'You never quit'

As Auburn was in the middle of its magical season, some could not let the 2012 season go. Former Auburn Coach Pat Dye went off the cuff during a speech in Tennessee, and it made news.

Prior to the Tennessee game, Dye made derogatory remarks about Auburn's quarterbacks last season. Speaking in Knoxville, Tenn., Dye reportedly called the 2012 quarterbacks "cowards."

Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley and Wallace all started games in 2012.

At the time, Frazier defended Wallace in a social media post.

"Pretty sure Pat Dye was talking about Clint and I, not Jonathan," he tweeted. "Jonathan did the best he could in a bad situation."

Today, Wallace just shrugs it off with praise for Dye.

"At first, I didn't know anything about it," Wallace said. "I think a lot of Coach Dye. He's a great Auburn man. I just didn't take it personally. It is what it is."

To understand how Wallace can feel that way, you need to know a little about how he was raised.

Wallace's father, Anthony, works for Bill Turner, the former chairman of W.C. Bradley Co., and has for a number of years. Wallace's mother, Michelle, works at Central High School.

Wallace said his father set the direction for how he is living his life.

"Since I was little, my father has always told me you never quit anything," Wallace said. "And you never, ever lose your faith in God."

Defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, is one of Wallace's closest friends. The Warner Robins, Ga., native has been greatly impressed watching how Wallace has handled the last two years.

"He is a fighter, but more than that he is a testament to his mother and father back in Phenix City," Whitaker said.

Whitaker sees a bright future for his friend.

"When I think of Jonathan Wallace, I don't think of football," Whitaker said. "I think of somebody who is going to be a great father and a great leader. In 20 or 30 years when I am a dad, I am going to want my son to be just like Jonathan Wallace."

And Wallace, who is majoring in education, knows what he wants for his own future.

"I want to be a high school football coach," he said. "I think I can help kids."

But first there is a national championship football game against Florida State. And Wallace knows what he will be doing Monday night while Marshall is leading the Tigers on the field. Wallace will be standing on the sidelines signalling in the plays for Malzahn's quick-paced offense.

"I will also be cheering for my teammates," he said. "I will be doing whatever I can do to help them win -- whatever that may be."

As disappointing as parts of this year have been personally, Wallace knows it has been good in many ways.

"It is all about how you react to adversity," Wallace said. "There is no doubt I have grown as a person through all of this."

The kind of person who visits the hospital room of a kid he doesn't know on Christmas Eve.

That made a huge impression on Andrew's father, Tripp Wade.

"I can tell you now," Wade said, "he will go a long way in life,"

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