On Top Of The Heap, As Always

Marcus Allen won the Heisman in college and MVP honors in the NFL. The Los Angeles Raiders' running back is, relentlessly, the best
August 31, 1986

In the garage downstairs dwells the toy. Marcus Allen, the Los Angeles Raiders running back, lovingly calls it Testaroni. To the sports car connoisseur this fabulously expensive, marvelously gorgeous, wonderfully fast machine is the 1986 Ferrari Testarossa. Price tag: $115,000.

"Not another one like it in the NFL," Allen boasts.

It is a sleek, black spaceship with tinted windows, built low to the ground in the front, rising and widening to the rear. On the back bumper, in red script, is a tiny "thirty-two," the number Allen wears on his uniform.

There are six scalloped air vents in the side of each door, making them look like wings. When the doors are opened, red lights blink on the interior panels. "Just part of the security system," he explains, pushing a numbered code on his key ring to deactivate the lights.

Allen walks over to his other Ferrari. This one is a black 400i, a two-door coupe. He digs through the glove box for the one card he never leaves home without—his Los Angeles Police Crime Prevention Advisory Council card, which has his picture on it. If he is stopped by the cops, which has happened, he wants official proof he really is Marcus Allen.

"A black guy driving an expensive car—he couldn't possibly afford that, it must be stolen." he says sarcastically. Two years ago, while driving another Ferrari, Allen was pulled over for having the wrong license plates. The officer, who claimed he didn't recognize the football player, drew a gun on him.

Allen climbs into Testaroni, adjusts the rearview mirror and combs his hair. He slips in a Stevie Wonder tape and turns on the ignition. The car growls softly. He presses the gas pedal to the floor. High-pitched vibrations shoot through the Ferrari.

Allen whips out of the garage, winds through the streets and parking lots of the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, zips on and off the San Diego Freeway and zooms east on Wilshire Boulevard.

In Los Angeles, as the saying goes, you are what you drive. But Allen doesn't live to drive Testaroni. To fully appreciate this luxury sports car he would have to air it out at its top speed of 181 mph.

Rather, Allen lives to ride in it—at about 35 mph—on the city streets. Because in this town's sea of Mercedes and Jaguars, the Ferrari Testarossa is one car capable of turning heads.

He glides through the corner at Santa Monica Boulevard. A BMW 733i honks; the driver has the audacity to floor it and pass. These people don't even recognize the driver—they just want to race.

Allen, of course, has a more important race to run—toward lasting fame in the NFL. In his four-year career he has rushed for 4,638 yards and 44 touchdowns. Last year Allen led the NFL in rushing (1,759 yards on 380 attempts)—his third consecutive 1,000-yard season.

What sets Allen, 26, apart from contemporaries like Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker—and what makes him the most versatile running back in the game—is his extraordinary ability to catch passes. In each of the last three seasons he has caught at least 60. His career total is 237. Lydell Mitchell of the Baltimore Colts is the only other back in NFL history to have rushed for more than 1,000 yards and caught at least 60 passes for three straight seasons.

"When I prepare for the Raiders, I prepare for Marcus Allen," says Ronnie Lott, the San Francisco 49ers' All-Pro defensive back. "I know that every, every, every play, he can beat you."

Says Dennis Smith, the Denver Broncos' All-Pro defensive back, "Even if it's not in our game plan, we leave our zone and follow him. Marcus brings on that kind of alert. He is the Man. Marcus will not be intimidated. You can see it in his eyes. He does the intimidating."

If toughness could be measured, the 6'2", 205-pound Allen might be the best running back in the league in that category, too. "I've been around some supposedly tough people," says Howie Long, the Raiders' All-Pro defensive end, a bruiser himself. "This guy is the real deal. I've seen Marcus body-slam the Oilers' Robert Brazile and Gregg Bingham in the Astrodome when nobody else would do anything. He'll go after countless defensive linemen who have cheap-shotted him—guys running backs aren't supposed to go after. Marcus is the toughest man I've ever been around."

