Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013 enshrinee Larry Allen's mammoth girth combined with exceptional athleticism — he could dunk a basketball with just a few steps — allowed him to manhandle opposing players with ridiculous ease.
Growing up outside Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s was hazardous to one’s health. Compton was akin to a war zone, and young Larry Allen was close enough to the front lines to witness the battlefield.
Both his father and grandfather suffered gunshot wounds, though neither died. Larry was lucky, too. A 10-year-old Allen was stabbed around the head and neck a dozen times by a neighborhood bully in his welcome to the block.
Fast forward a decade — or three. That punk wouldn’t have had a chance against Larry Allen — knife or no knife. Allen survived Compton when his mother, Vera, moved her family north after divorcing his dad, and he grew to a menacing 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds of pure unadulterated power.
One of 10 children, Allen eventually learned to channel his inner rage onto America’s football fields and a journey that culminates Saturday when he is enshrined with the rest of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013.
Allen was inspired by local Los Angeles Ram Jackie Slater, a Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle.
“Jackie Slater was one of the reasons I started playing football,” Allen told The Repository. “He was just a mean lineman. He had a head butt! He would give a lot of people concussions.”
Allen dished out headaches as one of the game’s most dominating offensive linemen over 14 thunderous NFL seasons. He won a Super Bowl ring in his second of 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. By the end of his run in 2007, with San Francisco, Allen was a seven-time All-Pro who also made the Pro Bowl 11 times.
Now he is a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. Hall of Fame coach and TV analyst John Madden called Allen one of the two best guards to ever play, along with John Hannah.
“I just broke down and started crying,” Allen said of learning he is a member of the Class of 2013. “You’ve got to be a dominating player (to get in). I knew I had a chance. I didn’t think it would be this soon.”
GREAT SOONER, NOT LATER
Allen was a two-time Division II All-American lineman out of tiny Sonoma State University when Dallas chose him 44th overall in the second round of the 1994 NFL Draft. His size, speed and strength cast a large shadow in spite of playing for the Cossacks.
“We knew he had great talent,” Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck said of Allen. “There was no question about that. But prior to the draft, some staff members were looking at defensive players.
“I stood up and said there is a guy who can certainly play. Jerry (Jones, Dallas’ owner) saw the film and said, ‘Whoa!’ ”
Page 2 of 5 - Allen started 10 games at right tackle his rookie year. He moved fast enough to run down a Saints linebacker to prevent a pick-six. He learned just as swiftly.
“We had him and his wife Janelle over to dinner,” the now-retired Houck said. “We said there are going to be a lot of people around, people noticing you, you’re a Cowboy.
“And Janelle said, ‘You think he’s going to be a big star? You think he’s going to play?’ We said, ‘He’s going to play.’ ”
The Cowboys won Super Bowls in 1993 and 1994 before they drafted Allen. They were knocked out by San Francisco in the NFC title game in Allen’s rookie season despite going 12-4 and winning the Eastern Division under new head coach Barry Switzer.
“He had talent,” Switzer said. “He was not a project. Offensive linemen Nate Newton, Mark Tuinei, they realized what a stud he was. He was accepted right away.”
Being surrounded by a talented Dallas offense helped Allen.
“To have the best players at every position, especially on the O-line, my first year I just sat back and watched, and learned,” Allen said. “Once I got in (the lineup), I wanted to stay in. I just did my best.”
BRIGHT LIGHT UP FRONT
Then came 1995. It was the shining season in Allen’s career, the last bright light in Dallas’ ascension to America’s Team.
The Cowboys went 12-4 and won the East again. They beat the Eagles and the Packers in the playoffs before dismissing the Steelers 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX.
“We didn’t just get to the Super Bowl, we won the Super Bowl,” Allen said. “A lot of great players played the game and don’t have a ring. I was fortunate enough to get one.”
He played a big part in securing a championship. At 24, with a year of NFL experience, Allen moved to right guard, as much a key to the line as veterans Newton (34), Tuinei (35), Ray Donaldson (37) and Erik Williams (27).
The front allowed a Dallas record-low 18 sacks in protecting quarterback Troy Aikman. It created gaping holes for Emmitt Smith to score 25 touchdowns in his finest season.
All but Williams made either the Pro Bowl or All-Pro. Allen’s future was exploding. It wasn’t long before he was widely recognized as the strongest player in football.
“Offensive guards aren’t supposed to physically beat defensive tackles into submission,” Switzer said. “Larry Allen did. I remember defensive tackles quitting. Larry was that strong.”
His fellow linemen saw the carnage he generated up close.
“I heard noises I never heard on the field before,” said Donaldson. “They were so loud, you looked back to see who it was he was hitting. You heard the clacking little noises of the pads ... then he was on to the next guy.”
Page 3 of 5 - “On the field, he was going to hit you in the mouth,” Newton said. “Some guys talk. If you chose to talk to him, he served it to you.”
STRENGTH AND COMMITMENT
Allen played 10 more years but he and the ‘Boys never got back to the Super Bowl. While the sheen eventually came off the franchise’s famed star, Allen’s did nothing but rise.
