Broken Childhood and Controlled Rage Fuel Jonathan Allen, the Unstoppable Force

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJanuary 4, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31:  Jonathan Allen #93 of the Alabama Crimson Tide tackles Myles Gaskin #9 of the Washington Huskies during the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.  In high school, they used to call Jonathan Allen "the Hulk." It wasn't the most original nickname for a big, hulking, muscular football player who was mild-mannered off the field. But this name carried a dangerous and unknown reality with it.

Allen really did go into a rage. He really did turn green. Well, close anyway. His own high school teammates were afraid to talk to him on game days. Allen, now Alabama's All-American defensive lineman and maybe the best college football player in the country, coolly says he likes to get worked up for games and play angry because that's what he saw Ray Lewis do on TV. So it's a planned emotion.

Oh, but this rage was real. And opponents didn't think he could control it, but instead that it was controlling him. Some of his own teammates wondered.

"There was this one game with a predominantly white school," said Cameron Reynolds, Allen's close friend and high school teammate. "They were calling him the N-word, throwing popcorn at him. They were trying to get into his head and see if they could get him to do something to get thrown out of the game.

"They were treating him like an animal."

They were trying to make him turn green.

You can't automatically see where Allen's rage comes from. Off the field, he seems so removed from it, calm and well-spoken. In high school, he was living in a wealthy area in Virginia. He is from a military family. He is smart, gets good grades, is well-adjusted.

"Yeah, but it wasn't always like that," Allen said. "That was later. Before that, my brother and I went into foster homes, got split up a little bit. We moved from hotel to hotel because of money. … My mom and dad got divorced, and my mom lost custody for some reason. I don't know why, to be honest with you.

"We lived in a home that was like 30 of us in a big foster building. I eventually got adopted by the same mom my brother did: Miss Johnson. We lived with her for about six months and then lived with my dad. But I [almost] always had my big brother with me, so nothing really bothered me."

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Allen finishes his college career Monday against Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship, in which Alabama is trying for its second straight title. And while Allen is one of the nation's most prominent, well-known players, he opened up to Bleacher Report in a personal way that even his own teammates and Alabama officials hadn't heard before.

"If people ask, I'll tell them," he said. "But I don't go out of my way to tell people. It definitely made me who I am. I don't really take things for granted. I don't know ... it's hard to explain. It's one of those things where you just had to have toughness. It made me tough."

At times, Allen seems to soft-pedal his early childhood, and that's likely due to his tough-guy nature. He also is a little unclear on some of the details. But one thing's for sure: While he was always close to his mother, he doesn't know where she is now.

He hasn't seen or spoken with her since he was in the third grade. And when he starts making NFL money, he plans to hire a private investigator to find her.

"I've tried to reach out to her, but I haven't been successful," he said. "I just want to know what happened to her. She had always been great to me."

Allen's father, Richard II, and brother, Richard III, paint an even harsher picture of Allen's childhood than he does. Richard II said, "Jonathan had a rough childhood initially." Added Allen's brother, "Our father was really hard on me, and I was hard on Jonathan when we were growing up."

"Too hard."

Allen's brother and father, both Army men, said that might be where Jonathan's rage started. Or maybe it came from someone who was taught a man never shows weakness. It likely was a mix of both.

Whatever the reason, Allen did control his rage that day against the aforementioned high schoola black kid twice the size of all the white kids taunting him and screaming racist names.

"He'd make a tackle on their side of the field," Richard II said, "and they'd yell at him, 'Get back on your own side of the field, N-word. F--k you. F--k you.'"

Allen channeled the Hulk on the field that night, taking it out on his opponents by making bone-crunching tackles throughout the game. At one point, he put his helmet into the chin strap of a player, "and it went 'Bang' and he knocked that kid like a foot in the air," Reynolds said. "I was walking right next to Jon, and he says to me, 'Don't worry about it. I've got 20, 30 minutes to show what I'm about. I'm going to do my work between the whistles.'"

Allen's dad loves that story. The Hulk was at his best because of the rage.