How tough? Allen has studied tae kwon do, a form of martial arts, the last two off-seasons. He takes a private class three times a week with teammate Sean Jones, ex-Raider safety Odis McKinney and Al Cowlings, an ex-Buffalo Bills defensive end.

Allen bows as he takes the mat. His brown eyes grow wide and cold. He dons boxing gloves for what will be five three-minute rounds of sparring. Jones, a 6'7", 265-pound defensive end, fires quick lefts. Allen takes most of the shots in his chest. THUD. THUD. THUD. Allen doesn't flinch.

As the fifth round begins, Jones is exhausted. "Fourth quarter, Sean," Allen coaxes. Jones forges on. When the round is finally over, Jones is doubled over. Allen is hardly sweating.

Jumping jacks. Sit-ups. Squat thrusts. By the dozens. One set after another follows the sparring. Next, Allen stands on a four-inch balance beam, kicking and walking, kicking and walking. In the early days he couldn't get his legs to waist level. Now he sends them soaring over his head.

Then over to the ballet barre for some combat kicks. "Ki-up," he bellows, his eyes glaring with intensity. "Ki-up." The word thunders through the studio.

The toughest comes last: the fingertip pushups, back and forth, across the 18-foot mat. At the end of the hour, while his three buddies are flat on their backs, there's Allen playfully rolling around the mat. He does 50 more sit-ups, for good measure.

"I'm more flexible than ever," Allen says afterward. "I'm stronger without lifting weights, recover more quickly in the huddle, and I've learned to relax my muscles when I'm trapped on the field. That has saved my legs many times."

On game days that same kind of concentration and drive manifests itself in other ways. Several times Allen has had to be held back when the Raider defense takes the field. He has begged to play on special teams. And in the only pro game he didn't start—against Washington in 1983 when he had a hip pointer—he put himself in without telling Raider coach Tom Flores.

Allen tells war stories like a little kid, gleefully recounting the crushing blows, the near-misses. At the same time, he is able to laugh at himself. He knows his will to win—and his intense desire to hide his pain—often take him too far.

"Years ago, against the Colts," he says, "I dived over the pile, expecting someone to hit me. But all my weight landed on my head, and my left side was paralyzed. I couldn't move! You're taking a hell of a risk diving over piles, but you just do it.

"The trainers came out, and I was cursing. I said, 'Get away from me. The other guys—the Colts—will know I'm hurt!'

"Last year, when we played the 49ers, I left my football shoes at home. I had to wear a pair I didn't like, and by the third quarter my feet were bleeding. The bottoms were totally raw. The skin was completely off. I was walking around like I was on hot coals."

In a memorable confrontation last season, Allen exhibited his toughness on the Raider practice field by going after one of his own teammates—defensive end Lyle Alzado, who promoted himself as the toughest of the NFL's tough before he retired this summer.

"He came at me in practice with an elbow," Allen says. "So, I put a move on Lyle, juked right by him. When I was walking back to the huddle, Lyle pushed me in the back. I turned around and BOOM! I hit him right in the face, through the facemask.

"I said, 'Lyle, what are you doing?'

"And Lyle, with his eyes bugging out, said, 'I'm going to kill you!'

"I said, 'I don't care. I'm not afraid of you.' "

That's when Long stepped in. "Lyle knew there was no excuse for something bush like that," Long says. "I told him to go sit on his helmet and relax. I also told Lyle that he was real stupid—that he could never beat Marcus Allen.

"Marcus is like something out of a Monty Python movie. You cut the guy's leg off, he keeps coming. You cut his other leg off, he's still coming. You cut off his arms, chop up his torso, and he keeps after you."

Harold (Red) Allen Sr., 52, is a wiry man, about 5'10", with bandy legs and a tiny chest. His straw cowboy hat and thick-heeled cowboy boots make him seem much taller. His massive forearms are the product of 35 years as a contractor—slinging hammers and pouring concrete.

"I'm part Indian," Red says in his peppery Texas drawl. "My mother and my father each had some in them."

When Red was nine, his father died. Three years later he had his Social Security card and was working odd jobs to help support his mother and 10 brothers and sisters. He quit school in the 12th grade to enlist in the Navy.

