Maybe I play the whole good ol' boy thing up a little too much,"
says Panthers tight end Wesley Walls, who was born and raised in
the backwaters of Mississippi. "I know everyone thinks of me as
kind of country. But what can I do? I am who I am."

And who, exactly, is that? He's an All-Pro whose soft hands and
hard head got him 61 receptions and 10 touchdowns last year.
He's an eight-year veteran who is the key to the Panthers' short
passing game. He's a team leader whose fun-lovin', easygoing
style helped turn the Carolina locker room into one of the most
harmonious in football. And he's every deer's worst nightmare.

"In the hunting world, running dogs after deer is kind of
redneck," says Walls in a drawl as thick as river mud. "Well,
where I come from, we'd turn the dogs loose. Me and my daddy
would jump in a pickup truck and go like 60 miles an hour down
some old gravelly dirt road tryin' to head off the deer. Man, it
was so much fun."

Walls no longer employs the pickup method, but he is still a
die-hard hunter. Last September, after catching a touchdown pass
against the Falcons in a Sunday-afternoon game, he dropped to
his knees in the end zone and shot off a few rounds from an
imaginary rifle. "Dove season started the next day in North
Carolina, and I knew I wouldn't be able to go," he explained
later. "I figured I'd better go ahead and get me a few birds
while I had a chance."

Walls has shaped his career by seizing the moment. He grew up in
Pontotoc and played his first three years of high school ball as
an option quarterback at South Pontotoc High. Feeling stymied in
his quest for a college scholarship, he transferred midway
through his junior year to crosstown powerhouse Pontotoc.

It was a move akin to a Montague's marrying a Capulet. To make
the move legitimate under Mississippi's byzantine eligibility
rules, Charlie Walls, a general maintenance man with a local
electric company, and his loving wife, Betty, a BellSouth
operator, had to obtain a legal separation. Then Charlie and
Wesley had to move to the Pontotoc school district, into an
apartment "the size of a bathroom," says Wesley.

Problem was, they take their football seriously in Mississippi.
South Pontotoc raised all manner of unpleasantness about the
move, and the whole affair wound up in court. Walls was stripped
of his eligibility for the basketball and baseball seasons of
his junior year but was O.K. to hit the gridiron as a senior.
"I'll never forget the South Pontotoc principal looking me in
the eye and saying, 'Son, you'll never play college football,'"
Walls recalls. "Every time I get a game check, I think back to
him."

Walls became an all-state fullback his senior year and earned a
free ride to Ole Miss. He spent his first three years there at
defensive end, but as a senior he was moved to outside
linebacker. Shortly before the season started, he was also
installed at tight end. In the season opener, against Memphis
State, he started both ways, catching a 17-yard pass and making
one unassisted tackle. "By halftime I was flat beat," he says.
So for the rest of the season he kept his starting tight end
duties and became a bloodthirsty third-down pass rusher. "It was
great, man, just hittin' and runnin' over people and hurtin'
folks," Walls says, a tad too enthusiastically. His smash-mouth
style earned him All-America honors at tight end and made him a
second-round draft choice of the 49ers in 1989.

Ask Walls for the highlight of his time at Ole Miss and he'll
tell you it was meeting the woman of his dreams, the former
Christy Washington, a traffic-stopping beauty who had bagged her
first deer before she got her driver's license. Ever the
romantic, Walls sweet-talked his intended into walking down the
aisle during his rookie year with this irresistible proposition:
"Let's go to Tahoe and play some blackjack, and while we're
there, let's get married." He hit the jackpot again at the end
of his first pro season by catching a nine-yard pass in the
second quarter of San Francisco's victory over Denver in Super
Bowl XXIV.

But Walls's remaining four years in San Francisco came up snake
eyes. He was stuck on the depth charts behind All-Pro Brent
Jones and suffered a series of what he calls "freakish" injuries
to his shoulders. Walls spent all of the 1992 and '93 seasons on
the injured reserve list, though he says he was good to go in
'93. "I really believe they stashed me on injured reserve just
so I could be Joe's personal workout boy," he says of a certain
quarterback named Montana. "In '92 I caught the first 10-yard
out he threw after his elbow surgery--most media attention I
ever got in my life. I came off the field, had 100 guys shoutin'
at me, 'How'd Joe throw?' It was cool, man. I made 250 grand
that year to play catch with Joe Montana."

That off-season, during a hunting trip cum vision quest, Walls
decided it was "do-or-die time, man." So the unrestricted free
agent lit out for the New Orleans Saints. "I've made a lot of
life decisions sitting in a deer stand, holding a gun," he says.
"It comes to you so much clearer out there."

Walls had a solid season in the Big Easy in 1994, catching 38
passes, but he really broke through the following year, when he
set a team record for tight end receptions, with 57. Carolina
then wooed him with a three-year, $4 million deal that now looks
like a bargain.

"He's a money player," says Bill Polian, the Panthers' general
manager, referring to Walls's clutch receiving skills. But he
could just as easily be describing his status as a pool shark.

At a recent golf tournament, Walls and his partner, Panthers
quarterback Kerry Collins, took on all comers in a late-night
pocket billiards marathon to the tune of $100 a game. The game
lasted well into the night. What was the duo's take? Let's just
say Walls did O.K. for himself as well as his partner.

"You gotta take care of your quarterback, man," says Walls,
laughing.

Collins has some kind words for his pool partner. "What I like
most about Wesley as a receiver is that he's smart," he says.
"He understands what we're trying to get done. He can read a
defense and know immediately what he has to do to get open."

"I'm a lot smarter than you think," says Walls. "Don't ever
underestimate me. I had a 3.41 in engineering at Ole Miss. And I
was valedictorian of my high school class."

He pauses for effect. "Of course, that was in Mississippi. I
only had to beat out, like, four guys."

--ALAN SHIPNUCK

COLOR PHOTO: ROB TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME Soft hands got the Carolina tight end 61 catches and a Pro Bowl spot last season. [Wesley Walls in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Defenders shouldn't be lulled by his easygoing country-boy act: Walls is a savvy receiver and a "money player." [Wesley Walls in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)