Marcus Allen, the USC tailback, was relaxing at home the other night, an island of calm in the tumultuous sea of adulation and attention in which he has found himself since Sept. 12, when he began rattling off 200-yard games and unnerving the opposition in the race for the Heisman Trophy. Allen is laughing and telling stories, as winners always do, and he remembers a hot day last summer when he told USC Offensive Coordinator John Jackson, "Hey, I want to get 2,000 yards this year."
Then what happened?
"Then we settled down and made some realistic goals." That was a good idea, because no collegian had ever rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. Pitt's Tony Dorsett had come as close as anyone figured was possible when in 1976 he got 1,948 yards on 338 carries, the NCAA 11-game season record.
Ahhhh, but the unrealistic goal of 2,000 yards turned out to be gloriously realistic last Saturday in Seattle when Allen sprinted, spun and slashed for 155 against Washington to bring his season total to 2,123. "All Marcus is doing," says USC Coach John Robinson, "are things that have never been done before in college football." And Allen, who now holds eight NCAA records and is tied for another, does the impossible because he has always understood that two shortcomings of ordinary humans are that they fail to dream big enough and they think of dreams only as something you wake up from. Marcus lives his big dreams.
November 23, 1981
Although Washington whipped USC 13-3 on a 100% miserable day—rain poured, wind blasted, power failed, bridges closed, ark-building began—Allen delivered another dreamlike performance, especially given the conditions.
Needing only 32 yards to reach the magic 2,000, he did it early in the first quarter, on his fourth carry, when he cruised around end on the oh-so-familiar Student Body Right. He eluded several tacklers and slogged on for 13 yards before being decked by Husky Linebacker Ken Driscoll. That run brought him to 2,000 yards exactly. Three plays later Allen cracked over center for four more to move past 2,000—and earn a prolonged ovation from Washington fans.
Predictably, however, Allen was depressed. "What I did doesn't mean all that much right now," he said softly afterward. "All I'm thinking about is that we didn't win the game." The loss all but killed the Trojans' Rose Bowl hopes.
A blitzing Husky defense, led by Linebacker Tony Caldwell's 12 tackles, had a lot to do with USC's losing. So did two field goals by Chuck Nelson—a first-half 21-yarder and a brilliant boot into a twisting wind from 46 yards with 2:19 left to play. Then, without a tick going off the clock, the Huskies scored a TD when the ensuing kickoff bounced, went off the hands of USC's Fred Crutcher and was recovered in the end zone by Washington freshman Fred Small.
Despite the defeat, Robinson remains upbeat about Allen's performance this season. "The hell with 2,000 yards," he says. "Let's go for 3,000." Why not? There's one USC game left, against UCLA this Saturday, and Allen needs but 877 yards. His offensive line, big and mobile in the USC tradition, might just be up to it. And so might Allen himself, who, incredibly, may be the best athlete ever to line up at tailback for USC. Sorry, Charles, A.D., Clarence, Ricky, Mike. Oh, and yes, sorry, O.J.
Nonetheless, Allen won't get to match the career yardage figures of Charles White, much less Dorsett's record total of 6,082. Dorsett got that total in four years of running, while Allen spent part of his career as a blocking back, knocking defenders out of White's way.
The person most thrilled with this unbelievable year is Allen himself. When he goes out in public, he's an instant mob scene. And when he stays in, there he is, great big smile on his face, sprawled over a couch in the living room of the small house he lives in behind his aunt's Inglewood home. Hanging above him is a map of the world, which will be his to purchase after the numbers are filled in next year on his NFL contract, an NBC Sports banner, three days' worth of clothes and a basketball hoop. A basketball hoop?
"Sure," says Allen. "Why not? I thought I needed to give this room a little something extra. It fits right in, doesn't it? Maybe I'll be an interior decorator."
That's as good an explanation as any for the presence of an inside hoop, seeing as how Southern California weather is hardly confining. But what the heck, the room has a high ceiling, and the basket is convenient when Allen is struck by an urge to shoot a few hoops. Robinson understands. He says, "Marcus is the kind of guy you'd want to take the last shot in a basketball game." Allen pops in a jumper from outside the coffee table, after juking out the TV, and laughs: "Damn, this is fun. I love interviews."
"I love interviews. I meet so many interesting people. These are the good times."
Understand that a player who professes to like, let alone love, interviews should be immediately suspected of having run too many off-tackle blasts without his helmet. But Allen, 21, is not really a basketball player despite the hoop. Nor a baseball player—although his mother, Gwen, insists baseball is his best sport. She says seriously, "He's another Brooks Robinson." Or anything else except a breed apart as a football player.
