DANVILLE, Calif. It is the simple, narrow, almost fairy-tale-like wood bridge leading to the cobblestone road that stands out. It separates Larry Allen’s palatial estate from the other breathtaking homes in this wealthy neighborhood of Danville, a small town near Oakland and San Jose on the basin of Mount Diablo that is home to the affluent. It also provides the final path to the serene retirement life of the former Dallas Cowboys guard. Allen’s presence here with his wife and three children is the direct result of his NFL riches, the fruit of a dominating 14-year NFL career, including 11 trips to the Pro Bowl, culminating in his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night. But the convoluted, chaotic and certainly treacherous road he took to get to Danville and Canton, the official retirement home of NFL greats, was definitely nothing out of a storybook.
Allen contracted meningitis at 3 months old and was given 24 hours to live by doctors.
He was stabbed multiple times at age 11 in a fight with a neighbor.
He attended five middle schools and four high schools, yet didn’t graduate.
Allen lived through turf wars and drive-by shootings between the notoriously violent street gangs the Crips and the Bloods while growing up in Compton, southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
He didn’t even play football until he was in the 11th grade.
“The drug dealers had all the nice cars,” Allen said of his dreams as a kid, with no thoughts of Danville or the Hall of Fame. “They had everything. They had all the jewelry.
“Everybody looked up to them. That’s who I looked up to and wanted until I found this football. Before that I was just running around in the streets.”
The streets of Compton
The only regret that Allen has heading into his Hall of Fame moment is that his mother, Vera Allen, who died a year go, won’t be there to witness it.
“I miss her,” Allen said. “She was one of the biggest reasons I’ll be up there, and I know she’ll be looking down on me.”
His mother raised Allen and his younger brother, Von, alone after their father left. She is the one who steered Allen away from the gang violence and who raised him to be tough and to not let anymore mess with him, frequently telling him growing up, “I ain’t raising no punks.”
That was never more evident than when an 11-year-old Allen was stabbed multiple times by a neighbor three years his elder, who was given the knife by his mother.
He still has scars on his head from the fight. But it was the actions of Allen’s mother in the ensuing days that likely laid the foundation for Allen’s NFL dominance.
“This guy was messing with my brother and I was trying to protect him,” Allen said. “I confronted him and we started fighting. His mother actually gave him the knife. After he stabbed me, my mother made me fight him for three straight days until I won. Yes, I lost the first two days. But I come home from school and she is waiting on the corner, saying ‘let’s go.’ She took me to him.”
Vera Allen knew what she was doing. She grew up in Compton, and she knew her kids had to be tough to live there.
She also had no plans of raising any troublemakers either and did her best to keep her boys away from the gangs.
But boys will be boys, and she couldn’t be around them 24 hours a day, so Vera had a unique plan for Larry when he tried to join a gang in high school.
“She found out I wanted to join a gang and was messing around with gangbangers, so she said, ‘We are going to see how tough you are,’” Allen recalled with a laugh. “We had two high schools in Compton, Compton High and Centennial. All the Crips go to Compton and all the Bloods go to Centennial. She sent me to the Blood school. But I lived in the Crip neighborhood. She nipped that in the bud real quick.”
Von wasn’t so lucky. Unlike his quiet and understated big brother, he was an admitted hot head who liked to run his mouth.
Although he didn’t join a gang, he found his way into trouble at times. It was in the hospital after he suffered a gunshot wound that his older brother vowed to find a way to get him and his family out of the Compton war zone.
“He was like ‘I got to do something, I got to get us out of here,’” Von Allen said. “There is a 90 percent chance I would be dead or in jail if he wouldn’t have made it to the NFL. I owe my life to him. If he wouldn’t have done that, it would have been a different story, maybe for both of us.”
Von Allen is now a general manager at Best Buy in Sacramento and has two boys playing football and basketball in college.
Route through Napa
As a single parent, Vera Allen did her best to raise her boys, causing her to move around a lot as they stayed in different cities with different relatives at times.
It’s the main reason Larry Allen attended five middle schools and four high schools.
As an eighth-grader he lived with his grandmother in Yountville, Calif., right outside Napa, where he struck up a friendship with Steve Hatton.
The two became close and Larry would often return to visit during the summer and on spring break, even after the family moved back to Compton.
“Napa is a pretty small town, a pretty white town,” Hatton said. “He was 6-0, 220 at the time and I remember him the first day wearing a Buffalo Bills jacket. We hit it off in a woodshop class and have been close ever since. My dad told him if he ever needed a place to stay to let him know.”
That moment happened the summer before his senior year when Allen called Hatton’s parents, Ron and Lois Hatton, and asked if he could come and stay with them for his final year in high school.
