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K’Von Wallace made it out of poverty to become the Eagles’ safety

The Clemson grad grew up in a government-housing facility in Highland Springs, Va., in a single-parent home. His father was in prison for part of his childhood and absent for another.

Eagles safety K'Von Wallace (left) defends against wide receiver Deontay Burnett in practice on Oct. 8.
Eagles safety K'Von Wallace (left) defends against wide receiver Deontay Burnett in practice on Oct. 8.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Every couple weeks, K’Von Wallace receives a book in the mail.

The Eagles' rookie defensive back isn’t an avid reader, but that doesn’t stop his old high school football coach, Loren Johnson, from occasionally sending him literature.

Johnson, whom Wallace affectionately calls “Pops,” is the most prominent father figure in the 23-year-old’s life. He knows Wallace is busy, but he wants to make sure he “keeps his head on straight.”

One of Johnson’s most recent deliveries was a success. Wallace is frenetically catching up on the Eagles' defensive schemes and adjusting to life in the NFL. But last month he tore through The Energy Bus, a book he likely would describe as a page-turner.

“He knows I don’t like reading that much, but The Energy Bus I was interested in,” Wallace said. “It’s an amazing book. It literally changes your whole perspective on whatever you were facing in life. Whether you’re a positive person or a negative person, there’s always room for improvement. That book teaches you, if you’re a positive person, be more. If you’re a negative person, how can you change to be a more positive person?”

From an observer’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine Wallace could improve his positivity.

The Clemson grad grew up in a government-housing facility in Highland Springs, Va., in a single-parent home. His father was in prison for part of his childhood and absent for another. He’s all too familiar with the traditions that form because of financial struggle, such as stocking up on candles when the power bill was too expensive. When the water bill was one day past due, they’d put buckets filled to the brim in the oven to have hot water to bathe.

Wallace watched his mom, Roxanne, work two jobs and go through school while raising him and his two sisters.

“I don’t want to say it was the norm, but it was something that you normalized,” Wallace said. “It’s something that was a part of family. It was a part of my family and a part of the culture I was around. … Just doing what it takes to survive. We always had that survival [instinct]. I grew up on it, so it was never like ‘Man, this is crazy.’ It was the norm for us.

"My mom did the best she could to not have that become the norm for us. She did a great job. She was raising three kids on her own, going to school, and working two jobs. Her going through that instilled in me that I had to work hard. It put a little bit of pressure on me to be successful. It was a good pressure, not a bad pressure.”

None of that struggle defines Wallace. He wouldn’t let it.

Prayer circle

Before Wallace was an NFL draft pick, a national champion, or even an all-state high schooler, he was a frustrated teenager desperate for an opportunity.

Midway through his senior season at Highland Springs High School, Wallace was in church with Johnson. It was a Sunday in November. Wallace was still waiting for the surge in college offers he’d hoped for. But it was his first year as a starter, and he’d yet to garner the interest he wanted.

That Sunday, Johnson, now 42, turned to Wallace with tears in his eyes and told him something they both remember to this day, five years later.

“Your recruiting process is not over,” Johnson told him. “We were both in tears. I said, ‘Man, just keep working hard. Everything is going to work itself out, and it’s going to be bigger than anything you can ever see.’ He hugged me and said, ‘I believe you.’ We hugged, both tears in our eyes, and it worked just as the vision said it would.”

Wallace, who nearly transferred from the Virginia powerhouse that featured him and Jets offensive tackle Mekhi Becton at the same time, reluctantly posted his senior film online. He played a significant role in his junior season but wasn’t a starter because Johnson had a handful of potential Division I recruits ahead of him.

Being on the bench didn’t sit well with Wallace, partly because of his life outside of football.

“He was a kid that had a lot to prove,” Johnson said. “He wanted to prove a lot to everybody, so he was very competitive. You could see that from Day 1. He wanted to be the first one there. He wanted to be first on the field, wanted to catch all the passes, and wanted to play as many positions as possible.”

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A few weeks after Johnson’s emotional promise, offers started rolling in.

He went from being set to go to Cincinnati to having several Power 5 offers, including from Clemson, Ohio State, and Michigan State. After talking it over with Johnson at the coach’s dining room table, he decided on Clemson.

Once he got there, he flourished. He was a three-year starter at safety, made all-conference twice, and was named a team captain on the Tigers' 2019 national championship team.

