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Steelers take childhood pals Wallace, Lewis 12 picks apart in third round

PITTSBURGH -- They were teammates in Pop Warner and high school, best friends who planned to attend college together before a coaching change intervened. When it became evident that both would be NFL draft picks, they kept wondering where each would go.

How about to the same team in the same round -- and to the Super Bowl champions no less?

Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis couldn't script this any better, together again in the NFL -- just as they were when they lined up as kickoff returners at O. Perry Walker High in New Orleans. This kind of story usually occurs only in movie scripts or works of fiction, yet it happened Sunday when Wallace and Lewis were drafted 12 picks apart in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The first person Wallace, a wide receiver at Mississippi, called when the Steelers chose him his best buddy Lewis,was a cornerback at Oregon State. So imagine Wallace's surprise when, a few minutes later, Lewis called back to say he was going to Pittsburgh, too.

As Lewis was driving to Wallace's house for a mutual draft-day celebration, he couldn't help but wonder: How lucky can we be?

"It's a blessing. It has always been my dream to play in the NFL," Lewis said. "It's also a dream to play with one of my best friends. Since the age of 6, we played Pop Warner together, and we have played together ever since."

Except for college. Both signed with Oregon State, but when their high school coach was hired as a Mississippi assistant, Wallace changed his mind and went there, losing a season of eligibility.

Wallace and Lewis have gone through hardships together, too, including Hurricane Katrina, which swept through their New Orleans neighborhood, tearing the roof off Wallace's family home and temporarily displacing both families.

"I thought I was going to be taken first (in the draft)," Lewis said. "My name was one that popped up first on the draft lists before his. When he got picked, it was a relief for me because he has been my best friend for a long time."

Neither was born into wealth, and one of Wallace's five siblings was killed during his sophomore season in college. A brother spent five years in jail. One of his sisters was shot at a couple of weeks ago, with the bullet apparently intended for her striking one of Wallace's friends.

"Thank God that my sister wasn't hurt," Wallace said. "That's just one of the assets of making it to the National Football League. I'll be able to at least get my family (out) of here -- (out) of this situation."

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Before knowing Lewis would be in Pittsburgh, Wallace said his biggest adjustment to the NFL would be, "Living on my own, kind of far from home. ... We never really had too much coming up. I'm just trying to do the best I can with the cards I was dealt."

Now, home won't seem so far away.

"We heard detail information about their story," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Life experiences harden you, and the NFL is a game for the mentally tough. Those life experiences will be a help to him (Wallace) as he transitions to the pro game."

The Steelers need a No. 3 receiver after losing Nate Washington to the Tennessee Titans in free agency, and Wallace will compete with Limas Sweed, a second-round pick last year, for the spot.

Wallace was one of the fastest players in the draft, running the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He averaged 20.1 yards per catch and made seven touchdown catches for Mississippi last season, and he also returned kicks.

"We'll just throw him (Wallace) in the mix, and the best ones will come out," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.

Lewis, who made seven interceptions the last two seasons at Oregon State, compares in size to Steelers starter Ike Taylor, another New Orleans native.

"We have two big corners that people are always talking about, when you go up against the Arizonas (with multiple skilled receivers) that we did in the Super Bowl, to be able to match and be physical with people," Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton said.

On a busy Sunday, the Steelers also chose 323-pound guard-tackle Kraig Urbik of Wisconsin with one of the two third-round picks they picked up Saturday in a trade with the Denver Broncos.

Pittsburgh added another cornerback, Joe Burnett of Central Florida, and 240-pound running back Frank "The Tank" Summers of UNLV with back-to-back picks in the fifth round and another defensive lineman, Ra'Shon "Sonny" Harris, a one-season starter at Oregon, in the sixth.

"And I love all these nicknames," Tomlin said.

The Steelers' seventh-round picks were Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, who played high school football in suburban Pittsburgh, and Arkansas State tight end David Johnson.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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