Precociously enough as a chunky 15-year-old at a University of Illinois camp for linemen, Jeff Allen approached then-Illinois coach Ron Zook and asked, “What will it take to be an Illini?”
Zook responded: “Drop 70 or 80 pounds and come back and see me.”
“It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” Allen’s mother, Lalibala, said laughing. She recalled how her son had always been active but just “blew up” by “eating everything that wasn’t glued down.”
It was one of many such awakenings in the life of Allen, whose resolve has prevailed at every turn — after his father died when he was 10; through a thicket of potential trouble on the southeast side of Chicago; and reconciling with the baffling twist thrown at him by his uncle, Shon Williams.
And in this instance: A year later, a considerably streamlined Allen returned and again asked Zook, “What will it take to be an Illini?”
That answer was less memorable, perhaps because there was some hedging to it. But Zook would soon be unable to deny Allen an opportunity after yet another Illinois camp between his junior and senior years of high school.
Then-Illinois line coach Eric Wolford, now the head coach at Youngstown State, set out to test Allen.
“I see what their breaking points are; I couldn’t get him to break,” Wolford bluntly recalled. “Later on that day, he went into full body cramps.”
As Allen was writhing through that, for once distracted about getting a scholarship, Wolford with almost comedic timing offered him a scholarship.
“He would not quit,” Wolford said.
Anyone who makes it to the NFL, “one of 53” on a team, as Allen puts it, “has a story.” And that includes anonymous offensive linemen, a redundancy unless they’re, say, the overall No. 1 pick in the draft, a left tackle giving up sacks or a center struggling with shotgun snaps.
“It takes a special person to make it here,” said Allen, in his second season as left guard for the Chiefs as they prepare to play at Oakland on Sunday.
Somewhat sheepishly, he added, “Not to brag, or anything like that.”
Allen says he didn’t grow up around bad people, but there still were potential detours, distractions and deterrents in his neighborhood.
“I saw everything around me, you know?” Allen said. “It wasn’t too hard for me to figure out if you do this, you’re going to end up like everyone else. So you took a different path.”
His navigation was helped by his very nature as someone who was born loyal and honest, his mother said, someone who would always turn back to help others if they fell behind.
That trait, and Allen’s sheer compassion, would be particularly evident and valuable as he later faced, and continues to face, the fallout of his beloved uncle’s descent into darkness.
Lalibala’s zealous work ethic, often with multiple jobs at once, also inspired Allen.
“He had the right attitude about him; he had the right concept about him,” said Lonnie Williams, Allen’s coach at King High School in Chicago. “His heart is right. His head is right.”
They needed to be.
When Allen was 10, his father died of complications from diabetes. Allen didn’t see it happen, but he remembers the day: the chaos and the ambulance arriving and the darkness after.
“I just knew that I didn’t have my dad any more, and my mom was just in a different place. And she was there for a while,” said Allen, whose two older sisters had gone on to college. “So I just wanted to make her happy. So everything I could do, I did.”
Most importantly, he honored his mother’s desire that he stay dedicated to school, where he always had been an honor roll student. And he helped her through her grief by not adding any worrisome burdens to her life with decisions he made.
“He never did; not one day,” said his mother, now working in event planning with one of her daughters. “He would always have a plan, and he never wanted to make life harder than it already was for us.”
In fact, he even helped make ends meet with what she called “a mind for entrepreneurship you wouldn’t believe.” In his early teens, Allen started what his mother described as “a wonderful, wonderful candy business.”
The highlight she recalled was taking him to a candy warehouse and investing $100 that she said Allen turned into $2,600 after packaging, mixing and matching and marketing.
Williams laughed as he was reminded of the story of his nephew buying candy at vending machines in a team hotel, repackaging and selling it to his teammates.
But even as they learned to cope and move on from their loss, and Allen got his scholarship to Illinois, another enormous struggle was ahead.
Williams, Lalibala’s much younger brother, had grown into a father figure in Allen’s life. He also was his position coach at King, where Williams had played and earned a scholarship to the University of Miami in the late 1980s.
“He was a big influence in my life,” Allen said.
But then came the wrenching and seemingly inexplicable news days before Allen was to make his first college start as an Illinois freshman at Penn State on Sept. 27, 2008.
His uncle and another man had been charged in a bank robbery, which news reports said included brandishing weapons, binding the hands of several victims and fleeing with about $12,000 before a police chase ended with a crash.
Shon Williams later was convicted and is serving an indeterminate sentence in federal prison. Family members expect him to be out in the next three or four years and hope he can salvage his life. But they also remain shocked.
“I haven’t dealt with it. I still have not. I don’t understand,” said Lalibala Allen, who considers herself more a mother than a sister to Williams. “Somewhere along the line, something went so terribly wrong, and no one knew anything about it.”
Lonnie Williams, who also coached him at King but is no relation, wondered if the trouble hadn’t started at Miami those many years ago.
“He got a little flamboyant, and it caught up to him down there,” he said. “He had to leave there. And sometimes guys get entrenched in that lifestyle and can’t get out of it.”
Whatever the case was, Jeff Allen seems to have perspective, just as he seems to all else.
He brings up the topic, in fact, when simply asked about what Wolford meant when he said Allen had an interesting back story.
Allen understands that you never know what someone’s going through, but believes it had to be something drastic in his uncle’s case and that in due time he’ll tell him about it.
In the meantime, Allen’s compassionate nature kicks in, the same way it always has for someone who was left behind even as he was moving forward.
“I talk to him every Tuesday on my off day. Any chance I get to see him when I have off time I go to see him. That’s someone I’m going to talk to forever. I love him to death,” Allen said, adding, “It kind of makes me happy seeing that I’m doing something to lift him up in the day. Because he’s in prison, so there’s not many good days.
“Ironically, he kind of took the wrong path. But not before putting me on the right path.”