As Louisville senior running back Tony Stallings deposits his three-foot-long pet alligator, Baraka, into one of the five glass tanks in his one-bedroom apartment, he explains why his wife of five months, Vette, lets him keep dead mice in the freezer. "It makes feeding the meat eaters a lot easier," says Tony, who every week defrosts 10 to 12 mice in hot water to help feed his collection of reptiles, which he started assembling in earnest two years ago. In addition to the gator, there's a 1�-foot-long monitor lizard, a five-foot-long reticulated python and a 2�-foot-long albino Burmese python. "For now, the mice work," says Tony, "but once the gator gets bigger, I'll have to move on to whole turkeys for it."
Stallings has always been fascinated by animals. While growing up in Bedford, Ohio, as the youngest of six kids, he begged his mother, Sylvia, to take him to SeaWorld in nearby Aurora. At 15, he got his first pet, a green iguana, and at 16, a part-time job at a pet store. After putting up All-Ohio numbers (1,213 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns) as a senior running back at Bedford High, where he also occasionally started at linebacker, Stallings packed up his iguana and headed to Louisville.
Following a redshirt year in 1997, the 5'11", 205-pound Stallings started eight games at linebacker the next season and was named a Conference USA all-freshman honoree. He then successfully lobbied assistant head coach Art Valero and coach John L. Smith for a spot in the back-field, but an ankle sprain slowed him and he saw little action in 1999. Healthy again last season, he led the Cardinals in rushing (810 yards) and tied for the lead in touchdowns (nine). In last Saturday's 52-7 victory over Tulane, which ran Louisville's record to 8-1, he rushed 10 times for 45 yards, increasing his season total to 440 yards on the ground. He also caught two passes for 19 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown reception, and helped on the kickoff and kickoff-return teams. A bruising runner and an excellent blocker, Stallings is one of the Cardinals' emotional leaders. "He gives you all he's got every time out," says Smith.
Not that Stallings lets football get in the way of his animal attraction. During the season he works on Monday afternoons at a Louisville pet store, and he occasionally visits nearby schools to show students his animals. The last two summers he worked at the Louisville Zoo as a guide in the petting area, leading groups of children through a village of goats, sheep, turtles, donkeys and snakes.
A sociology major with a child due in April, Stallings hopes to pursue a pro career after this year. If things work out-Smith thinks Stallings has an outside chance at the NFL—he already has his dream house planned. "When people like Kobe Bryant get rich, they buy those big houses, but they're completely empty," says Stallings. "Instead of having all those bedrooms where nobody's going to sleep, I'm going to have rooms for all my animals." Down one hall, he explains, will be his snakes, each in its own habitat and with its own brass nameplate in cursive letters on the door. In his den he'll keep parrots. In the living room he'll have one wall of saltwater fish, and on the other side he'll have a 20-foot glass tank for Baraka.
Stallings smiles and then remembers one more addition. "Oh, yeah," he says, "let's not forget the dolphin that I'm going to have swimming in my pool in the backyard. I haven't figured out how I'm going to get one yet. Maybe I'll talk to those people at SeaWorld, see if I can trade them some of my NFL tickets or something."