"There's a funny story you hear from soldiers during battles of World War II," Allen's dad, Richard II, said. "When the soldiers were being fired at, they never felt so alive in their lives. They could see better, smell better, run better. They were better soldiers. They had tapped into their adrenaline."

That's Richard II's vision for Jonathan—his vision for how to make him a better soldier on the football field.

"Ray Lewis was angry playing football," Richard II said. "Controlled rage. So long as it's controlled, that's a good thing."

So long as it's controlled, yes. But that's walking a fine line, isn't it?

Richard II said when he finally got custody of Jonathan, at age 9, and his brother, 16, back from their mother through all the court battles, "Jonathan had anger issues, unfortunately for him."

"After we got divorced [in 1997, when Jonathan was 2], his mother used the kids as a weapon against me. She wouldn't let them speak to me on the phone, wouldn't let me see them."

Richard II said the Army sent him to South Korea the next year, and he couldn't take the family. After a year there, he was sent to Washington state. And somewhere in there, he said, she ran off with the kids. She had moved them to South Carolina.

But for six months, Richard II said, he didn't know where the family was. Keep in mind: This is the story all from his perspective. Richard II said Allen's mom was "an exceptionally brilliant person," but she was also highly "paranoid," thinking people—including mayors and governors—were trying to kill her. Richard II said she felt it was safer not to enroll her kids in school.

Eventually, Richard II said, the state of South Carolina took the kids from their mother. But Richard II said he had difficulty, all the way from Washington state, getting through the court system in South Carolina to show he was a fit father.

So Jonathan and Richard III went into foster care.

"Jonathan was a mama's boy, and it was harder on him than it was on me," said Richard III, who also said somewhere in there they spent a year living with their grandma. "In the foster home [group home] there was no father figure there, just 21-, 22-year-old kids working there. I wasn't trying to be a father figure, just a good big brother.

"My father taught me to be tough, not show emotion or weakness. We're Allens. We're not weak. I take a lot of pride in that. You show love for other people, but when it's time to be aggressive, be strong. I see that in Jonathan on the field. He's like two different people.

"But when we were in foster homes, I'd see him cry, and I'd get on him: 'Why are you crying? You still have food in your stomach, clothes on your back, a roof over your head.'"

He was roughly five years old, crying because his dad was gone and his mom had suddenly disappeared. And Jonathan Allen was told this:

"Be a man."

Nobody saw Allen coming. The best defensive player in the country? His dad and stepmom moved the family near Ashburn, Virginia, and Jonathan transferred to Stone Bridge High School late in his freshman year. He tried out for the football team his sophomore year, but coaches didn't know a thing about him.

That's because he didn't play football as a freshman.

"I wanted to be a basketball player," he said.

"He missed tryouts," Richard II said. "Of course I was a little upset. I went and talked to the coach to see what we could do, and he just said, 'Better luck next time.'

"I told Jonathan, 'I can't want this more than you. You have to do your due diligence.'"

Allen was a standout in Pee Wee football. But he also was brought up to believe you are responsible for yourself. You don't do the right thing and you suffer the consequences. You work hard and earn your own money and deal with it responsibly. You learn the value of hard work. You get good grades.

But Richard II and Richard III both said they saw something special in Jonathan when he played football as a little kid. It was an extra work ethic, extra desire. Rage?

Nobody knew any of that at Stone Bridge when Allen arrived. But the Stone Bridge coach, Mickey Thompson, was an offense-first guy, and when he saw this athletic 6'3", 180-pounder walk up, he knew he had a receiver-in-waiting.

Unfortunately for Allen back then, the body that will soon make him an NFL millionaire failed him.

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - OCTOBER 8:  Jonathan Allen #93 of the Alabama Crimson Tide on the field during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  The Crimson Tide defeated the Razorbacks 49-30.  (
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

"Jon dropped everything," Derek Barlow, Stone Bridge's defensive assistant at the time, said. He remembers the start of tryouts well: "They started throwing to Jonathan, this big athletic guy, and he dropped every single pass."

