Predicting the annual vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a risky proposition. There are always surprises. Most people thought Bill Parcells was a lock last year, but he didn’t get in. Cris Carter has been a finalist four times only to be denied.
No doubt there will be a surprise or two Saturday when the Class of 2013 is announced. But in my mind there is one sure thing: Larry Allen will be among the chosen. It is his first year of eligibility and he should not be kept waiting. Wave him right in.
Allen is not as well known as other modern era finalists. He doesn’t have the TV credits of Michael Strahan, a catchy nickname like Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, or the larger-than-life personality of Warren Sapp. But in my opinion, Allen is the best player on the ballot and that should be enough.
Allen is a great story, a survivor who rose above the gang culture of Compton, Ca., who went to four different high schools and found his way to tiny Sonoma State, a Division II college where he arrived with all his belongings in two garbage bags. He started his climb from there.
Sonoma had only three full-time coaches, a stadium with no lights and just one set of bleachers. On a good day, they drew maybe 1,000 fans, but as word spread about this massive lineman who was pancaking people left and right, NFL scouts began showing up. Soon they were filing glowing reports.
By the time the 1994 draft rolled around, all the pro teams had the 6-3, 325-pound Allen on their board. Some projected him as a first-round pick, but that was probably a stretch given his background. He was flattening opponents at Sonoma, but he outweighed most of them by 60 pounds. It would be a different story in the NFL.
Allen fell to the second round where the Dallas Cowboys, at the urging of offensive line coach Hudson Houck, selected him with the 46th pick. Houck had studied film on Allen and worked him out at the combine. He felt Allen could be as good as Erik Williams, another small college lineman the Cowboys drafted and developed into a Pro Bowler.
At training camp, Allen was beaten regularly in one-on-one drills, but when you consider he was being beaten by the likes of Charles Haley (also a Hall of Fame finalist), Russell Maryland and Leon Lett, it is not hard to understand. Allen said later it was a good thing because working against those defensive linemen every day sped up his learning curve.
Allen cracked the starting lineup as a rookie, filling in for the injured Williams at right tackle. The next year Williams returned and Allen moved to right guard. He was voted into his first Pro Bowl.
The Cowboys went to the Super Bowl that year and defeated Pittsburgh, 27-17. Early in that game, Allen fired out of his stance and hit Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd, knocking him flat on his back. To see Lloyd, one of the league’s most feared defenders, blown up like that was amazing. It was an indication of how good Allen, only two years removed from Division II, really was.
Allen played 12 seasons for the Cowboys and two with San Francisco. He was voted into 11 Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro six times. He played every line position except center and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1990s and the 2000s.
You never read much about him because he didn’t talk much. During the open locker room period in Dallas when other players were talking to the media, Allen was usually at a table playing dominoes. He didn’t seek publicity. He was content to let his play speak for him.
Allen had a very influential supporter in John Madden, who broadcast countless Dallas games on TV. Madden was always circling Allen on replays, saying, “Watch this ...” It was not idle chatter. Madden felt Allen was the best offensive lineman in the league and put him in the same class as Gene Upshaw and Art Shell, who played for him in Oakland.
In all the years of visiting the Cowboys' facility, I only spoke with Allen once. I happened to catch him in a rare moment when he was at his locker. He was pleasant enough, but he didn’t have a lot to say. He talked about working hard, getting better, not taking anything for granted.
I asked if his upbringing contributed to that. He agreed it did. He talked about living in a gang area where the Crips and Bloods controlled the streets. One day he was stabbed 12 times while trying to protect his kid brother. He fought a lot, he said, but he survived. He moved on.
“Every day I walk in here I think, 'I made it,’” he said.
On Saturday, I believe he will make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He surely will have earned it.
He felt Allen could be as good as Erik Williams, another small college lineman the Cowboys drafted and developed into a Pro Bowler.