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And-here was the main thing-you only needed to make one mistake at left tackle to have a bad game. The left tackle was defined by his weakest moment. "You have this tremendous ability to be embarrassed," said Wallace. "It only takes one play. I could be good on 34 out of 35 pass plays, and all anyone would remember was that one sack."
This point was driven home to him on the Saturday before the Vikings game, when Walsh called the team into the auditorium for the pleasurable viewing of its past highlights. Walsh did this before every game. He thought it helped his players to see themselves at their best before they went out to play. The players watched Jerry Rice dash into the end zone, Ronnie Lott intercept a pass and Montana thread the ball between defenders. They whooped and hollered and cheered for one another. It was all good fun, all positive. But at the end of the highlight reel, Walsh, perversely, had inserted a single negative play: a Doleman sack.
The sack came during the regular season in a game the 49ers won 24-21. Doleman got by Wallace just once, but he crushed Montana. Wallace didn't need to be reminded of the play. That one sack was all he had thought about for days. Doleman had beaten him to the outside. Wallace had reached out to punch him but lost his footing. Doleman rose up off Montana, jumped around celebrating and then found Wallace, to editorialize. "You got this all day," he said.
Wallace responded as he had 13 other times that season, by starting a fight. "I remember thinking, If I don't do something, he may get 10 sacks," he said. "So I decided to mix it up." The NFL hadn't yet begun to levy big fines for fights, and Wallace had taken full advantage of the freebies. He now had a reputation as one of the league's dirtiest linemen. "I thought that's how it had to be," he said. "I had to fight if I was going to make it. And I had some folks to feed. And when you have some folks to feed, you have a whole different mentality." That really was how Wallace thought about these beasts bent on killing Montana: You go by me, and my family goes hungry. He was deeply insecure. People were saying that he wasn't a good pass blocker, and he wasn't all that sure they were wrong. Just that morning-the morning Walsh played the tape of the Doleman sack-Doleman was quoted in the paper saying, "The reason Wallace fights so much is to cover up his lack of ability."
Now he had to face Doleman again. Doleman was about to go to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year. No one on the team had forgotten what he had done to them in the playoffs the year before. And yet Walsh felt the need to replay that one sack. Over and over again Wallace watched Doleman beat him and crunch Montana. He didn't understand why Walsh needed to humiliate him. He said nothing, of course, but he was at once livid and ashamed. He wasn't going to sleep that night anyway; now he wasn't going to sleep with a vengeance. "All night long I'm lying there thinking, Why did he show that one play?" Wallace said. "A lot of times you can't understand what Walsh was doing until he's done it." At some point that night Wallace decided, "The lesson for me was to concentrate one play longer. As hard as you can possibly work, you can do it for one more play."
The next day, after he'd suited up, Wallace received another explanation for Walsh's perverse behavior. John McVay, the team's director of football operations, pulled him aside in the hallway and said, "You are going to be the key to this game. The game is going to turn on your performance." This wasn't a front-office pep talk. McVay was a former NFL coach-and he was completely serious.
This was new. Until this season, his first as a starting left tackle, Wallace had never experienced line play as an individualistic event. But that is what playing left tackle had become: a one-on-one encounter, a boxing match. The passing game, increasingly, was built around the idea of getting as many receivers out into patterns as quickly as possible. More receivers meant fewer pass blockers. Fewer pass blockers meant the left tackle had to deal with whatever was coming at him all by himself. Every now and then a running back or a tight end might lend a shoulder, but mostly it would be just Wallace and Doleman, one-on-one. And the importance of the private battle was now clear to Wallace: "No one had ever said anything like that to me before, 'The game depends on you.'"
Number 74 trots to the edge of the tunnel leading from the locker room to the field. He loves this moment. This moment is the offensive lineman's one shot at positive recognition. When he started playing football as a kid, he wanted to play tight end; even then he preferred basketball. He enjoyed attention. It's still not natural to him to play a game in front of millions of people and go completely unnoticed. It's like playing the cantaloupe in the school play.
"At left tackle, number 74, Steve Wallace!" His name is announced to the packed stadium, and he runs out. He's still so nervous and new to this that he concentrates on not stumbling. The day is sunny and bright, but the turf, he notices, is slick and muddy. That's a break. Opposing teams who came to Candlestick Park were deceived by the sunshine. They'd think, On such a nice day the ground must be firm. The ground was seldom firm. By the second quarter they'd be slipping and sliding, yet they wouldn't think to change their cleats. A pass rusher like Doleman counted on traction to turn the corner. If Wallace forced Doleman to carve especially tight turns, Wallace knew, the turf might do the rest.
Wallace had made up his mind before the game that he would play within himself. Doleman's words in the paper had stung: The reason Wallace fights so much is to cover up his lack of ability. "I said to myself, No matter what happens, I'm not going to fight him today," Wallace said. "And it helped me to become a true left tackle."