Both hail from Georgia, where they were high school rivals, and both ended up as tackles for the San Francisco 49ers, where they are now the twin pillars of football's finest offensive line. But in many ways Harris Barton and Steve Wallace are as dissimilar as two linemen can be.
After high school in the town of Chamblee, Wallace went to Auburn, where he opened holes for Bo Jackson. Barton. from Dunwoody, became an All-America at North Carolina. Wallace was dubbed a bust after his rookie season with the Niners; he has since boomed. Barton's transition to the NFL was smooth: He has started in 100 of his 104 career games.
One is a technician, the other a street brawler in cleats. Says 49er offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick, "Harris could block a man all day, and that guy might say, 'He's not that good—I just didn't do my job.' With Steve, the same guy would feel like he'd gone 15 rounds. He just mauls you."
For years Wallace was known as the nastiest hog on the league's dirtiest line. But he has mellowed of late. This newfound serenity can be traced to a United Way promotional spot he filmed in 1992. Surrounded by foster children during the filming of the commercial, Wallace and his wife, Vassar, decided to move up their timetable for starting a family. They had planned to adopt just one child, but the first little girl they met at the agency had a sister. Unwilling to split the children up, they adopted both. Elle is now four, Xaia three. "When I wake up in the morning, I see two smiling faces. You can't explain the feeling of joy you get from that," says Wallace. His metamorphosis from s.o.b. to D-A-D did not damage his career. After the '92 season he went to the Pro Bowl.
Barton admits it: He was jealous that his linemate had made it to the game in Honolulu. This was an accolade for which he had lusted. Says one 49er coach of Barton, "There are bigger tackles, but I don't know of any faster, and I know there are none smarter." During the season, Barton reports to the 49er offices by 7 a.m. He watches video for an hour and lifts for an hour, by which time some of his teammates have begun to trickle in. Barton's father, Paul, used to tell the story of being awakened at 5 a.m. by the sound of Harris skipping rope in the driveway.
His efforts paid off at the end of last season, when Barton was finally voted a Pro Bowl starter. By then, of course, he could have cared less. Paul Barton was dying of brain cancer. When Harris gave his father the news about the Pro Bowl—"Well, Dad, I'm going to Hawaii"—the old man said, "Why don't you just go to Panama City? It's just as sunny, and it's cheaper."
Paul died in May. "For six years, people had been telling me, 'Harris, if you make the Pro Bowl, is it going to change your life?' I realized how unimportant it is. I learned to appreciate my family. I can't be any more obsessed with football, but hopefully I can become a better person."
They are the best tackle tandem in football: Barton and Wallace. And they both have great perspective on exactly how important that is.