His mammoth girth combined with exceptional athleticism — he could dunk a basketball with just a few steps — allowed him to manhandle opposing players with ridiculous ease.
Dallas coaches and players talked about opposing players contracting “Larry Allen flu” late in the week before playing the Cowboys, an escape from the pain they would incur had they suited up.
“What he brought to the table was the ability to play, to study the game, and he knew what he wanted from the game,” Newton said. “Emmitt, Troy, Michael, Larry, they didn’t just play the game. They wanted to impact the game.”
Allen put in the time in the film room and the weight room, the better to crush his foe across the line.
“His work ethic was phenomenal,” Houck said. “Not only as a player, but as a teammate. ... Larry, he brought some of the other guys along.”
Allen always showed up. During his All-Pro streak from 1995-2001 he started 98 straight games including the playoffs. In that time Dallas allowed 1.4 sacks a game, fewest in the NFL.
Only twice in his 14 seasons did Allen not play every game, in 2002 due to an ankle injury and 2006, his first of two seasons in San Francisco after he was cut by Dallas for salary cap reasons.
That consistency and mastery paid off. He received a six-year, $24 million contract he signed in 1997 when he was an unrestricted free agent.
An All-Pro at right guard, left guard and left tackle, Allen became the third to qualify at three positions. That made him a rare two-time All-Decade lineman, in the 1990s and 2000s.
“The thing about Larry is he could play inside and out,” Switzer said. “He made All-Pro at tackle and guard. But he was so dominant inside. No one could collapse the pocket on him.”
UNDER THE GUN, UNDER THE RADAR
That Allen got to college before the NFL may have been his crowning achievement.
He went to four different high schools before graduating from Vintage, in Napa. No other Pro Football Hall of Famer had ever attended more than two.
“I didn’t play organized football until 11th grade in high school,” Allen told The Repository. “I grew up in Compton, California. You had so many options ... to stay out of trouble I started to play football.”
Page 4 of 5 - Why football?
“To hit people and get away with it — legally.”
Allen’s hitting became legendary in college. Depending on the sources, he knocked out a handful of players over his four seasons at Butte Junior College in Oroville, Calif. and Sonoma State University.
It took Allen time to hit the books and the weights. Poor grades, the constant transferring, and poor study habits kept him from ever going to a Division I college.
“He was so raw, but he had natural strength,” said Craig Rigsbee, Butte’s current athletic director and Allen’s head coach. “One time we were in the weight room and I saw he was trying to sneak out. I said ‘Get your butt back in here!’
“There was someone trying to bench 405. He said, ‘If I do that can I leave?’ I said, ‘Don’t hurt yourself.’ He did it five times — as a 17-year-old that had never lifted in his life.”
LIGHTS CAME ON OUTSIDE LA
Rigsbee, Sonoma State coach Frank Scalercio and Houck were the fathers that Allen didn’t have. They helped Allen on his path to greatness and manhood.
Rigsbee quickly upon meeting Allen saw that he had the potential to be special.
“But he’s out of shape, he couldn’t run,” said Rigsbee. “So we had him jog around the field. We took it slow because we didn’t want him to quit. As soon as we got him in shape, he was unbelievable. He literally knocked people 15 feet.”
Allen responded to Rigsbee and Scalercio by growing up as a football player before their eyes. That was easier than growing up to be a family man and father, two things he knew little about.
“Of all the things I’m most proud of about Larry, it’s his family,” Scalercio said. “His kids are the nicest kids. Young Larry is kind, very polite, just a great kid. He gets after it on the field, too.”
“Young Larry” is a 6-3, 300-pounder in the image of his father. The difference is Larry Sr. has been there for his son, which is why Larry Jr. is being courted by USC and Stanford.
SILENT BUT PROUD
Because of his background, Allen never cared to talk much. Even his football family rarely heard Allen go on about anything in depth.
“He just didn’t have the nurturing, like a lot of kids do,” Switzer said. “I don’t know that for a fact, but that’s how I felt. But Larry, right when I met him, I knew he was a good person.”
Allen was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2011. Dallas owner Jones went on introducing his favorite lineman. Jones then passed the microphone to Allen to address the crowd. It lasted all of 13 seconds.
Page 5 of 5 - “He’s not a guy who was going to look for the spotlight,” said Rick Gosselin, a Dallas Morning News sportswriter and Hall of Fame voter. “He will set a record for the shortest Hall of Fame speech.”
Scalercio said Allen might surprise his former teammates.
“He’s been working on his speech,” Scalercio said. “He’s not a big talker, but he’s a very, very intelligent man.”
Allen had two sides, said his former running mate at guard.
“On the field, he was going to punish you,” Newton said. “Off the field, he had a big heart, would talk to you, drink a beer with you. What better person could you possibly want around you?”
Madden, for one, knew he wanted Allen on his team.
“If you were to have a game and you were going to choose up sides and you weren’t sure exactly what the game was or the rules were, boxing or wrestling or football, you’d choose Larry Allen,” he told the Morning News. “I’d take Larry Allen on my side. I don’t think anyone wanted to go against him.”
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