Tight end Dwayne Allen rises above the ashes of his tumultuous childhood
Long before he reached the NFL, before he was a high school star and the finest college football tight end in the nation, Dwayne Allen was a 13-month-old toddler in Fayetteville, N.C. And he was dead.
It was the winter of 1992, and Dwayne had crawled off to his mother's bedroom while she cooked dinner. He returned some time later to the family room, but he was not alright. “Mama,” Dwayne's sister, Carlotta, observed. “Look at Dwayne. Something's wrong.”
Suddenly, Dwayne's head dipped, and fell — right into a bowl of potato chips placed on the apartment floor.
His mother, Olivia, raced over in a panic. Her husband at the time grabbed Dwayne, shook him, but just then a nightmare seemed to become real. Dwayne's eyes rolled into the back of his head.
Olivia rushed to her room to grab shoes and a jacket, and there she saw it. On the ground was a bottle of Advil, pills scattered everywhere. Dwayne had somehow reached them atop her dresser and opened the cap. How many he ingested Olivia couldn't know.
They sped to the hospital, the evening sun falling fast from the Carolina sky. Already, Olivia began to dread the worst. In the car, when she held her boy's little body, Dwayne didn't feel like he used to. “He was gone,” she says. “He was limp in my arms.”
Nurses grabbed Dwayne in the emergency room, and began cutting away his onesie, when a male doctor approached in a hurry. Olivia heard him shout, over and again: “Code blue!”
Olivia was told her baby was gone.
It was a freak accident, the fear of any parent, but for Dwayne, who's now 25 years old, it was the first hardship in a life full of them. He grew up poor, he grew up angry. For the first many years after he was born, Dwayne’s father never bothered to care for his young son. His only contact with the man came through Olivia, who signed his father's name on Christmas gifts and birthday cards to make it appear as though dad had really sent them himself.
His mother became a true idol to Dwayne, but even that seemed remarkable. She had led no easy life; Olivia became pregnant with her first baby at just 11-years-old, and by the time she gave birth to Dwayne, her seventh and final child, she was still only 21.
That in itself was hard enough, finding the money, the time, the resources to raise seven children and raise them well. Yet for years Olivia describes how she was also the victim of horrific domestic violence, the recipient of busted lips and black eyes at the hands of three men. One of them once came home wasted on crack, slipped into bed next to Olivia, and whispered in her ear that he could slit her throat without the kids hearing. The beatings often spilled over in front of her children.
In that environment, it was unbelievable that Dwayne made it anywhere, let alone where he has gone since: Clemson University, a graduate; the Indianapolis Colts, a starter; the NFL Players Association, a union leader.
But first he had to survive. In that emergency room some 23 years ago, there was no guarantee any of it would be possible. Doctors and nurses worked like hell to pump the medicine out of him. Olivia could only watch from the doorway. She began to pray.
“I said, ‘God, you told me the number seven means completion,’” she says. “‘This is my seventh child. Come on here. You gotta do something.’”
It seemed like hours passed, but moments later something caught her ear. “Mama,” her baby mumbled. It was all Olivia needed to hear to know Dwayne was alright.
In a movie, Dwayne might have left the hospital as a young boy and began anew, his second chance affording him happiness and an ease in life he'd never had before.
The reality is there was much more struggle to come. As he grew, Dwayne became a very irritable child, prone to outbursts and eager to disturb most every classroom he was placed in.
He felt loved at home, but without a father there could never be a full sense of it. Olivia did all she could, though often she worked nights to provide for the family. Dwayne felt he had no outlet for his rising emotions.
“I was really angry all the time,” he says. “I was the entertainer in the classroom, but if my act was interrupted by the teacher I would get angry. Cuss them out. Throw this. Get into fights.”
Money was often a challenge for the family, which lived in a very rough patch of Fayetteville. “There were hungry nights, days where mom just didn't have it,” Dwayne says. “There were times where we were on the edge of getting evicted, got evicted.”
One summer, when he was in grade school, Olivia shipped Dwayne to Houston to live with his biological father until school resumed. Right away, the man tried to assert dominance over his son, though with nothing else in their relationship to fall back on, the gesture fell flat. “He saw it as, ‘I'm dad. I'm your father,’” Dwayne says. “It was a rough month.”
If his mother's decision to send him to Texas was meant to bring Dwayne closer to his father, it instead confirmed to the boy that he felt he had no real dad at all. “It was not,” Dwayne says, “what I imagined it'd feel like to have a father.”
