METAIRIE, La. – Just across the Mississippi River from the world-famous French Quarter is neighborhood called Algiers, where Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace and Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis became playmates around age 5.
Their friendship went beyond sports. Wallace didn't even play football until Lewis persuaded him to go out for their high school team at O. Perry Walker. A decade later, they'll go head-to-head for the first time in the most fitting place of all — the Superdome — this Monday night.
It has been a strange week of unfamiliar tension between the longtime friends, who've long known each other as teammates, but never opponents.
"That's my brother. That's someone I've been knowing since the age of 5, so we did everything together," Lewis said. "It's feeling kind of weird having to go up against him."
They never played against each other in college. Wallace was at Mississippi and Lewis at Oregon State. When they turned pro, both wound up on the same NFL team — the Pittsburgh Steelers — growing even closer as young adults. They were house mates and usually sat next to each other on the team plane to road games. They still talk by phone nearly every day.
Last weekend, Wallace delighted in Lewis' first interception with New Orleans, but couldn't stop himself from delivering a little ribbing when they next spoke.
"As soon as he called me after the game, he said he caught an interception," Wallace recalled. "I told him that he dropped two."
Lewis expected nothing less.
"You know you're always hard on each other because we want each other to be the best," Lewis said. "I knew he was going to have a comeback, but I watched film on him this week, so I tell him he missed some of those balls last week as well."
Lewis said the trash-talking would continue in the Superdome, where the two players could be matched up one-on-one on numerous plays. Lewis generally plays on the same side of the field where Wallace lines up.
"We've been looking forward to this," Lewis said. "This is a guy who talked the whole summer, trash-talking how he was going to do this and how he was going to do that. So I'm pretty sure he's heated up right now — and I'm heated up."
The story line only gets richer when considering that both teams are 3-0 and the game is on national television.
Whether Wallace wins out or not, he'll always be grateful that Lewis encouraged him to come out for football in the first place.
"Ever since we were younger we always knew I could play," Wallace said. "I just never wanted to play."
Added Lewis: "I basically forced him to come out there. I saw the talent that he had and we needed it, so he joined us and he's been successful ever since."
Lewis might want to consider a career in scouting when he's done playing.
As a high school senior, Wallace had 60 catches for 1,039 yards and 19 touchdowns, according to Louisiana high school football analyst and historian Ken Trahan, who also hosts a high school football radio show on fall Friday nights. Wallace also returned four punts and four kickoffs for touchdowns.
Lewis said that he and Wallace, both being free agents last offseason, had offers from some of the same teams, but understood they had to take the offers that suited them most as individual professionals.
Lewis wound up back in the Big Easy, home of the Creole cuisine he and Wallace enjoyed as kids. However, Lewis said he hardly eats his favorite Louisiana dishes, particularly during the season, because he's afraid it'll cause him to put on weight.
Likewise, Wallace said he'll resist the temptation before the game to indulge in the New Orleans tradition of eating red beans and rice with Andouille sausage on Mondays.
"You know what red beans do to you, so I don't know if that's a good thing for me to eat," Wallace said. "I'm going to keep it light. I have to be running real fast on Monday night."
Notes: RB Mark Ingram (toe, right foot), DT Broderick Bunkley (right calf), S Roman Harper (left knee), WR Lance More (hand) and DE Tom Johnson (hamstring) did not practice on Friday. Starting RG Jahri Evans (hamstring) was listed as limited, as was starting CB Jabari Greer.