It was Christmas Break, 1991, and Larry Allen had quit football. An entire year had passed since he had last played. His grades at Butte College were so poor, he didn't get his Associate of Arts degree. He was back home in South Central Los Angeles, in Compton, living with his mom, Vera. He was 19 years old. What kind of job did he want?
"I had no idea," Allen said Saturday after he was elected on the first ballot to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This happens to a lot of kids in South Central. They wander aimlessly between nowhere and anonymous. Except that Allen didn't know someone was trying to find him.
"I remembered the year before I had scouted Butte playing at SRJC," Frank Scalercio said by telephone Saturday night. Scalercio in 1991 was SSU's football coach and is now an administrative official at the school. "There was this kid in the game throwing people around all over the place. He was picking them up and throwing them to the ground. I walked away from the game and everybody told me, 'Forget about it. You're not going to get this kid. A big D1 school will get him.'"
Scalercio shrugged. They're right. A year passed and this kid wasn't playing D1 football. Scalercio couldn't find Allen in anyone's program, couldn't even find where he was living. But Scalercio knew Allen liked to play basketball and so during Christmas Break in 1991, Scalercio asked one of his football players -- who lived in L.A. and was going back to visit -- to find him. Check out the basketball courts.
The player, whose name Scalercio can't recall, found Allen. He handed Allen a note. Call my coach, he said. He wants you to come up to Northern California and play college football. Allen was stunned. Wasn't like the phone was ringing off the hook.
It took four months, including intense summer academic study, to get Allen to SSU in time for training camp in the fall of 1992.
"You want my baby?" Vera asked Scalercio.
"Yes ma'am I do," he said.
"Well, you can have him," Vera said. "I trust you."
From nowhere, Larry Allen came and ended up somewhere.
"Yep, Frank Scalercio called," he said, "and the rest is history."
When Allen phrased it like that, I asked Scalercio later, he made it sound like that phone call changed his life.
"I think so," Scalercio said. "That's a true statement."
What would have happened to Allen if he never had received that call? Where would he have gone? There are endless stories about great athletes who slipped through the cracks because of grades, attitude, environment or substance abuse. They drop off the map, never to be seen again. A phone call to Allen got in the way of that and lead to this ...
"I'm surprised they let Warren Sapp into the Hall of Fame after they showed everyone that tape," yelled former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg to Allen. As Allen's name was announced as a 2013 Hall of Fame inductee, several clips on NFL Network showed Allen in his Cowboys uniform delivering punishing blocks, a few on Tampa Bay's Sapp. Sapp also was elected to Canton on Saturday.
"I wanted to make you quit," Allen said of his strategy on blocking defensive linemen. "I wanted you to tap out."
Allen was so focused on that strategy he wanted nothing to distract him. In his rookie season, after being a second-round pick by the Cowboys, Allen wore ear plugs, the crowd noise from NFL stadiums was so different and loud.
"Larry hit this one kid from Humboldt State so hard in the chest," Scalercio said, "the player immediately lost consciousness and collapsed straight to the ground. He dropped so hard he blew out his knee. The Humboldt coaches were furious. They thought Larry gave the kid a cheap shot. Then they looked at the tape. They realized Larry hit their kid so hard he was falling to the ground already unconscious. That's how he blew out his knee."
Allen became an 11-time Pro Bowler with the Cowboys and he didn't change his approach.
"I thought, or least I tried, to get people scared of me," said 6-foot-9, 345-pound Baltimore tackle Jonathan Ogden, who also was elected on the first ballot. "This guy (Allen) scared people all the time. I saw a lot of three-techniques (defensive linemen) all of a sudden get cramps when they faced Larry."
The Cowboys even came up with a phrase for it. They said defensive players would suddenly have "Allen-itis" and have to leave the game.
"You just can't pack enough lunches when you play this guy," Sapp said.
Check out the YouTube video, the people at the Hall of Fame told me Saturday. Just type in "Larry Allen Darion Connor." And so I did. In his 1994 rookie season Allen, at 6-foot-3, 325 pounds, ran down Connor, a Saints linebacker running with a pass interception. It was about 60 yards. Allen caught Connor, made the tackle and became YouTube viral. It's stunning to watch, a big man run like that.
"The week before my defensive line coach got on me for not hustling on a play," Allen said. "I was going to make sure it wasn't going to happen again."
The crowd inside the New Orleans Convention Center -- the Hall of Fame announcements were going live -- drew a collective gasp when Allen told them what his time was in the 40.
"I did a 4.8 in rookie camp," Allen said.
He would go on to bench 692 pounds, squat 900. Speed, power, intensity and "I didn't want to let anyone down," he said.
His intensity, he said, always had been a God-given gift, but the application of it at Sonoma State had a special driving force behind it.
"I had to be dominant because I needed to get the attention of the NFL scouts," Allen said. "So I had to beat on people hard every time."
For those years at SSU and then the 14 in the NFL -- the last two with the 49ers -- Allen kept pushing his personal boulder up the hill. No one is going to think I'm a slacker. No one is going to dominate me. No one is my equal. And he kept pushing and pushing and now, Saturday night, Allen didn't have anything to punish anymore.
"I broke down and started crying," Allen said.
He has the life he always dreamed of. Allen lives in upscale Blackhawk in the East Bay. His kids go to De La Salle. His 6-foot-5, 270-pound son, Larry III, is a senior and a starter for the Spartans.
When he stood onstage with Ogden, the same whisper was spirited through the audience: here stands the greatest tackle and guard in NFL history.
Allen was wearing his Super Bowl XXX ring, when the Cowboys beat the Steelers.
"I wear it all the time," he said.
"You never take it off?"
"Never," Allen said.
"You wear it everywhere?"
"Everywhere," Allen said.
Usually, in a situation like this that involves famous jewelry, I would have suggested the wearer to be careful. Not this time. I think the ring is safe.
Written by Bob Padecky. Reprinted from the Press Democrat, Feb. 2, 2013.
You can reach him at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.