Red and Gwen Allen, 47, have been married 28 years. Gwen is delicate and gentle, with a serene spirituality about her. For 15 years she worked as a night nurse in a convalescent home. Marcus and his four brothers and one sister (Harold Jr., 27; Damon, 23; twins Michael and Michelle, 21; and Darius, 8) were raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in southeast San Diego. The family still lives in a three-bedroom stucco house that Red built in 1963.

When Marcus was very young, Red bought the kids Shetland ponies named Peanuts and Sandy, and after school he would give neighborhood kids rides up and down the canyon next to the house. In the backyard, Red built a basketball court, complete with floodlights for night games. Gwen, meantime, signed the boys up for the Calvary Baptist Church choir, piano lessons, Boy Scouts. Above all else, she insisted that they study.

At age 10, Marcus wanted to play organized sports. Red became the manager of the Encanto Braves Little League team, and Gwen became team mother, taking juice and cookies to games. For a time, Red sponsored another team just to make sure his sons had the opportunity to play.

"When Marcus was 12, he arranged a boycott—of me," Red says. "He wanted to move to centerfield from shortstop so he could make spectacular catches. But all sorts of balls go through shortstop, so I wouldn't let him. He pulled the kids aside and said, 'Let's don't play.' "

Red prevailed. Marcus eventually played every position but first and second base and became known around town as a phenom. For that, the other kids picked on him. "He wouldn't cry," Gwen says. "Red taught Marcus never to cry, that pain was invisible."

At Lincoln High School, Allen started out as a free safety. In one game he made 30 unassisted tackles. When he was a junior, Lincoln coach Vic Player asked him to play a second position—quarterback—a move Allen resisted because he didn't expect to play it in college. He pouted in practice, he fumbled snaps on purpose. Player threatened to kick him off the team if Allen refused to be the quarterback.

Allen reluctantly played the position, and as a senior led Lincoln to the San Diego County championship. In the title game—a 34-6 victory over Kearny—Allen scored all five touchdowns on runs of 85, 30, 20 and 10 yards and a 60-yard interception return.

"I'd have the kids run wind sprints—the football field is inside the track—and he'd hide behind the pole vault pit, but always with one leg stuck out so I could see him.

"I'd yell at him, slap him on the helmet, and he'd give me that ridiculous smile. That smile drove me crazy."

Red was convinced that Marcus took his talent and good fortune too much for granted. Though Marcus was a B-plus student, Red repeatedly warned him not to slip up or he would haul him to the Navy Recruiting Center to enlist him.

One hot summer day, Red took Marcus to work with him. They climbed a ladder to the top of a roof, and Red handed his son a hammer and nails. "I worked the hell out of him," Red says. "It must have been 120 degrees up on that roof. I wanted to teach him a lesson—either go to college or be a contractor like me." Says Allen, "Two hours later I was ready to enroll."

Oklahoma recruited Allen to play quarterback; USC wanted him as a defensive back. The decision was easy: He chose USC with the hope that someday he could play tailback like his idol, O.J. Simpson. After all, Allen had spent years perfecting the Missing Shoes Trick.

"Every Sunday, I'd hide my shoes to delay going to church," he says. "I wanted to watch O.J. on TV."

Four days into practice his freshman year, Allen was made the backup tailback. He quickly found out he knew very little about running. One of his coaches even nicknamed him the Virgin. "I was against the switch from the start," says John Jackson, then the Trojan backfield coach. Allen had only 31 carries the entire season. And he impressed no one.

As his sophomore year began, he was moved to fullback. During the first day of practice he broke his nose. "I looked down, saw blood on my jersey and said, 'Did somebody get hurt?' " Allen remembers. He despised playing fullback, but Jackson strongly encouraged him to learn the position.

"Every day, Marcus came to me with an excuse not to practice," Jackson says. "He'd say, 'I'm hurt.' And I'd say, 'O.K., now get in there and play.' "

He blocked, albeit grudgingly, for tailback Charles White, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy.

