Larry Allen had just been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys when he found himself standing in front of a couple of hundred kids attending a football camp at Sonoma State, the alma mater that made his future Hall of Fame career possible.
His coach, Frank Scalercio, knew he was testing the best player he ever coached, coaxing the soft spoken but massive offensive lineman into a few words.
"Just say no," Allen blurted out.
That was it.
"I can see that nothing's going to happen, so then I jump in and kind of close it out for him real quick," Scalercio said. "Some of the guys still laugh about it today when they're around. They talk about the first speech he made."
Allen is getting ready for another one. A big one.
After 12 dominant seasons and a Super Bowl title with the Cowboys — and two final years closer to home with San Francisco — Allen's Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech Saturday night will be on national television in front of thousands of people at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio.
Plenty of family and friends will be there — but not his mother, Vera Allen. The woman responsible for steering him away from gangs as a kid in the Los Angeles area died a year ago. The biggest public speaking gig of his life would have been the perfect time to have her around.
"I miss her," Allen said. "Whenever I'd get nervous or had a big game and got nervous, I'd give her a call, and she'd start making me laugh."
The six-time All-Pro has already cried once over the Hall of Fame — the day his name was announced. He's not ashamed to say he'll probably cry again.
"She was one of the biggest reasons I'll be up there, and I know she'll be looking down on me," Allen said.
The soft side of Allen isn't a familiar one to former teammates and opponents.
This is a man who silently bench-pressed 700 pounds — "absurd," says former teammate Daryl Johnston — in the Cowboys' locker room while players screamed and mobbed him. This was a player who made notorious trash-talker John Randle of Minnesota keep to himself when he faced the Cowboys, for fear of making Allen mad.
"He never said nothin'," said Nate Newton, one of Allen's mentors on Dallas' offensive line. "Every now and then you'd hear him utter a cuss word or hear him laugh that old funny laugh he had.
"Other than that ..." Newtown said, trailing off.
Allen just played, which is how Scalercio discovered him at Butte College. That's the junior college where the lineman landed after attending four high schools in part because his mom moved him around to keep him away from gangs. Then an assistant for Sonoma, Scalercio was recruiting another player when he saw Allen throw an opponent to the ground for the first time.
"I kinda forgot about the guy I was actually recruiting," Scalercio said.
Allen ended up tiny Sonoma, a Division II school, because his academic progress wasn't fast enough to get him to Division I, where he probably belonged. He was out of football and living in Los Angeles when Scalercio sent some of his LA-area players looking for him.
They tracked him down on a basketball court, the same place Sonoma coach Tim Walsh took Allen when he showed up on campus. Walsh wanted to see the 6-foot-3 Allen lift his 320-pound frame for a dunk.
"You could have heard a pin drop when he slammed the ball," Scalercio said. "It was like in the movies where it just goes 'tick, tick, tick, tick' and stops."
The Cowboys were coming off consecutive Super Bowl wins when they drafted Allen in the middle of the second round in 1994. He was surrounded by Pro Bowl offensive linemen but didn't take long to get noticed.
Late in his rookie season, Allen saved a touchdown by running down Darion Conner when it looked like the New Orleans linebacker only had Troy Aikman to beat down the sideline. Most of the rest of his career was defined by power — first as a tackle, where the Cowboys figured he would be a mainstay, and ultimately as a guard.
"He has to be one of the strongest guys to play the game," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I think Larry would have been a Hall of Famer at guard or tackle, and either side. He was special like that."
True to his personality as a player, Allen retired to a quiet life in Northern California, with a wife and three kids.
He's helping coach his son, Larry Allen III, who will be a senior offensive lineman at high school power De La Salle and is getting Division I looks. He shows up at Sonoma basketball games — the football program was dropped a couple of years after Allen left — and happily signs autographs and poses for pictures.
"He's even bigger now than he ever was on campus," said Tim Burrell, a friend of Allen's. "Everybody loves him."
He still doesn't talk much, which explains why Cowboys tight end Jason Witten walked by reporters at training camp last week and asked — unsolicited — how long Allen was going to speak after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones introduces him. That's generally the first thing his old Dallas comrades want to know.
The answer? About 7 minutes, Allen says. And his oldest daughter, Jayla, has been coaching him.
"It's going to be a little rough," Allen said.
At least it will be longer than his first speech.
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