It was a Saturday night, late August, 2011, and undrafted free agent rookie CB Darrin Walls walked out of the tunnel ready to warm up on the Heinz Field grass as his Atlanta Falcons prepared to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Preseason Week 3.
For Walls, this game was more than just a chance to prove he belonged on an NFL roster. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he would be playing against guys whom he grew up watching on TV and idolizing.
"It was a big deal for me then," he said, remembering a feeling of shock when the first person he saw on the field that night was QB Ben Roethlisberger. Now, however, as he prepares to face his hometown team at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, it will be "just another game."
After spending most of last season on our practice squad, Walls played in our final six games and made the 53-man roster out of training camp this year. While first-round rookie Dee Milliner's been sidelined with a hamstring injury, Walls has seized his opportunity and could possibly start his third consecutive game at cornerback on Sunday.
The third-year Notre Dame product believes things have been going well for him so far this season. He's gaining confidence, and he's having a less difficult time recognizing formations and splits as the weeks go by.
"I think I had a solid effort last week," he said, "but I left a lot of plays on the field to be made."
One play in particular came on the Falcons' opening drive. It was third-and-5 near midfield when QB Matt Ryan received the snap out of the shotgun and fired toward TE Tony Gonzalez on the left side of the field. Walls jumped the route, the ball hit him in his hands, but he was unable to secure the catch for what would have been just our second interception on the season.
"I knew the play was coming once I saw their formation and everything," he said, adding he was "thinking pick six" as the ball was in the air. "I think I probably thought about it a little bit too much. I was ready for it, but I just didn't capitalize when the opportunity presented itself."
Roethlisberger has thrown five interceptions in four games this year, so another opportunity could present itself Sunday.
Big Ben doesn't make things easy on cornerbacks, though, as his ability to escape the pressure and keep plays alive forces the defensive backs to cover their men for quite a long time.
Against fast, elusive receivers such as Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and ex-Jet Jerricho Cotchery, "We have to really focus in on our fundamental technique," Walls said. "They're not the biggest, but they do have a lot of speed and they run really good routes, so we have to do a good job with our hands and our feet this week."
Aside from the fact that he has 20 family and friends driving six hours from Pittsburgh to see the game, going up against his childhood team may not be anything special for Walls, but the same can't be said for his high school teammate and current Jets practice squad member, S Rontez Miles.
He wears his love of Pittsburgh on his sleeves, or under his sleeves to be more precise, with the Steeler logo, the 412 area code and one of the city's bridges tattooed down the top of his left arm.
"Growing up with all the great safeties and defenses that came out of Pittsburgh made me love defense the way I do now," he said.
It was an honor, he added, when the coaches handed him the No. 43 jersey for practice this week as he was assigned the task of mimicking the play of S Troy Polamalu.
"They told me just play how you've been playing," he said, "and they're giving me a little freedom this week to fly around."
So might he replicate the safety's patented move of hurdling over the offensive line at the precise moment the center snaps the ball? "If they let me," he said with a smile.