Few NFL alumni are as knowledgeable, engaging and opinionated about the sport of football as Marcus Allen.
The Hall of Fame running back, who played his college ball at USC and spent the bulk of his pro career with the Los Angeles Raiders, is a legend in the sports world and he has used his name recognition for good.
I had a chance to catch up with Allen at the Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, California, where he was attending a promotional event for the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation.
For those of you who are curious, Laureus is a philanthropic organization based in the UK comprising 48 legendary athletes, of whom Marcus Allen is one, who travel around the world to fund-raise and promote charitable organizations that utilize sport as an agent for social change.
Laureus currently funds 84 programs in 31 countries around the world, including three in the United States. To be a member of the Laureus World Academy—the name given to the group of 48 athletes—one must be nominated and elected unanimously by the current members, a process that is rather thorough and painstaking.
I spoke with Allen, a member of the academy since 2009, about everything from philanthropy to football.
Read on to see what this legend of the gridiron had to say about the 2011 NFL Draft, the impending lockout and the state of the NCAA.
Tell me about how you first got involved with the Laureus Foundation?
I got invited to an awards ceremony in Barcelona, and as a result of my experience there, meeting people, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I admired what they were doing, and I was asked if I wanted to become a part of it, and I said yes right away, without hesitation, because you know they always say “success to significance,” do something important in your life. You know, what do you want your epitaph to read as you work on the back nine of life?
When you’re growing up, some of us think about those things, to really look for a greater sort of significance in your life, and I always wanted to do something in my community, which I do, but then I had the ability to be able to do something on the global level. That makes you feel pretty good because that’s your signature, you know? That’s signed in indelible ink, and that’s what you want.
Those are the things that are lasting. It’s great. I always wanted to have on my resume. You know, we just had our meetings in Italy and Germany, and we stopped at projects there to participate with kids and to encourage them, to motivate them, to inspire them. And that’s on my resume, in Germany, in Italy and that’s what you want. Not just here, in your own neighborhood, but also to touch as many people as possible.
What’s your experience been like so far as a newer member of the Laureus World Sports Academy?
I jumped in with great enthusiasm. My experience has been great, and you always think you’re going to go in and help tons of people, but you end up getting affected in a positive way, and I think you almost end up getting more out of it sometimes than you feel like you’re giving, not that I don’t feel like I’m giving, but I’ve learned a lot, just from a global level, in different countries.
The kids are the same, though. They’re experiencing, really, the same thing. Some of these kids are deprived, and sports is a vehicle to change their lives, and that’s universal. You know, the situations may be different, but the kids are the same. Kids around the world are in need of mentors, in need of projects, to keep them busy, to motivate them, to take their mind away from a lot of the negative things they’re surrounded by, and again, if you can do that, it’s great.
Are there any particular experiences from your time with Laureus that stand out in your mind?
From what I’ve seen, the boxing in Brazil I thought was amazing. One of the Klitschko brothers has a boxing academy in Germany. That was great, and how many kids were there and that were thirsty for knowledge of how to fight. You think, if they weren’t there, where would they be? And a lot of times, if kids don’t have constructive things to do, they’re doing something negative and are pulled by negative elements, and we need to pull as many kids away from that as we possibly can.
I remember when I first started, I was lucky because I played little league baseball and Pop Warner football. I was always involved. My family, my mom and dad were always, you know, coach and team mother, and a lot of kids don’t have that. I was always into that, so the streets never had my attention, and a lot of times, that’s why sports is so good, but you also learn a lot from sports.
Moving on to football, what are your thoughts on the possibility of a lockout in the NFL?
Well, inevitably it will be fixed. It’s just a matter of when, that’s the big question. There have been labor issues before. I experienced two strikes, but I never experienced a lockout. As a union, we decided to decertify but not as a lockout. Now, the owners have made a decision. The players are obviously galvanizing their decision. I think the real loser right now is the fans, and so I think that the players association, from what I gather, is willing to work.
The owners are, I think, playing hardball. I think they want a lot of money off the top. I think there’s a lot of issues that need to be settled, but it’s the greatest game in the world. It’s the greatest game in the States, and at some point, cooler heads will prevail, and hopefully, a marriage that will last from one collective bargaining agreement to the next will hopefully benefit both sides because, again, the game needs to be played and, you know, it’s one thing to strike; it’s another thing to be locked out.
Once the labor situation is settled, what are your thoughts on the possibility of the NFL coming back to LA?
My thoughts are that it’s probably as close as it’s been in a long, long time. I think all the logistics are in place. I think, finally, there’s a stadium that can be built without local funds, which is important because we just don’t have the money here in Los Angeles or in the state of California, and I think the league has wanted a team here for quite some time, but I think they’ve also wanted the perfect scenario. From what I understand, the people that are involved are the perfect match for the league, for the city of Los Angeles, and for a team, so I think it’s closer than ever. I don’t think there will be a new franchise. I think, perhaps, there will be a team that will move here, so, you know, we just have to keep our fingers crossed and we’ll see.
Any thoughts on which team or teams you think will make the move?
I really don’t know at this point, and you always hear of a couple teams. For example, you always hear of Minnesota because they don’t have a stadium. Their stadium collapsed, so they’d be sort of ideal. You always hear of the San Diego Chargers because they may not be able to accommodate the Chargers with a new stadium. You always hear of those teams, but you’re really never sure. You’d think most teams are doing well, but there are some smaller-market teams out there that, I think, would like to put more people in the stands and generate more revenue. After all, LA is the second-largest market. If you bring a winner, they’ll show up.
