Michael Wallace once felt he was about the last person who would end up living the military lifestyle. The son of a minister, he said that as a youngster he always tried to "do my own thing."
His ability to do that changed when he enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy, but it didn't disappear--especially on the football field, where the junior fullback does his best to stand out.
In a nationally televised game earlier this season against Louisville, Wallace rushed for a single-game school-record 269 yards on just 19 carries--225 yards on 11 carries in the first half alone.
Entering Saturday's game with Navy, he is the leading rusher on the nation's fourth-best rushing team and he needs 182 yards to become the seventh player in Army history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
The opportunity to gain such distinction hasn't made it any easier for Wallace to digest West Point's demand for conformity.
"It's been a long road here," said Wallace, who is a junior. "There are days that I still like being here, then there are days when I say, 'What am I doing here?' But I think I've made the right choice for myself. Not only do I get to play football, but afterward I have a career waiting for me."
Following a high school career in which he was named all-city in San Antonio twice, Wallace was intent on playing in college. His first choice was Southwest Texas State, but his parents balked at the idea because they believed the campus, located about 30 miles north of San Antonio, was too close to home.
Since the rest of his scholarship offers came from service academies and Division I-AA schools, and his mother, Chong Hui Wallace, was enthralled with the idea of her son attending a service academy, Army jumped to the top of his list.
His visit to West Point made the decision easy. He developed a bond with some of the Army players and became enamored with the beauty of the campus. He recalled that he "never really wanted to go to an academy," but he figured Army would give him the chance to play Division I-A football and he'd get a great education too.
Still, the transition was tough. After moving onto campus the summer before his freshman year, and experiencing the academy's rigors, he said he often awoke in the middle of the night, looked around the room and thought, "What did I do?"
After admittedly bending the rules sometimes in high school, suddenly he didn't have a choice.
"Now, it's like 'You've got to do this.' I do what they tell me to do, but there's still that part of me saying, 'Don't do it,' " he said. "Sometimes I'll slack off and take my time doing it, so at least that way I'm not conforming all the way. We have so many rules here. I understand them, but some are unbelievable--the little small ones that you'd think nothing of, but here they think a lot of them."
His father, J.R., who served in the Army for eight years, said he has seen his son grow during his time at The Point. And after entering school intending to complete only his mandatory active-duty service commitment, Michael Wallace is warming to the idea of a military career, saying the possibility is "still up in the air."
What's certain, however, is his talent as a running back. With a combination of power and speed, the 5-foot-11, 232-pound Wallace has blossomed into the kind of player Coach Bob Sutton had been craving.
"I think he's had a real good year for us," said Sutton. "He can run, he can get into the open field, he can get yards."
Said Navy nose guard Gino Marchetti: "He makes the gains when they need it. He's just a clutch player."
Wallace played a limited role last season, carrying the ball 49 times for 224 yards, but he learned the nuances of Army's option offense from senior fullbacks Craig Stucker and Ty Amey. He was named a starter last spring, and told Sutton his goal was to become the team's next 1,000-yard rusher, joining the others whose names adorn a bulletin board in the team's locker room.
"I've always told my coach that I wanted to be the next person on that board," said Wallace, who has shared that goal with his offensive linemen this season.
After his huge game against Louisville, he seemed to be on his way. Since then, though, opposing defenses have adjusted, and Wallace has rushed for fewer yards in his past four games combined than he did against Louisville. Against Memphis on Nov. 13, he said, he consistently got hit by two or three defenders--even when he didn't have the ball.
With arch rival Navy up next, however, he's hoping to shift his game back into high gear.
"It's me versus them," he said. "It's eleven people on defense trying to pound me and my teammates into the ground. At the same time, this is Army-Navy, the best tradition there is."
Wallace said he's learning how to deal with the rules of the academy. Come Saturday, he said there will also be a different set of rules--the rules of engagement.