He continued to act out, growing to become a disruptive force so great in class he was expelled for Grades, 6, 7 and 8 to an alternative school for at-risk children. There, his peers weren't only class clowns and unfocused youths — they were much more dangerous and much more violent than he ever was.
Not until high school was Dwayne considered ready to rejoin a normal school system, however his life would change on one of his first days back.
By his freshman year, Dwayne was a large, strapping teen, an excellent basketball player who had yet to pick up the game that would make his life.
He wore his usual get-up, a white t-shirt, sport shorts, crew socks and flip-flops, when he passed a window walking toward the gymnasium at Terry Sanford High. Then, as if out of nowhere, Dwayne heard it for the first time: the thick, southern voice of Wayne Inman.
Wayne Inman is a tower of a man, a big, strong gym teacher who also happened to double then as the head football coach at Terry Sanford. He was on the phone with his brother when Dwayne happened to stroll by his office. “I might have to call you back,” the coach said.
Inman charged into the hallway. “Hey, you,” he said, and Dwayne turned his head. “How come you don't play football?” Dwayne walked back toward the coach, told him that no, sir, basketball was his sport.
“Well,” Inman began, “there are two things I can look at and know when I see it. One's a good-looking girl, and the other's a football player. And you're not a good-looking girl.”
The coach returned to his office for his wallet and produced a ten dollar bill.
“Here's 10 bucks,” he told Dwayne. “You can go buy a Wendy's burger, Twinkies, or you can go buy a bag of dope. Or you can use it to go get a physical. If you go get a physical, I'll see you out there at practice Monday.”
The meeting struck Dwayne. He'd had coaches before, though never before had a man in his life put such trust in him. That Inman was white made things even more peculiar.
“Where I grew up, I didn't have much white male interaction,” Dwayne says. “Other than them reading Miranda rights to the people they were arresting.”
What began for Dwayne as a curious interaction grew into much more. He joined the coach's team, and soon enough Inman was the driving male force in his life, the only man who would hold Dwayne accountable for his daily behavior.
At school, Inman studied Dwayne's schedule and made sure the boy was in class. When he was in class, Inman confirmed he was awake. When he was awake, the coach volunteered Dwayne to answer any question his teacher might care to ask.
Dwayne resisted Inman's new role at first; he had, after all, been burned by other men before. But Inman never relented, never eased back in what he demanded of Dwayne. “I didn't always tell him what he wanted to hear,” the coach says. “But I told him what he needed to hear.”
He saw to it Dwayne's grades improved, that he had rides from practice, shuttling his new tight end home to parts of town where an old white man isn't often spotted in a car with a young black teen. They were together so much, and their relationship had grown to such a point, those around Fayetteville gave them a nickname: “Wayne and Dwayne.”
Inman knew the stakes for Dwayne, what staying in school and growing as a man meant for him. “I felt like if Dwayne had've gone (back) to an alternative school one more time, we'd have lost him,” Inman says. Dwayne found the temper inside him was fading, that Inman's presence and counsel meant he was no longer controlled by a rage about life around him.
And not a moment too soon. “They knew that I needed someone,” Dwayne says. “Or else I was going to end up dead or in jail.”
Dwayne blossomed as a football star, his talents attracting nearly 30 major programs desperate for the tight end to sign their letters of intent. He chose nearby Clemson, where as a senior in 2011 he grabbed 50 balls and scored eight touchdowns. After his final season, he earned the John Mackey Award, given the most outstanding tight end in the country. When the Colts picked Dwayne in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, he was just the second player off the board at his position.
He had come so far, and yet all along the way, by his side, was Inman. Some years earlier, when he had become a high school phenom, Dwayne's biological father returned to visit his boy, searching to rekindle a lost bond. But Dwayne had a need for him no longer. Where once there was a void in his life, the place a father was supposed to be, Inman had arrived.
“He loved me,” Dwayne says. “He absolutely loved me.”
Dwayne is a fine tight end today, a talented receiver, an impressive blocker, and a true leader of the Colts (at just 25, only Eric Reid of the 49ers is younger than Dwayne among team union reps with the NFLPA.)
But as he has developed as a pro, he found his most important role has been outside football.
“Dwayne believes the position he is in (in the NFL),” Inman says, “God put him there to serve others.” Which is why, with the blessing of his mother, Dwayne would like to share some of the most painful secrets his family has.
Dwayne Allen sits in the booth of a sandwich shop on W. 11th St. in Indianapolis. He has told parts of this story before, at women's shelters and with community groups, however it has not necessarily come easier each time.