A year later, USC head coach John Robinson switched Allen back to tailback. It wasn't a popular decision. Robinson, now the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, vividly remembers a newspaper headline that appeared midway through Allen's junior season: DOES use FINALLY HAVE AN AVERAGE TAILBACK?

After Allen rushed for 201 yards in a game against Arizona, Jackson actually berated him. "I pulled him aside on the plane home," Jackson says, "and I told him how he had done this wrong, how he had done that wrong. And then I realized he had just gained 201 yards. I thought, 'You're criticizing him as if he's just another guy.' I spent the rest of the season telling him he hadn't failed."

It was too late. Allen finished second in the nation in rushing that year with 1,563 yards, but he believed he was a failure. "It was the worst year of my life," Allen says. "The criticism was hard to ignore. I still don't know why I wasn't good enough. Charlie White put on a show; I guess I just got the job done."

In his senior year, Allen proved the critics wrong by becoming the first running back in NCAA history to crack the 2,000-yard barrier—with 2,342. His eight 200-yard games that season have never been matched. He walked away with the Heisman Trophy, easily beating out Herschel Walker of Georgia.

With credentials like that, Allen should have been a cinch to be the No. 1 pick in the 1982 NFL draft. Not a chance. Some scouts were unhappy with his 4.65 speed in the 40. Others cited his tendency to fumble. There were questions about his ability to break tackles. One of his sharpest critics was Robinson, who predicted that Allen would never lead the NFL in rushing. "I don't see him in the context of a Payton or Campbell, a dominant player," Robinson was quoted as saying prior to the draft.

Looking back, Allen says, "I thought, Who are these people, these so-called authorities who don't know me? My parents had brought me up to believe I could do anything I wanted to as long as I worked hard enough. Now somebody was telling me I couldn't do something, that I'd be average.

"There is too much emphasis on speed. I can't run a good 40 time, but under game circumstances, something happens to me that wouldn't under a clock."

Draft day devastated Allen. Not only was he the 10th player selected, but two other running backs—Stanford's Darrin Nelson and Arizona State's Gerald Riggs—were chosen ahead of him. What did the Raiders know that nobody else seemed to?

Flores and his staff were coaches at the now defunct Gold Bowl in San Diego. The Raiders, not a member of either NFL scouting combine, weren't about to get hung up on 40 times. They conducted their own tests. Workouts were restricted to receiving drills, and Allen caught everything thrown his way.

Flores had planned to use Allen for only six plays because he had a sore shoulder and was exhausted from shuttling around the country playing in bowl games and picking up awards.

"Marcus got in and wouldn't come out," Flores says. "He blocked, and he was the first guy to make the tackle on an interception. He didn't want to play less than what he felt the hometown fans expected. He has a tremendous amount of pride."

That pride has carried Allen beyond even his own expectations: 1982 NFL Rookie of the Year, Super Bowl XVIII MVP (a record 191 yards rushing), 1985 NFL MVP and three times a Pro Bowl selection. He has won every major award in pro and college football, more awards than anybody else. Ever.

"My whole game is attitude," Allen says. "You've got to think positively to achieve the impossible, to be what you expect to be. If you seek mediocrity, that's what you'll get out of life.

"I have a burning desire to be the best. If I don't make it, that's O.K. because I'm reaching for something so astronomically high. If you reach for the moon and miss, you'll still be among the stars."

Allen is part of the Hollywood galaxy. He knows everybody and is forever dropping names. Emma Samms, a star of the prime-time soap opera The Colbys, skips across Allen's TV screen in a Diet Coke commercial, a baby elephant in tow. "Emmmmaaaaa," he says as if she were sitting next to him. Dionne Warwick belts a song out of Testaroni's speakers. "Dionne's such a nice lady," he offers. One of his tennis partners is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Allen claims that Abdul-Jabbar calls him Blackenroe.

But being in the spotlight makes Allen uncomfortable. "I don't trust many people," he says. "Everybody always seems to want something from me. I try not to go to personal appearances alone. You know why? I'm not impressed with myself, so I have this awful fear that when I show up at these functions, nobody will be there.

