By JOHN GORALSKI
Ted Wallace doesn’t know the name of the St. Paul football player that hit him first, but he remembers the avalanche of Falcons slamming into him at Muzzy Field. The sophomore running back’s head bounced off the dirt on the infield, and his peripheral vision faded to a blur.
“I was just standing there, and somebody pushed me into the huddle,” said Wallace, still wincing as he retells the story after 30 years. Special teams swarmed onto the field, and Wallace—the punter—never even moved. He vaguely remembers the snap.
“I remember the ball hitting my hands,” he said. “I have no idea how I caught it or where it went after I kicked it, but I just fell down.”
The headaches came next. Then came the awkward discussions with coaches when it became clear that football was out of the question. It was a crushing blow for the rookie player. High school sports was a lifelong dream.
“I would ride my bike and hide in the woods to watch football games. I just couldn’t bring myself to go,” he said. “A lot of people couldn’t understand that, but I’d be at lunch with people wearing their game jerseys and that was hard.”
For most athletes, this would mark the end of a short story. For Wallace, it was just the beginning. Growing up on East Street, he had dreamed of being a three-sport athlete in high school. He honed his skills at St. Thomas Junior High School. He watched his older brother navigating the system with the Blue Knights.
Then, just a few weeks into his high school career, it looked like Wallace was down for the count. But like a prize fighter, Wallace got up. That’s what teammates, coaches, and fans remember most about him. Wallace shrugged off the headaches and battled onto the varsity rosters—as a sophomore—in basketball and baseball. It wasn’t the last time he bounced back from injury.
His former baseball coach, John Fontana, still remembers his catcher battling back from a serious thumb injury in the spring. Doctors warned that Wallace was done for the season, but a few weeks later he was asking to get back in the lineup.
“He always said that he was going to be playing,” Fontana said. “He ran every freaking day. Every day. He would swing a lead bat with one hand just to keep in shape. Finally, he came and told me his doctor told him he could play.”
The skeptical coach handed Wallace a bat and sent him out onto the field late in the game.
“The first pitch, what do you think he did? Out to center field,” said Fontana. “It’s still going. He was just an amazing guy.”
From the start, Wallace was the guy that threw himself into the center of the action. Even as a kid, when his siblings were learning piano, Wallace was escaping into the backyard to compete against the neighborhood kids.
In football, he was a running back, a defenseman, and a punter. In basketball, he battled for rebounds as a power forward before being converted to guard. In baseball, he was blocking wild pitches and taking hits at the plate. It’s no surprise that a concussion slowed him for a while in high school. Wallace was always battling in the trenches. He was due.
“Today, I’d probably be labeled as something in the spectrum of hyperactivity,” he said with a laugh. “Sports, for me, were a good release. We just went from one season to the other, but that’s just what you did.”
Soon, it became apparent that Wallace had some talent, too. During an annual elementary school race, nobody could touch him on the track. During basketball games, nobody could out-rebound him. During baseball tryouts in seventh grade, nobody could throw farther.
Then, a new guy showed up at the St. Thomas practice.
“Of course, I launch one and everyone was patting me on the back and high-fiving me,” said Wallace. “Then, here comes Rob Dibble. He launches one about 100 yards farther than mine. He was just in another league, and he’s always been.”
Of course, Wallace didn’t shrink from the challenge. The two became fast friends, and by the end of the season Dibble and Wallace were switching roles as pitcher and catcher. The Tigers were undefeated.
By the time they got to high school, Wallace was the only one capable of catching Dibble on the mound. Dibble still credits Wallace for much of his early success.
“That’s what catchers are supposed to do. Obviously, it helped me get noticed,” said the former major league all-star. “Between John Fontana and Ted Wallace, I don’t think there were two bigger helping hands in furthering my career at the high school level.”
Nobody was better behind the plate, and Dibble wasn’t the only one that Wallace could guard. As a kid, he caught for future major leaguer Mike Raczka. He caught for Steve Govoni. In college, he was warned about a hard-throwing prospect from Florida, but Wallace just smiled and crouched behind the plate.
“They asked if he was hard to catch. No. I didn’t catch anybody that was harder than Dibble. The movement on his ball was phenomenal for someone that could throw that hard. And he could throw hard. I still don’t have any feeling here,” he said, pointing to the ball of his hand.
“Teddy was as good a catcher as anybody that I ever threw to in the minor leagues or Big Leagues,” said Dibble. “He could have been a professional baseball player if that’s what he would have set his sights on.”
That path was certainly open to him. Wallace was a phenom behind the plate, and he had an arm that could rival any of the pitchers he faced. As a senior, he threw out 21 of the 26 base runners that tried to steal second. College scouts took notice.
“He could block balls. He could throw from one knee to second base like a rocket. He was definitely major league potential,” said Fontana. “He was built like Tarzan, and it wasn’t because he was always lifting weights. He was just always in great physical shape.”
Some of the Ivy League schools tried to lure the Southington catcher. Scouts from UConn tried to woo him. Fairfield University came the closest, signing the Blue Knight just before he pulled out of the race. Wallace made his final choice the moment Navy recruiters showed up on the sidelines.
“I just said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he said. “I de-committed from Fairfield, and it all happened in a whirlwind.”
After one year of prep school, the Southington catcher was facing fastballs at the U.S. Naval Academy. He earned four varsity letters, helped the Midshipmen earn one of only 10 NCAA appearances, and finished his career as a .290 hitter.
Wallace is still ranked in the top 20 for on-base percentage (.414), home runs (9), and walks (72). As a senior, he set a program record for perfect fielding behind the plate.
“He was a power hitter, but even his singles were bullets,” said Fontana. “It’s funny how you remember people. His average could have been even higher, but some of those bullets went right at people.”
But it was off the field that he really made an impact. Wallace became a Navy fighter pilot, flying F-18s until just five years ago. The former Blue Knight credits Southington sports for setting the foundation.
“I’ve been to Top Gun. I’ve been in some of the most competitive environments known to man—war, flying fighters every day against the finest our country has to offer, including marines and navy pilots,” he said. “I was over-prepared for that environment because of this town. I have no other way of saying it.”
That’s why he was such an easy choice for members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee. The sports star and navy hero was selected unanimously as a member of the Class of 2016.
“To do what Teddy did, you have to be amazing at math, dexterity, and everything else. To fly jets in the military, to protect our country, a lot of those attributes that go into making great athletes also make up great individuals and great human beings,” said Dibble. “When you look at all his accomplishments in life, a lot of that started with team sports.”
Wallace still credits his teammates and former coaches for preparing him for the next level. He said that he was trained by Marine drill instructors, reconnaissance guys, and even a major in the U.S. Marines that went on to become a four-star general, but he was in the best shape of his life during basketball practices at St. Thomas Junior High.
“Those guys, compared to Coach Dave Valentine’s basketball practices, were nothing,” he said. “I felt prepared for a lot of situations. The people, the coaches, and the teachers I had here—what a great environment. It was competitive, and that’s a great thing.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Wallace will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.