In seven of ten games this year, and three times last year, Allen ran for more than 200 yards—this in a sport in which a back who gets 100 yards once in a career guarantees himself a permanent place in the hearts of alumni. Allen has gone for 100 yards or more 19 of the 20 times he has started as the USC tailback. His efforts have erased nearly all of the NCAA marks set in 1969-71 by Cornell's Ed Marinaro, who was playing against far less imposing competition. Marinaro had five 200-yard-plus games in a season, 10 in his career, and had a single-season per-game rushing average of 209 yards in 1971, compared to Allen's current average 212.3.
If Allen doesn't get the Heisman—the winner will be announced Dec. 5—each of the 1,050 voters will be frisked for concealed Georgia Bulldogs. Understand this, Allen is just learning how to be a running back. Mel Washington, one of Allen's coaches at San Diego's Lincoln High, says, "He's definitely not seasoned. I can't imagine what he'll be like when he learns what he's doing." Absolutely hell on wheels is the best guess, unless he takes up interior decorating. Standing alongside the Trojan practice field the other day, Ram Player Personnel Director John Math shook his head, "We don't use the term 'franchise saver' but there are no doubts about Marcus."
At 6'2", 205 pounds, Allen is not as fast as O.J. Simpson was, though Allen says, "I'm faster than most people think I am." And he's perhaps not as crushing as Simpson was. But better? "Well," says Robinson, "O.J. was the best player in college football and went on to become the best player in pro football. He's the only guy who went for 2,000 yards in an NFL season. That's pretty hard to beat. But I'd say Marcus is achieving at the same level." Allen is durable—he has missed one game in four years, and that was because of an eye injury—and has enough stamina to average 36 carries per game. And he's quick. "When he carries the ball," Robinson says, "you find yourself thinking, 'Bad tackle, bad tackle, oohhh, another one.' " What Allen does better than anybody is make the opposition miss; he's a mirage in low-cuts.
His style is much like O.J.'s. He has the vision to see what's going on now and the foresight to see—and avoid—the pitfalls ahead. Trojan Quarterback John Mazur says of Allen, "There are two things I like about him—the way he runs and the way he gets up time after time." The initial impression is that Allen, with his quick moves, is picking up yardage strictly through elusiveness, but perhaps harking back to his days of playing defense as a youngster, he still will deliver a hit before the opposition player can tee off on him. The result is that he'll routinely get an additional three yards after seemingly having been stopped.
Probably the most intelligent descriptions of his style come from his coaches, who are bright enough not to attempt to give one. Says Jackson, "I can't describe it, but he sure has one." Robinson suggests, "His body is relaxed but his eyes are intense. The only time I saw his eyes light up during recruiting was when we would talk about him becoming a great player. He liked that."
Because Allen owes so much to his offensive line, it was prophetic that the hard recruiting was done by Offensive Line Coach Hudson Houck. Yet Allen hardly seemed destined to be a USC tailback, the most storied position in college football. Indeed, he played running back a little as a youngster but then not again until he got to USC. What he really liked was playing linebacker or defensive back. In one high school game, he made 30 unassisted tackles.
At Lincoln, Coach Vic Player pressured Allen into being the quarterback in his senior year, but Player says, "Marcus just wanted to be one of the boys. He didn't want to be the honcho." Allen seemingly rebelled against being the quarterback by repeatedly fumbling the snap one afternoon in practice, until Player abruptly kicked him off the team. "Get out of here, get out of here," Player screamed, "and don't come back." The next day Allen humbly returned, helmet in hand and bowing deep apologies, which Player quickly accepted. "If he hadn't come back," Player says, "I would've gone to him and begged. But Marcus will never believe that." As it turned out, Lincoln went on to a 12-0-1 mark that year with Allen at quarterback and won the San Diego County championship 34-6 over Kearny as Allen rushed nine times for 197 yards, intercepted a pass and scored all five of his team's touchdowns.
In the hysterical recruiting that followed, everybody wanted Allen but for wildly different reasons. Oklahoma, for instance, hustled him as a quarterback. USC had him figured as a defensive back. But after Allen decided on Southern Cal, Robinson got his wits about him on the fourth day of practice in August 1978 and suggested to Allen that he try tailback. That idea went over much better than the one Robinson brought up the next spring, after Allen had spent most of his freshman season on the bench. "Marcus," Robinson said, "how would you like to try fullback?" Understand that at USC the only job more unpleasant than fullback is caring for the Trojan horse. Mostly, the fullback blocks, and then he blocks some more. Occasionally—say when Jupiter is in conjunction with the left linebacker—he gets to run with the ball. When Allen hesitated, Robinson jumped in, saying, "Think about it, Marcus, because you're not going to play much at tailback." True, since White, who would win the Heisman in 1979, had a lock on the position.
So Allen agreed to move to fullback and promptly did terribly during practice in the spring of '79. In the fall, on the first play of practice, he broke his nose. Says Allen, "I looked down and saw blood all over my shirt, and I said, 'Hey, did I hurt somebody?' " He was given the ball in the season opener, against Texas Tech, and he fumbled. Reflecting on this miserable start—not without its parallels to Allen's high school quarterbacking career—Robinson says, "He was trying hard to do something that he didn't want to do. Plus he was giving away 30 pounds doing something—blocking on linebackers—that he did not know how to do."
