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NFL Hall of Fame inductee Larry Allen true to Sonoma State

Star remains humble as his beginnings at Empire college

Newly inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame, SSU alum Larry Allen is all smiles as he is introduced in the VIP tent at the SSU basketball game on Saturday night Feb. 9, 2013.

Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 11:21 a.m.

It was 2008 and Jacob Harris was on a tour of college campuses. He had visited Humboldt State and Chico State and they were all nice and lovely, each campus tour guide quick to point out famous alumni as well as iconic buildings and professors of high academic distinction. When Harris began his tour at SSU, he never forgot the first thing out of the man's mouth as he tried to sell Sonoma State.

“Larry Allen went to school here,” the tour guide told the group.

That was the very, very first thing the tour guide said, remembered Harris, now a senior majoring in business at SSU. Harris not only was struck with the placement of Allen above all of SSU's marketable attributes, but it was the way the tour guide said it. With conviction, pride and a certainty that Allen's two years at the Rohnert Park campus (1992-1993) would be forever a lure impossible for undecided students to resist.

“Yes,” Harris said Saturday night, “I am a little star struck.”

Harris indeed had big eyes when Allen — named last week to Pro Football's Hall of Fame — walked into the VIP tent adjacent to the gym. It was Pack The Den, an athletic fund raiser. SSU would play Chico State and the hook to the evening was Allen, viewed as the best offensive guard in NFL history, the strongest player to ever play the game and, as John Madden once said, quite possibly the greatest offensive lineman in league history.

To Harris, Allen is more myth than man. Harris was only a year old when Allen last played for the Cossacks, now the Seawolves. The stories of Allen's ability while at SSU — he once blocked a player from Portland State so hard the player flew in the air from the hash mark and landed on the sidelines — elevate the awe factor among those seeing Allen in person for first-time.

They had to be stunned by what they saw Saturday night. Allen did not dress, act or talk like a NFL superstar. He wore all black, shirt, pants and shoes. He had a nice watch on his right wrist but he otherwise had no bling, certainly no swagger. Unlike the typical NFL super star whose apparel and attitude scream “Look At Me!”, Allen went in the other direction: “Look Past Me.”

“You would never know he played football,” said Tim Burrell, 69, a semi-retired sales manager for a medical company and long-time Allen friend. “You have to grind it out of him. He is as shy as he is big.”

Allen is 6-foot-3, 330 pounds but the all-black ensemble concealed his size. To a point. A look at his shoulders from the back revealed something like a very-wide piano bench under that shirt. It was massive, the kind of massive that overwhelms because the feeling of largeness is everywhere.

“Those shoulders would stop a truck,” Burrell said. “I always worried that Larry would kill someone playing Division 2 football.”

Because of his size — he had about the same dimensions on the SSU campus as he did later with the Dallas Cowboys — the first impression of Allen could set you back on your heels.

“I think you could be intimidated if you saw him for the first time,” Burrell said. “And then, if you get to know him, you'd find out. ...”

What Tammy Fa'agata found out in 1993. Fa'agata played softball for SSU. In the spring of 1994, she was walking across the grass just south of the SSU gym.

“I remembered what happened like it was yesterday,” she said.

Coming toward her in the other direction was Allen.

“Hi, I'm Larry.”

“Hi, I'm Tammy.”

“Do you play sports here?”

“I do. I'm a softball player. What about you? Do you play football? You look like you do.”

“I did (play football).”

About that time Allen noticed Fa'agata looking at his overcoat.

“You like this jacket, don't you?” Allen said.

“I do.”

“You want it?”

“Ah, sure.”

“I can't give it to you now because it's the only thing I have to keep me warm. I'll give it you next time I see you.”

Fa'agata and Allen never ran into each other again. But that's not what Fa'agata remembered best about the story.

“He never told me he was Larry Allen,” Fa'agata said. “He was just Larry. And when he said 'I did' when it came to playing football, he wasn't lying. He had played for Sonoma State. What he didn't tell was that he had just been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. He didn't even tell me his last name. That's how humble a guy he is. I didn't find out until two weeks later when someone told me. I was floored.”

Someone from tiny Sonoma State getting drafted in the second round by America's Team would carry an air of royalty, not to mention smugness. Allen?

“When I went to the Cowboys,” Allen said, “they had just won the Super Bowl and they had superstars at every position. They told me 'Great players don't showboat. Great players just play.' I never forgot that.”

With wide receiver Michael Irvin possibly being the only Cowboy superstar not to follow that edict.

Allen admitted he didn't need to be trained on keeping his ego in check.

“I don't have a big head, that's not me at all,” Allen said.

Allen never forgot that Frank Scalercio was the only coach to have offered him a chance to play college football at a four-year university. Allen was languishing at his home in Compton, discouraged, disillusioned and dejected that his dream to play NFL football would ever take place. Scalercio, now assistant to the SSU president in charge of special projects, made the call.

“I wouldn't have made it to the NFL if it wasn't for SSU,” said Allen, 41.

Allen never forgets a kindness. He attends two to three SSU events annually. He doesn't charge an appearance fee. He signs his autograph for free. He asks for nothing in return and doesn't waste a lot of time explaining why.

“I'm happy,” said Allen, a resident of the East Bay community of Blackhawk. He has a life he loves, as a husband and father to two girls and one boy. In fact, when asked what would be the best compliment someone could pay him, Allen didn't mention football.

“That he was a great family man,” Allen said.

If that sentence comes across as difficult to believe, considering all his awards, Fa'agata had no doubts it was sincere. Twenty years ago Allen impressed her with a humility she has never forgotten.

“Remember me?” Fa'agata asked Allen Saturday night. He did.

“Remember that jacket you promised me?” Fa'agata asked. Allen said he did.

“I'll make sure you get it this time,” the NFL Hall of Famer said.

Fa'agata has no idea how that will happen. Doesn't matter. What does matter is this: This is the same Larry Allen she knew 20 years ago. That was good enough for her.

[END_CREDIT_0]For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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