Are there any running backs in the NFL today that you particularly enjoy watching?
Oh gosh, I like watching lots of them. I still love LT [LaDainian Tomlinson]. I love Chris Johnson, watching him play. There are a lot of good backs out there. Arian Foster just had a breakout year. Wow. Adrian Peterson is great.
Who runs most like you, Marcus?
Most like me? I really don’t know. I always think I had some sort of unique style and stuff. I think I was powerful yet graceful, quick and elusive, and my vision were my greatest assets. And obviously, what was between the backbone and the breastplate was the heart, which I think I had the biggest, so it’s kind of hard to tell. There’s a lot of really good backs out there that are versatile.
You know, I feel bad for these guys today because the National Football League is such a “me too” product. If one team does it, everybody does it. So if one team starts playing two backs, the next team does it. And today, if you want to be one of the great backs of all-time, you’ve got to put up the numbers. That means you’ve got to play full time, and a lot of times, they just don’t let you do that. They just don’t let you play every down. You know, they’re like, you come in, we’re going to spell you, this guy’s going to play three or four series. I would go nuts, man. I always wanted the ball, not because I was greedy or anything like that. I just felt like I gave the team the best chance to win when the ball was in my hands.
Have to have that confidence.
Yeah. If you’re out there, without a shadow of a doubt, you have to.
Are there any backs in the 2011 NFL Draft class that catch your eye?
It is so hard to evaluate ‘backs nowadays out of the spread offense. That’s a question that I need to do a lot more research because I feel like out of the spread offense, you’re in a passing situation, which means the splits are wider, which means you’re running out of a passing down, and so guys are always in a pass-rush mode. And so, there’s more room to run just based on the passing situation, and so you can never really tell who’s great because everybody is in space already.
Now, I knew Adrian Peterson could play right away. He was in an I-formation and he was running downhill between the tackles. Now, if a guy can run inside, he certainly can run outside, but a lot of these guys only run outside. If you fake here and you pitch it and a guy takes off around the edge, you don’t know. I mean, anybody could be able to do that. You don’t know if the guy’s really capable of being a great running back because in the National Football League, you’ve got to be able to run between the tackles in order to be effective. You’re not just going to outrun everybody to the edge, and no one is running spread offenses unless it’s on third down in the National Football League. Then, you know, again, you’re a situational guy who comes in on third down. I mean, that’s not good, so it’s hard to evaluate.
How do you think you would’ve fared in a spread offense?
I would’ve been good, but I just think what’s getting lost is the essence of football. One of the things I say about ‘SC, over the last year or so I think we’ve become show time and we forgot about the essence of football. Now, the essence of football is, I’m going to hit you in the mouth, from the first play until the 80th play, and it’s not about finesse. You know, once you beat a guy up, you can do anything you want, but once you get into a finesse mode, you don’t really hit people and that’s what I don’t like about the spread offense. It’s really just tricks. It’s not about selling down.
Great example: you look at Oregon, the most prolific offense ever, but when they got into a fistfight, when another team was able to beat them up, you saw what happened. Even though that team runs the same type of offense, they were a lot more physical when it comes down to it. They really took it to them, and that’s what football is all about, and that’s sort of getting lost because they just want to throw the ball around.
And now you have guys, offensive linemen who can’t run block because they never run block; all they do is pass block. And then you’ve got D-linemen who don’t play the run because all they do is rush the passer, so they’ve got to learn all this stuff in the National Football League. I mean, we’re losing something, you know. You’ve got to be a player who has all the skills and all the tools to be a great player. You just can’t be, I’m good at this one facet of the game so I should be a superstar. No, but that’s what we’re putting out now.
It’s what the people want, apparently.
No, it’s what the coaches want.
What’s your take on the whole Reggie Bush situation? Would you have given back your Heisman if something like that had happened to you?
That’s really sort of a no-win situation because if you come out and say something, you’re critical of him. I’m always going to say something positive about the university because I owe them that, but it’s just an unfortunate situation that’s happened and, for me personally, I think it’s more of an indictment of the NCAA than it is of the individual. I think sometimes these individuals come to schools and are the big men on campus, yet they don’t have money to just do the simple things in life, and sometimes kids are forced to do things that I think they know are wrong. I’m not saying that he was wrong. I don’t know the situation. I don’t know all the details. I hear things, but I don’t speculate on that.
Just generally speaking, the rules are so stringent, they’re so ridiculous, you know. For example, if a kid isn’t able to go home for Christmas or whatever, he can’t even go to the coach’s house and have dinner because that’s seen as an extra benefit. Well, where do you think he should be able to go? The coach should have every one of his players be able to come over to his house. It’s ridiculous! And then, from what I’ve seen of the rulings have been unfair. It just seems like it’s whatever benefits the NCAA. If it happens to be a bowl game that is going to make a lot of money or is going to get a lot of attention, we’ll bend the rules.
Like with Ohio State.
Come on! Now, I have nothing against Ohio State. I think it’s a great university, but those players should’ve been suspended effective immediately, not to be able to play in a game! How do you do that? And then, listen, I like coach [Jim] Tressel, but if Dez Bryant is getting suspended for a year for lying because he’s afraid to say he talked to an agent? I mean, come on. He gets suspended for a year. You’re going to ruin a kid’s life for that? Then you’ve got a coach…what are you going to do now? You’ve got to be fair because what they’re turning into is something that’s seen as very ugly and not looked upon in a very positive light.