Larry Allen: A long road to respect

Former NFL lineman Larry Allen dominated his position like few others in pro football history.
Former NFL lineman Larry Allen dominated his position like few others in pro football history.

Arguably the most dominant offensive lineman in football history, Larry Allen died Sunday while on vacation with his family in Mexico. He was 52.


His life story redefined perseverance. It could have been the original plot line for Straight Outta Compton, but his music would have been hard rock—very hard.


Most of that was long before we slowly began to know him, despite his penchant for privacy.


As a guard, Allen played the game’s most anonymous position, and on those rare occasions that he did speak, he did so quietly. At 6-3, 335, he was a massive man who was even better than he was big. It was his play that spoke loudly.


“Nobody was more dominant than Larry Allen,” offered former inside linebacker Matt Millen. “Teams tried to do things to overcome him, but you could not overcome Larry Allen. It was futile. He was one of the most amazing players I ever saw.”


Millen, a student of the game, was so impressed that after one game, he sought out Allen and told him, “You played a great game.”

Allen’s response was a quiet “Thanks.”


“That’s the most I ever heard him say,” Millen recalled. “Hell, he knew he was good; he didn’t talk about it and just did his job — probably better than anyone before or since at that position. So, what else was there to say?”


Looking back on Allen’s illustrious 14-year career (Dallas Cowboys 12, San Francisco 49ers two), most fans know of his honors. They include the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Class of 2013), the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, the All-Decade teams of the 1990s and 2000s, six first-team and one second-team All-Pro and eleven Pro Bowl selections.


That is all even more impressive, considering where his life began — and almost ended.


Born Larry Christopher Allen Jr., he spent his early years in Compton and almost died of meningitis before he was a year old. At 11, he was stabbed in the head and neck 12 times, trying to protect his younger brother, Von.


For the rest of his life, Allen had the scars from the staples used to put his head back together. His mother, Vera, turned that incident into a lesson that he also carried with him for the rest of his life.


“My mom grew up in Compton and knew we had to be tough,” Allen said in 2014. “After he stabbed me, my mother made me fight him for three straight days until I won. I lost the first two days, but I come home from school and she is waiting on the corner, saying, ‘let’s go.’ She took me to him.”


Word spread that Allen was not an easy mark, which is necessary street cred when you live in a neighborhood that is a battleground for the Crips and the Bloods. After her husband left, Vera struggled as a single parent, and the family moved often. Larry attended five middle schools and four high schools but never graduated. Not at first.


As a 6-0 200-pound eighth grader, Allen lived with his grandmother in Yountville, CA., near Napa. It turned out to be life-altering when he befriended schoolmate Steve Hatton, whose father, Ron, became the first of three male parental figures who helped Larry reshape his life.


Ron Hatton spent 37 years in the military, 15 as a Marine and 21 in the Air Force. So when Allen accepted an offer to stay there, he accepted becoming a member of a strict household, although his incentive was more to get away from the gang shootings in Compton.


Suddenly, Allen’s life story flips from Straight Outta Compton to a scene from The Blind Side.


“Napa was a small, very white town,” Steve Hatton said. “Larry fit right in at home and at school. He was there two months and was named Homecoming King.”


Although he preferred privacy, Allen was conspicuous at Vintage High. He couldn’t hide his athleticism. He moved from the defensive line and became an offensive lineman — for the rest of his playing career. Despite his girth, Allen could dunk a basketball easily. But he left Vintage High without a diploma.


Next, Butte junior college coach Craig Rigsbee saw Allen’s potential. He taught Larry how to drive a car, write checks and manage money. In each of his two years there, Butte went 10-1, and Allen was named JC All-American as a sophomore. But after his time at Butte, Allen was back in Compton with no AA degree and little hope of qualifying for any college.


Vera wanted Larry out of Compton and called then-Sonoma State assistant coach Frank Scalercio, who had seen Allen play but never dreamed he would have him on his team.


“Do you want my baby?” Vera asked Scalercio. The coach did indeed want the big baby from Compton. First, he needed that GED, which came through “an adult night school full of pregnant women,” Allen later recalled.


Despite all the academic struggles, Allen had no problem on the field. His football feats became folklore in Northern California. Against UC-Davis, Allen knocked out three players in one play — a defensive tackle, a linebacker, and a safety. He did the same to a Humboldt State defensive end who boasted before the game of his intent to embarrass Allen. That end missed the remainder of the season.


Playing for the Cossacks (now Seawolves), Allen allowed a single sack in two seasons and was a two-time All-American. Additionally, in 1993, with Scalercio now elevated to head coach, Allen was named Northern California Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year — a rare feat for a lineman.

Initially overlooked for the East-West Shrine Game, Scalercio convinced bowl representatives to watch Allen play. The head coach recalled the experience during an interview in 2013.

“There were these two big defensive linemen for the other team,” Scalercio explained. “They took out our tight end, then pointed at Larry and said, ‘You’re next.’

“Larry hit the one guy so hard in the chest, the guy was out cold,” Scalercio continued. “They brought out the ambulance and strapped him down; they weren’t sure how he was. The East-West people said, ‘I think we can find a spot for him in the game.’”


The legend kept growing after Dallas drafted Allen in the second round (No. 46 overall). His combination of size, speed and strength was startling, especially if you played against him.


His 40-yard time at the Indianapolis Combine was listed at 5.21 seconds. Yep, the same combine that clocked Jerry Rice at 4.65 seconds. Leading up to his draft year, scouts reported Allen stopped the clocks in 4.85 seconds.


remarkable, legendary chase-down on Monday Night Football during Allen’s rookie year seemed to support the latter.

Many believe Allen is the strongest player ever to play football, based first on watching him throw huge players around like ragdolls and then on reports that he benched 700 pounds.


“I benched over 500 pounds and that’s a lot,” Millan said. “But if you see what he does with people — big people — it is easy to believe he benched 700.”


Matter of fact, here is visual proof.


Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter had this response to Allen’s death:


“The National Football League is filled with gifted athletes, but only a rare few have combined the size, brute strength, speed, and agility of Larry Allen. What he could do as an offensive lineman often defied logic and comprehension. In a six-season span, he was named All-Pro every year, and one of those seasons came when the Cowboys needed him to step in at tackle.

“He could literally beat the will out of his opponents, with many quitting mid-game or not dressing at all rather than face him, but that was only on the field. Off it, he was a quiet, gentle giant.”


The late John Madden loved offensive linemen, and Allen was one of the Hall of Fame coach’s favorites. In a 1999 Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts broadcast, Madden said he wasn’t going to make “this drive into a Larry Allen highlight,” But he did.


Prior to Allen’s enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013, Madden told The Dallas Morning News, “If you were to have a team 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. I’d take Larry Allen on my side. I don’t think anyone wanted to go against him.”


Although Allen was proud of all his football honors, his greatest source of joy was his wife, Janelle, daughters Jayla and Loriana, and son, Larry Allen Jr.


In 2014, during an interview with Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Allen waved his hand at his luxurious home in Danville, CA.

“I didn’t have this,” he said. “What I had to go through, I didn’t want for my kids. My daughter is dyslexic. She got into Pepperdine. My son is a 4.0 student. (He later played for Harvard and was signed as an undrafted rookie by Dallas.) My youngest daughter is a 4.0 student. That makes me feel good.”


In his Hall of Fame speech, Allen tried to sum it all up.


“My goal was simple: to earn a seven-word letter called ‘respect,’” he said. “The respect of my teammates, opponents and the NFL. Today, my mission is complete.”

Rest in Peace, Big Man.

Frank Cooney

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