But by the end of the 1979 season, Allen had become so proficient at fullback that his main concern had become the specter of having to remain at the position. Late in the season, Robinson stopped him at practice and said, "Marcus, you sacrificed for the good of the team." Responded Allen, "Yeah, I sacrificed my entire body." Even though that period in his life is almost two years past, Allen remembers it all too vividly. "I'd say 90 percent of the time at fullback, I came out on the bad end," he says.
And so a tailback was born, and in 1980 Allen was second in the nation in rushing—1,563 yards to South Carolina's George Rogers' 1,781—and was considered a failure by almost everyone. A failure? "Sure," says Allen. "People felt that way because the standard is so high around here."
There are many reasons for the low performance rating Allen received. Mike Garrett, who won the Heisman at USC in 1965, says, "I told him that in life we all want to be something special and that he was being given his chance and it was up to him to make the most of it. But he didn't seem to realize what it meant or what it took to be USC tailback." That the Trojans went a mediocre—again by their standards—8-2-1 also hurt. Additionally, the casual observers didn't take into account that the Southern Cal passing game was off, producing 50 yards fewer per game than the season before. That and a lack of yardage from the fullback spot—even by USC standards—enabled opponents to key on Allen.
Worse, Allen exhibited an annoying habit of slipping down on cuts and lunging for holes rather than powering through—shortcomings caused by being off-balance. "Last year he seemed like he was always just a step away," says Offensive Tackle Don Mosebar. "This year he's a step ahead." And last year fans were infatuated with Georgia's Herschel Walker (he's averaging 166 yards per game in '81, 46 fewer than Allen) and made no allowance for the fact Walker had been principally a running back all his life and Allen had tried it for one year as a kid and 31 more times as a freshman. It helped not a lick that in Allen's few rushes as a freshman, he was quickly dubbed Young Juice, even though the similarities to Old Juice were mostly in style and appearance. Until this incredible season, Marcus was just a squirt.
So why are you suddenly so much better, Marcus?
"I wanted to be."
How do you do it?
"Everything is instinct. I'm just gone."
Robinson, clicking films back and forth of Allen getting gone, says that the tailback at USC must think "I'm going to carry 40 times and I'm going to getcha. Maybe not until my 38th carry, but I'll getcha. There's an ethic to it. The most important thing is: We've never had a jerk play the position."
And the incumbent certainly is no jerk. Indeed, he has a personality that lights up the sky. Draw a picture of the perfect guy to be USC tailback and you draw Marcus. You want a son just like him. One of his best friends, Chip McAllister, 24, an actor, says of Allen, "He'd rather die than lie." The first time Allen met O.J., he said to Simpson, "Do me a favor. Call my mom." O.J. did.
Realizing that he needed to improve his speaking abilities—quite candidly, to learn how to speak to white corporate America in something other than black street dialect—Allen went to USC speech professor Ed Bodaken. They now meet once a week to review Allen's interviews, and Bodaken says, "Marcus moves to substance. He's really trying to move up. He knows he is in the fast lane; he wants to express himself well. But understand, we were never talking about a grunt-and-moaner."
Asked why he is concerned about speaking when his football ability can always talk for him, Allen says, "I want to improve every aspect of my life, and football is just one aspect."
Allen is interested not only in how he says things but in what he says. That's a lesson he learned from a wall plaque in the den back home in San Diego:
Be careful of the words you say
So keep them soft and sweet
You never know from day to day
Which ones you'll have to eat.
Allen has never had a serious moment of trouble, even if you count the time the neighbor lady called the police because she said he was standing on her property; it turned out he was standing on city property. When something would go wrong involving Marcus and his older brother, Harold, "my father would just beat the hell out of both of us," says Allen. "He didn't bother to try to find out which one did it. And I appreciate it. See, so many parents don't care."
Not that Allen couldn't be pesky. Once, angered because the manager of his Little League team insisted he play shortstop instead of centerfield, Allen organized a boycott. The manager was Red Allen, his father.
Red, a building contractor whose theory of child-raising was to keep Marcus and the five other Allen children so busy that they "wouldn't have time to get into bedevilment," once bought two Shetland ponies for that purpose. Now he says, "Marcus tells us he is going to buy his mom a Mercedes, retire me and buy us all a new house. He doesn't have to, because he doesn't owe us a single thing. Except respect."
That's no problem, for, as Marcus says, "I respect people and I respect myself." Which are two of the reasons why he has led such an all-American-hero kind of life. So what's his biggest disappointment in life? He shoots a fall-away jumper from kitchen right and then says, "I'll let you know December 5."