Thompson considered cutting Allen, but Barlow and the defensive coordinator at the time, Mike Skinner, argued Allen was big and fast, so there had to be something he could do.

"You want him; you've got him," the head coach told them. They put Allen on the defensive line and couldn't believe how fast he picked everything up. Barlow said coaches decided not to get too excited until after seeing Allen in a game.

In his first-ever game with Stone Bridge, Allen had four sacks. "He was just all over the place," Barlow said.

Think about that. The best defensive player in college football nearly got cut from his high school team and was moved to defense seven years ago only as a last resort.

"I had never played defensive line in my life," Allen said. "Didn't want to. I didn't like it. I wanted to be a running back.

"I still can't catch. I don't have the biggest hands."

Alas, a Hulk was born.

A 45-minute conversation with Reynolds, now a linebacker at Shepherd University in West Virginia, about his friend Allen goes roughly like this:

First 10 seconds: Tell me about Allen.

Next 44 minutes, 50 seconds: He does, cramming two hours' worth of words and thoughts into that time and possibly all in one breath. To him, no sentence ends with a period, but instead with a "because" or an "and another thing." He included the meaning of all of Allen's high school greatness.

And you believe him. In one game during Allen's junior year, the team trailed 24-0 to rival Broad Run and Allen, exhausted, created a goal-line stand all by himself just before halftime. That effort, Reynolds said, inspired the team to come back to a 31-30 victory. It also inspired Allen. Reynolds said that was the day Allen started thinking about whether he could have a future in football. From there, Reynolds said, Allen changed his diet and took the game more seriously.

"You could see the heart in him in that game," Reynolds said. "The determination that we're just not losing. That put it on the rest of us to follow him. From that game on, he was just dominating, dominating, dominating."

And this: "The first defensive drive I ever played with him, he dislocated his shoulder. I see him getting up after the second play, and his arm's just hanging down. The shoulder's just hanging out of the socket. But he's not coming out of the game."

Allen quickly became a big shot at the school, but Barlow, who was promoted to be Stone Bridge's defensive coordinator for Allen's last two years in high school, said he never acted like it. He tells of the time when Allen was a sophomore, still new to the school, and one particularly strict Advanced Placement world history teacher came down the hall and said one word to Barlow: Allen.

This is a high school coach's nightmare, when a teacher barks out a player's name.

"But he says, 'He sits in the front of the class, says 'yes sir, no sir.' I said, 'Yeah, he's military.' And he says, 'No, when I allow him to get into a group, he goes with the awkward kids, the shy kids. Not the popular kids. He's a special one.'"

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 24:  Jonathan Allen #93 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates their 19-14 win over the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Still, the legend of Jonathan Allen hadn't spread. During his sophomore year, Thompson called the coaches at Virginia Tech, where the school had sent several players, and told them he had a gem.

No thanks, the Virginia Tech coaches said. Too small.

This still bugs Allen.

Allen says he continued to bulk up, playing at 245 pounds as a junior. That year, Barlow remembered Allen getting three sacks in quick order in a game, all with different moves.

"The first one, he takes his right forearm and swings, hits the kid's left shoulder," Barlow recalled. "He swings through almost like a tennis swing. And the kid flies in the air. Two plays later, he does a helicopter move. Off the right edge, now you take your left arm and rip to the sky, then spin underneath. The kid is trying to combat John's left arm, and he totally spins and comes inside. The last sack, he just bull-rushes the guy.

"The head coach comes in the next day and says, 'Those are some pass-rush moves you taught him.' I would never teach anyone that. Kids can't do that."

They called Allen in and asked where he learned those moves. Allen said he had watched them on TV in NFL games and wanted to give them a try.

Allen remembers that game well. He also remembers that his coaches went back to Virginia Tech to pitch him again.

"They still didn't want me," Allen said. "Whatever."

Things changed, of course. But how exactly does someone go from being lowly recruited to Alabama to the best defensive player in the country?