"I'm in awe when I'm asked for my autograph. I wonder, Wow, what do these people see in me? I intimidate some people. They think I'm totally unapproachable. They're scared to death to say hello. They think I'm larger than life. Well, I'm no more important than anybody else."

Allen often holes up alone in his spacious two-bedroom Brentwood condominium. He has four unlisted phone numbers, which he changes every three months, and he screens every call. "It is so hard for me to say no," Allen says. "I have relatives who think I'm the biggest jerk. Instead of facing up and telling them yes or no, I'll do my disappearing act. My attitude is: Out of sight, out of mind."

During the football season Allen is likely to withdraw even more. He calls his home the Dead Zone because there is so little life behind the front door. "Last season I was sore all over—everywhere," he says. "But I never let anybody know it. I couldn't appear vulnerable. After most games I came home, laid around and watched TV.

"I'll never get used to the pain, but I can ignore it somewhat. Last season, in the Cleveland game, somebody hit my shoulder and bruised it badly. I literally cried on the plane ride home."

Allen sometimes spends hours playing the piano and singing. Nothing classical, only mellow love songs. He collects teddy bears. He is a highly religious, studious man and reads the Bible regularly. He has studied French and Russian, and there is usually a pile of books on his kitchen table, among them, scripts for the HBO series, Training Camp: The Bulls Are Back, in which he has a role. He is a softy who has been known to give generously to the L.A. street people. "I continually thank God for how lucky I am," he says.

Allen invites Darius to Brentwood for weeklong slumber parties. "He bought me a bike last trip," Darius says. Harold Jr. was given the Pontiac Trans Am that Marcus won as the Super Bowl MVP. Gwen has been given a full-length mink coat and a BMW. "Who would have thought I deserved this for just being a good mother?" she says. For their 25th anniversary Allen sent his parents on an all-expenses-paid Bahamas cruise.

In return he relies on his family to help maintain a balance in his life—to make sure he is, in his words, "heading down the middle of the road."

"We have six tickets to the Raider games," Gwen says. "Marcus looks up in the stands and sees us there. It has always been that way, since he started playing football. Afterward, he'll come out of the locker room and kiddingly say, 'What are you guys doing here?'

"The first game of last season, we weren't there. We'd left early. He had a fit. He said, 'Don't ever do that again!' His family is his support system."

O.J. is a support system, too, both as a big brother and a best friend. He helps Allen cope with being a celebrity in a star-crazed city.

"Marcus puts up a shield," Simpson says. "He doesn't want anybody to see the real Marcus. For a long time there was a lot of turmoil inside. He used to come over to my house and never be able to relax. He felt he had to be doing something, that he had to put on airs. I'd tell him, 'You can't be everything to everybody. Do the best you can. Be yourself.' Winning the rushing title is finally putting him at peace with himself."

Gwen likes to say that Marcus is "Red on the outside and me on the inside." For Father's Day 1985, Marcus bought a video camera, put Whitney Houston's The Greatest Love of All on his stereo for background and taped a 15-minute message to his dad. It went like this:

"....Granted, there are times we don't see eye to eye. I attribute that to the way you raised us. At a young age, you instilled in us the importance, the significance, of being an individual, our own person. To depend on no one. To be a proud, dignified and confident individual. To carry ourselves as a winner at all times. We tend to depend on you less and less. Don't feel hurt or unappreciated. Understand you created these little monsters; we are a reflection of you....

"I may be stubborn and hardheaded and think I'm invincible. But that's not true. I need you, Daddy.... I love you with all my heart. Thanks for being my friend."

Red didn't make it through the whole tape. He turned off the machine and cried.

Gwen's tough guys aren't as tough as they seem.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER"You're taking a hell of a risk diving over piles," says Allen, "but you just do it." PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAllen has won more major football awards than any other player in the game. Ever. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAll alone in the Dead Zone, Allen tickles the ivories and sings mellow love songs. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERA family portrait: From left are Michael, Darius, Marcus, Gwen, Red and Harold Jr. TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERAllen kicks into some tae kwon do (top) and preps for a TV acting assignment.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)