Orlando Wallace may not have had the pure speed of Chris Toribio, the sure-fire jump shot of Jared Broadhead or the success of Koty Burton on the track, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another soul in the Valley who works harder to place himself firmly in the picture with all three.
“He’s been an example for other kids as a really hard worker,” Cathedral City football and track coach Richard Lee said. “When you can say that about one of your best kids, that no one works like he has, you’re going to see that kind of success.”
Wallace’s senior year at Cathedral City was filled with early success, injury, disappointment, triumph and eventually, the promise of a future as an athlete which he’s worked hard to achieve.
Now, he can cap his high school career off with one last honor.
Wallace is The Desert Sun’s Male Athlete of the Year for the 2014-15 season.
The three-sport star began his swan song training in the sand dunes across the street of Cathedral City High School, a workout he used to dread before his junior year.
“You’re running and your feet are sinking into the sand. It takes so much to get your knees up,” he said. “Sometimes the sand is really hot, and you might not want to go barefoot, but it works on your knees and exploding…(Now) I try to sprint until I can’t sprint anymore, and I’ve seen improvement.”
Lee noticed that type of grit and determination early on this season, heading into the team’s first game of the season against Desert Hot Springs. Lee mentioned to his team that they needed to be tapering their leg work to make sure they were fresh for the first battle of the season.
“I said ‘Orlando, you only have one leg workout this week’ but he said he had worked his legs three days this week,” Lee said. “He told me ‘Yeah, yeah Coach, I’ve got to have my legs ready.’ He’s one of those guys that wants to do the extra stuff.”
It paid off.
Before the team’s ninth game of the season, Wallace led the state of California in rushing yards, following a 442-yard performance against Coachella Valley, where he scored seven touchdowns and set a new single-game rushing mark at the school.
But against Palm Desert Oct. 17, Wallace dislocated his right elbow and fractured his radial head. Of course, he pleaded with doctors on the sidelines to let him return.
“He said ‘Nah, it’s okay, it’s my elbow. I hold the ball with the other hand,’ ” Lee said.
Despite his determination, Wallace didn’t return. He saw a doctor the next day, who told him he’d be out of the rest of the football season and have to warm the bench during the entire basketball season too.
That didn’t sit well.
Instead, Wallace was back on the field four weeks later for the team’s playoff game against Oak Hill —the team’s first postseason trip in 13 years —wearing a brace, while he rushed for 142 yards and scored a touchdown on a kick return.
He finished the season with 1,846 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground in nine games.
“It shows a lot of character that he got injured, came back from the injury and came back in a playoff game,” Lee said. “He came back and proved a point.”
The point was this: Wallace had what it took to play at the next level. During October of his senior year, Wallace received a verbal offer from Georgia State for a football scholarship, but as fall was coming to an end, the Panthers fell out of touch.
Lee and Wallace knew the Division I program was looking at other running backs, but couldn’t get a firm answer on what direction they wanted to take. Because of grade trouble Wallace had during his freshman year of high school, other schools like Nevada and UTEP couldn’t extend him a firm offer until he improved his grades during the fall of his senior year.
By the winter, they went in another direction.
“I had a lot of coaches coming up to me, but the grades weren’t there,” Wallace said. “Then I’m realizing that the only (reason) they can’t be serious with me is because of my grades, and that was a real bummer. I was letting myself down. I wasn’t giving myself the right opportunities because of what I was doing in the classroom.”
Dixie State, a Division II program in the southwest corner of Utah, always held interest in Wallace but recruiters thought he was out of their reach. So it came as a happy surprise when Wallace contacted them in the winter. After he reached out, Utah eagerly hosted him in early February. Wallace admits now he was a little uneasy after growing up in the desert most his life; he wore long pants, thick shoes and a jacket expecting chilly temps.
It was sunny and 85 degrees, literally warming him up to the prospect of playing football at a lower level than he first imagined.
“It felt really good leaving there,” he said. “It felt like Palm Springs. It didn’t feel real different. When I left there, I wanted to go back.”
He signed and sent in his national letter of intent Feb. 10. Georgia State eventually came crawling back, after their pursuit of a stout junior college running back fell through, but Wallace was happily unavailable, ready to prove himself when he moves to St. George, Utah in August.
“I think a lot of guys dropped the ball on him,” Lee said. “I think he’s going to go to Dixie and do really well. I think that level right there, he will be fine with as long as he takes care of business and he’s a student athlete, which is why he’s there…Right now, without playing a down, he’s comparable to anyone they have there.”
Wallace is even tossing around the idea of trying to walk-on to the basketball team, an up-and-coming group that has won five of six PacWest regular season titles and lost on a buzzer beater in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament last March.
His basketball coach during his junior and senior seasons, Sky Wilson, has spent several years coaching at the college level and understands the tall task that would stand in Wallace’s way were he to pursue that challenge.
But after seeing how organized and dedicated Wallace has become with his academics and managing his three sports, Wilson said it’s not impossible.
“If there’s one individual who could pursue that and give it a try, I wouldn’t be surprised if Orlando (did),” Wilson said. “I know young men that struggle balancing one sport and staying eligible…I think the sky is the limit for him as long as he keeps his head where it is. I think it shows a lot that he can just handle all that and the pressure of academics.”
Wallace has another reason to make sure he stays on the straight and narrow and doesn’t overload himself academically or athletically: his father, Orlando Sr.
The elder Wallace, according to the recent Cathedral City grad, was a basketball stud well on his way to a career at the next level before “an accident with some bad people” left him hospitalized. While recovering, he found out he was having a son.
Now, that son has a chance to achieve everything in sports his father never did.
“I still think he’s living through me,” the younger Wallace said. “He pushes me so much. He’s one of the people that does keep me on track.”
When the two Orlandos returned from Dixie State in February, his father had a simple message, one that he’s lived out during his high school years.
“He told me ‘Just don’t get too caught up on it, cause we want more,’ ” Wallace said. “Don’t settle for it.”
Football and track coach Richard Lee: “I think he’s going to go to Dixie and do really well. I think that level right there, he will be fine with as long as he takes care of business and he’s a student athlete, which is why he’s there…Right now, without playing a down, he’s comparable to anyone they have there.”
Basketball coach Sky Wilson: “He’s going to be missed from my end. I know Coach Lee on the football team, we’re all going to shed a tear, but that’s part of high school and kids moving on, but hopefully a lot of our kids benefit from being around him at school and watching him practice and play games. Hopefully the young kids watch and see what it takes to go to play at the next level.”
More on Wallace
Pre-game ritual: Relax, and then right before the start of the game, walk into the endzone.
Pet peeve: None
Favorite TV show: ESPN3
Three words that describe you: Athlete, fun and outgoing
Favorite late-night snack: Cereal
Athlete you most look up to: Tavon Austin
Future plans: Dixie State to play football, major undeclared