He is a gifted public speaker, the result, he says, of pleading his case to teachers and school principals all those years. But one topic forces Dwayne to start and stop, to pause, to stare off between sentences toward some place in the distance only he knows.
Dwayne's mother, Olivia, is about the kindest woman there could ever be. She is known as “Mama O” around Fayetteville, a soaring, warm spirit that was always the neighborhood mother, feeding and clothing those children who had even less than hers did.
Her voice is so soft, her demeanor so sweet, it does not seem possible she has been through what she has.
For years, Dwayne was forced to watch Olivia become the victim of terrible abuse in her home, vicious attacks at the hands of multiple men Olivia could only pray her children had not seen.
Dwayne was so young when it began, 4-years-old, maybe 5, but it was no less devastating to the boy, to hear the shouting, the pleas from his mother, the bloody result.
One of Olivia's cruellest abusers was a man named Stanley (for this story, the man's real name has been changed.) When Olivia met him, he was a wonderful partner. He cooked and cleaned. When Olivia came home from work, Stanley had already run her bath water, laid out her bed clothes so she could get comfortable. “He had all good characteristics,” Olivia says. “But he had one bad that made him a monster.”
Stanley, Olivia says, was addicted to crack. Olivia says she always knew when he was high; even Dwayne says he could see it, too. His eyes would be glassed over, sprung open wide. His lower lip would quiver and shake, as if he were trying to chew it.
It was in these moments Olivia knew she would be hit. Stanley became violent when he used, striking Olivia in the face, bloodying and bruising her. Her children never saw the worst of it, the threats on her life, the time in bed when Stanley told Olivia he could slice her throat, the stolen money, the controlling jealousy, the orders to never be caught spending time around another man.
But Olivia couldn't keep the abuse from them. “You can't hide nothing like that,” she says. “Kids know. They knew.”
Somehow, Olivia kept her composure, though there was no way it couldn't change her, all the smacks and punches. One day, she says, she was thrown clear through a wall in her home.
Dwayne was heartbroken. Olivia was her rock, but also the life of every party. After each attack, it required no small amount of time for her to recover and return to herself. He saw it take months sometimes before she emerged as “Mama O” again.
“Seeing a woman who I idolize, who I think is the strongest person I know, broken, hurt because a man that she loved was going to physically assault her,” Dwayne says. “It was so tough.”
Eventually, the children intervened, confronting Stanley and running him off, but the next men, nor the ones that preceded him, seemed to be any better. Olivia figures that, from the time she was a pre-teen mother until very recently, three husbands and more than a dozen men in total, she was in a relationship that was abusive in some way, whether it was physical, sexual, verbal or otherwise.
She could not break the pattern. As bad as the abuse got, the men in some way provided her comfort and support. “Loneliness,” she says, “is a terrible thing.”
Olivia found salvation and self-worth through her children. She has five daughters — Margreatta, Carlotta, Lonnett, Tina and Keyera — and Olivia realized she wanted that fate for no woman, her own children or anybody else's. She began speaking to the community, to abused women, telling the story God asked her to share.
“I didn't want my daughters to go through what I went through,” she says. “I didn't want my sons to become the men that I was with.”
During his third season as a pro, Dwayne rang his mother. By then he had become a respected NFL player, even had a bit of national fame, but he always desired to make a difference in another way. He wanted to do something more with his prominence in football.
He hoped to speak about domestic violence, and Olivia agreed right away that he should share her story. “My mother told me, before she passed away, the things that you go through are not just for you,” Olivia says. “They're meant for others along the way that go through things and don't know what to do.”
Dwayne partnered with Verizon Wireless to help collect used cell phones to support Coburn Place, an Indianapolis shelter for battered women and children. He took over a leading role in a program called DREAM Alive, which mentors at-risk youths in Indianapolis, 99 per cent of which live below the poverty line.
He has also become a role model to local children of domestic violence, for there is never only one true victim of abuse. “They remind me so much of myself when I was younger,” Dwayne says.
The son cannot hide his affection for mom today. “Aw, man,” Dwayne beams when asked about Olivia. “She's my hero.” Talking about the pain she has been through helps him realize all that the family has overcome.
All that pain. There was a time when Olivia wondered how her own abuse might shape her children, what may come of them from living under the same roof as so much violence.
But with Dwayne, no matter how it looked, she had a sense of things to come.
As she watched doctors bring her baby back from an early grave in that emergency room in Fayetteville, Olivia moved closer to Dwayne and stood above his hospital gurney. Sometimes Olivia asked God why he had given her seven children, yet there she found out.
“Because my seventh had a calling on his life,” Olivia says. “He was destined for greatness.”