It proved to be the beginning of his own version of The Blind Side, a kid from Compton going to live in an all-white community to play football.
“It was a different world from Compton,” Hatton said. “Napa can be pretty country. My dad was a military man. So he was real strict. Larry and my mom were real tight. When he came to our house, she said you are part of the family. You abide by the rules. He had his own room and got an allowance like everyone else.”
The elder Hatton, who spent 37 years in the military, 15 as a Marine and 21 in the Air Force, grew emotional when talking about his relationship with his late wife, who died three years ago.
“He was part of the family, just like our kids,” Ron Hatton said. “She took care of him like her own son. They had such a good relationship. I remember one time we had a bunch of kids over one Friday night and she was getting on him about something. He reached down and picked her up playfully and took her in the living room and said, ‘I’m going to tell these kids you are my real mother.’ I get teary-eyed thinking about it. I’m so proud of him.”
It was at Vintage High School in Napa where Allen moved from the defensive line to the offensive line and started his career path of using his massive body to open holes and be a blindside protector that would eventually lead to the Hall of Fame.
It was also there that he discovered he had the demeanor and determination to adapt to all situations to achieve his goals, typified by his selection as homecoming king.
“Lot of people look at him as a big old football player, but he had a heart of gold,” Steve Hatton said. “He has a heart of gold and is a big old teddy bear. Talk about how much people loved Larry was him being named our homecoming king. We had maybe 15 blacks in our whole school.”
Said Von Allen: “He got homecoming king and he only was at the school for two months. I knew he was going to be special.”
The road to Dallas
Allen was always a special athlete for his size. He could dunk a basketball, run fast and was strong as a bull.
It was the life lessons that his coaches at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., and then Division II Sonoma State, west of Napa, that proved most beneficial to Allen.
Not only did Butte coach Craig Rigsbee help Allen get his GED and get him a job in the football office, but also taught him how to drive a car, write checks and manage money. And how to buy clothes, after he tried to wear sweats and flip-flops to a football banquet because that was all he had.
“He came here with nothing,” Rigsbee said. “He didn’t have anything when he got here. It was a great testament to his work ethic. He survived and kept playing. This was a great place for Larry because he moved around so much he needed academic help and social help.”
Rigsbee became a surrogate father of sorts, and Allen also grew close to Rigsbee’s family during his time at Butte. He even moved in with them for his last semester.
Still, there were a few more detours before Allen’s happy ending.
After two years at Butte, Allen went back to Compton, where he was supposed to finish his associate degree. That never happened. He never enrolled in the community college.
Frank Scalercio, the Sonoma State coach, never thought he would get a chance at Allen after seeing him at Butte, but that was before he heard he had gone back to Compton.
“They sent him back to Compton to get his AA degree,” Scalercio said. “I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Go back to that element again.
“This kid was nervous as hell because that was a gang area. I ended up finding him at a park playing basketball and gave him my number. I got a call a few weeks later from his mom, Vera, who asked me, ‘Do you want my baby?’”
Scalercio put Allen in school at a local junior college to finish his credits.
But before they could get him into Sonoma State, Allen had to get a high school diploma. So Scalercio enrolled him in an adult school in nearby Santa Rosa, where he was in class with “a bunch of pregnant women,” Allen recalled.
“I told Larry, ‘I’m going to help you, but you are going to make sure you get to school every day and back,’” Scalercio said. “Everybody said he would never do it. But he did. He got to Santa Rosa and showed up at our office every afternoon. In August, he graduated from the adult school in the morning, I got his transcripts to Sonoma State that afternoon and he was on the practice field. The rest was history.”
Two years later, Allen was taken in the second round by the Cowboys, winning a Super Bowl title in 1995 en route to becoming arguably the most dominant player in team history and a Hall of Famer.
But it wouldn’t have been possible without the lessons learned over winding roads from Compton to Napa to Butte to Sonoma State and without those who helped him along the way.
The Hall of Fame might be his greatest football accomplishment, but his most cherished legacy is his family — wife Janelle; daughter Jayla, a student at Pepperdine; son Larry Jr., a highly recruited football player at California prep powerhouse De La Salle; and youngest daughter Loriana.
Allen was determined not to let his mother, the Hattons, Rigsbee and Scalercio down, but also to ensure that his family would be able to go a different road, one that led to a narrow bridge and a fairy-tale ending.
“That’s why I played so hard, so they could have better than what I had,” Allen said, looking around his house filled with hundreds of family photos. “I didn’t have this. What I had to go through, I didn’t want that for my kids. My daughter is dyslexic. She got into Pepperdine. My son is a 4.0 student. My youngest daughter is a 4.0 student. That m
akes me feel good.”