“It was amazing to go to a program like that because I got to see a whole different type of lifestyle,” Wallace said. “The facility was amazing, I had a player’s coach. Coming from high school, I didn’t think I’d have a player’s coach.”

Clemson’s safety coach, Mickey Conn, said the Tigers’ staff, led by Dabo Swinney, focuses on positive reinforcement and “the power of positive thinking,” something that Wallace embraced.

“You hear so many negatives in a day,” Conn said. “But through our program here, you get the positives. And man, he latched onto it. Not everybody accepts it, but he did.”

Conn also said it was evident that Wallace’s family was the biggest motivating factor during his college career.

“He’s just got this thing inside of him. He wants to provide for his family, and he’s just driven by that,” Conn said. “He’s been over the house many times and shared with me, and I’ve seen his mom at ball games. … Just from talking to him and watching him and the way he responds to his mom, I just know how much he loves his mama.”

The village

While Wallace and Johnson have a father-son relationship now, it wasn’t always that way.

Wallace said the beginning of their relationship was rocky as the two felt each other out. Johnson, from Miami, was tough on his freshman player, and Wallace didn’t know how to respond.

“In the first two years, I didn’t understand him. I didn’t necessarily like him,” Wallace said. “He was a tough-lover. That wasn’t something I was used to yet. I didn’t have a male figure. He was always giving me tough love, and I didn’t know how to handle it.”

While Wallace is likely closer to Johnson than most players, the dynamic between them isn’t rare for the coach, who became a mentor for plenty of athletes without a father figure in their lives.

The New York Times conducted a study in 2015 on the 1.5 million-person deficit of Black men compared to black women in America. These “missing” Black men can in part be explained by systemic racism and mass incarceration leading to death or imprisonment. The study showed Highland Springs had the third-highest percentage of “missing” Black men behind Ferguson, Mo., and Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Wallace, always the positive thinker, even found the silver-lining in spending most of his childhood without a stable father figure.

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“Even my own biological father, I’m blessed and fortunate to not have him — as much as I would like for him to be in my life,” Wallace said. "Because he was in the hood he was around drugs and around the wrong crowd. He was around literally dope fiends and crackheads, where I was seeing them overdose and killing themselves and hurting their bodies, and stealing. All the things I was seeing were when I was around him, so it was best that I just stayed from being around him as much as possible.

“God put him on this earth to give me life, but he wasn’t there to be my father. He wasn’t there to be a role model, and I truly believe that. We have a stronger relationship now, and we are very understanding of one another, and I love him to death. That always will be the case. ... I know one thing, if he was [around then], I wouldn’t be here.”

Because of so many single-parent homes, the community side of Highland Springs football helps kids like Wallace make their way out of the area.

“That family aspect, that village aspect, is a necessity for the [single parents] that live in our neighborhood,” Johnson said. “Or the kids that have a little brother or little sister that may stop them from coming to practice. … It’s one of those deals where I tell guys, 'Hey, man, bring your little brother, or bring your little sister with you to football practice. We’ll find one of our team managers to look out for them, or help them with their homework. Let’s feed them. Let’s take care of them.”

Giving back

Wallace made his first NFL start at safety against the 49ers last Sunday, becoming the first rookie this season to crack into the defensive rotation of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

It was a strange summer for rookies as the pandemic caused the cancellations of rookie minicamps, OTAs, and a traditional training camp.

Wallace was charged with playing catch up once the team finally returned to the grass, but the motivating factor to stay healthy and focused has not wavered now that he’s in the NFL.

“I have a family back home that’s counting on me to do my job,” Wallace said during the summer. “Being sick will limit that. The No. 1 thing you want to be in the league is available, so I’m trying to make sure I’m available at all times."

Wallace has quite a presence on social media, frequently tweeting messages to his 35,000 followers. He says he does it to stay connected with his hometown.

“The community is so connected on social media," Wallace said. “That’s the best way I can communicate with them and be connected to my hometown, because my hometown made me who I was. They helped me and supported me and motivated me every single day to just go out there and work, and wear ‘Richmond’ on my back and just wear my name on my chest."

Johnson said the example Wallace has set for the community has gone a long way. But Wallace said he’s excited to do more and is planning how he’ll give back next.

Wallace is in line to make almost $800,000 this season and had a $176,000 signing bonus already come through this summer. His latest package from Johnson, stocked with a money management book, should help.

“The most recent book I sent him was Rich Dad, Poor Dad," Johnson said, before proudly adding, “But I know not to bother him because I know he’s got a job.”