"Jon wasn't highly recruited because he didn't go to a lot of showcases or combines, which are usually how kids are marketed," Barlow explained. "He actually devised a list himself and asked our head coach, Mickey Thompson, to send his highlights, transcripts and board scores to a bunch of Power Five schools.

Jonathan Allen as a U.S. Army All-American in 2013.
Jonathan Allen as a U.S. Army All-American in 2013.Courtesy

[Alabama head coach Nick] Saban and [then-Florida head coach Will] Muschamp liked the film and, being free-thinkers, ignored the fact he wasn't listed on the recruitment 'gurus' websites and invited him to their one-day camp, where he earned a scholarship on his visit. Once that happened, then every [Division 1] program offered him."

From there, Saban said on his radio show earlier this season, Allen has steadily improved.

"The guy has developed each and every year into being a better and better and better player," Saban said. "I think sometimes a lot of players lose sight of how football is a developmental game, how they improve, how they can improve their value by continuing to grow and develop as players in college. Jonathan Allen is a great example of that."

In fact, Allen is about to show the value of patience. He had planned to jump to the NFL after last season, but Saban told him he should expect to be a second- or third-round pick. Allen's feelings were hurt, as he said he thought he was ready to be a first-round pick.

But he made a business-type decision to come back to Alabama. Now, the 6'3", 294-pounder is widely considered a consensus top-five pick in this year's NFL draft. Analysts compare him to Ndamukong Suh, a four-time Pro Bowler, for his completeness. That includes every ability from bull-rushing for a sack to, as Ole Miss found out, the athleticism and speed to return an interception 75 yards for a touchdown.

Phil Savage, a former NFL scout who now is the executive director of the Senior Bowl and calls Alabama games on the radio, said he wonders if Allen might fall slightly in the draft because teams might not think of him as big enough to play on the inside of the line or have enough of a burst to rush from the outside.

He says Allen can play any spot on the defensive line and thinks if Allen does drop, people will look back and wonder why. After a few years, they'll realize Allen was the best player in the draft.

The polished, studied Allen you see today doesn't show many outward signs of the Hulk-on-the-edge Allen who was a product of his dysfunctional past. But that kid is still inside, and he'll be there when Allen moves on to the NFL.

"I wouldn't say it's changed at all..." Allen said when asked about his rage. "I probably toned it down a little bit from high school and learned to play a little smarter."

Richard III says you can still see the two Allens in his brother working together: the rage-fueled one and the caring, thoughtful, detail-minded one.

Take the "Superman Sack" from this season's Texas A&M game, for example. Anyone who saw it remembers it. The other day, a reporter asked Allen's teammate, Minkah Fitzpatrick, if he could pick one play from the season to put on a Vine, which one would it be?

"When Jon jumped over the dude at Texas A&M and smashed the quarterback," he said, without giving it any thought. "That would be it right there."

But that highlight came out of planning, not rage.

"On the third down before, I came free on a stunt and got cut by the running back," he said. "So I had in my mind that on the next play, he was probably going to do the same thing. I just tried to think of some way to get past it. So on the next third down, the opportunity presented itself, and I just went over the top."

Barlow said when Allen is able to come home in the offseason, he and childhood friend Reynolds drop by to see Barlow at his new school, Woodgrove, They work out for a couple of hours and then stay for two more to give advice to the high school kids working out nearby.

"I always talk to these kids about the stuff I would have wanted to hear, lessons I've learned from Coach Saban and from seeing other people's mistakes," Allen said.

The mild-mannered Allen has also already gotten his degree in financial planning and consumer affairs. And he has carefully mapped out where all the dollars will go when he gets to the NFL, though he didn't share that game plan.

"That's one of the reasons I went into financial planning," he said. "I don't want to be like a lot of athletes who come out of the NFL broke. That's pitiful, to be honest."

Despite his background, Allen is now the picture of someone who is well-adjusted. He seems to have found the perfect blend of his two selves—the controlled rage of a Hulk with a heart.


Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @gregcouch.


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