‘Hometown Hero’ Ricardo Allen A Model of Determination For Atlanta

Numerous personal setbacks have fueled Ricardo Allen‘s inner drive, probably none more than the one the Atlanta Falcons free safety reminded the social media world of recently.

Allen, on his Instagram account, reposted the video of a scene from HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in 2014 when he sat down with then-coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and was told he’d be released but brought back to the practice squad. Allen was a 2014 fifth-round draft pick from Purdue as a cornerback.

“When they told me I was going to be released, you can kind of see I smiled a little bit,” Allen said, “because I knew that wasn’t going to be like my last little straw. I’ve been turned down plenty of times in life. That wasn’t the first time I’ve been told that I wasn’t good enough. It didn’t slow me down then.”

The Falcons reached a three-year, $19.5 million contract extension with starting free safety Ricardo Allen. Paul Sancya/AP

Rather than sulk and accept life as a practice player or, at best, a career special-teamer, Allen worked even harder to make sure his “A-game” showed up while transitioning to safety. The product of his perseverance was a three-year, $19.5 million extension as one of the Falcons’ core defensive players. Allen received a $5.5 million signing bonus, and the deal is believed to include at least $10.5 million guaranteed.

Allen’s goal after signing a $2.914 million restricted free-agent tender this offseason was to secure a longer-term deal to take care of his wife, Grace, and their two children.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn revealed how after Allen’s extension became public, he asked during the team meeting for a show of hands of players that have been mentored by Allen. Plenty of hands were raised.

“Out of getting the contract and everybody finding it out, that’s probably what I remember the most out of everything,” Allen said of the team’s reaction. “Some of the messages I got from my teammates about how I inspire them and how me talking to them keeps them going on a daily basis, that’s way more important. I love the [financial] security, and I feel like my family be good forever. But for me to be able to inspire. …”

Allen’s relentless, “embrace-the-suck” mentality is the reason the kid from Daytona Beach, Florida, beat the odds.

Workout warrior

Mainland High School football coach Scott Wilson loves recalling the story.

When Allen was a junior at the school, Wilson, then an assistant coach, asked the defensive back to help coach the girls flag football team that made it to the state playoffs. As a reward for Allen volunteering, Wilson took the teen out one night for a burrito at Taco Bell.

“No kidding, as the kid got out of the van, he pulls a jump rope out of his bag, starts jumping rope for five, six minutes just to get a lather before he went in to eat,” Wilson said. “He went in, ate, had a great talk, and when we came back out, he started to jump rope again before we loaded in the van.

“Then we get back to the high school, which was totally shut down at that point. He was like, ‘Coach, do you mind opening the weight room for me? I opened up the weight room to let him get a 45-minute workout in. He’s just that different.”

Allen yearned to play Pop Warner football as a child but said his single mother, Brenda Green, couldn’t afford to pay the fees. He never played any other sports and decided to play football at the start of high school because he was “bored” and saw too many friends smoking marijuana and dealing drugs. Allen also played goalie in soccer and ran track at Mainland.

He weighed just 168 pounds his freshman year at Mainland, but size never mattered in his eyes as he played running back and defensive back. His junior year, he started to separate himself as a high-caliber player.

“I can remember watching so many times when Ricardo Allen just hit somebody so hard in the mouth that he just dismembered them and caused fumbles,” Wilson said. “You got excited as a coach when they were going his way to watch what was going to happen.”

Allen stopped by the corner store every weekend during the football season to pick up the local paper, hoping to see his name.

“And I was talked about once in the paper my whole time in high school,” Allen said. “I think I had a hard hit in a game against one of our rivals. But besides that, I never was in it.

“I never was a person who was picked out as someone who would make it or someone who would be good. I never was like the first pick at anything. And I was never the guy who had the girls wearing my jersey.”

Allen had hopes of playing college football at the University of Miami. He went to a camp there one summer and had a conversation with then-Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon.

“The first thing he told me was, ‘I like how you compete and all that, but I’ve already got a short corner on my team,'” Allen said. “He said, ‘I don’t know if I have room for a 5-9 corner.'”

Allen earned a scholarship to Purdue and went on to start as a true freshman. He often opted to work out with the walk-ons to keep himself humble. Allen left the Boilermakers with a school-record four interception returns for touchdowns and ended his college career with 13 interceptions.

“But I still didn’t get the recognition,” Allen said, “even despite the stats I was putting up against good players.”

Hometown hero

The folks back home recognized all of Allen’s accomplishments.

They watched him beat the odds and get drafted, even if the fifth round was lower than Allen had desired. They saw him overcome the practice squad to become a regular starter for the Falcons the past three seasons. They witnessed him reach the pinnacle while playing in Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots. And they saw him go back to school and get his degree in sociology from Purdue, the first of four children to graduate high school, let alone college.

But there was one moment involving Allen that sent a chill down Wilson’s spine. It was when the Falcons had a “Monday Night Football” game and, during the introductions, Allen named his school as Daytona Beach Mainland, rather than Purdue.

“This community went nuts,” Wilson said. “Social media blew up. Everybody starts going crazy over him representing Daytona Beach and him saying it. Nobody told him to do that, but he just did that. This whole campus was talking about it. That’s why on his plaque I purposely put, ‘Mainland’s Hometown Hero.'”

Wilson was the one who decided the school would retire Allen’s No. 21 jersey in February, the first Mainland football player to have his jersey retired. Allen joined longtime NBA superstar Vince Carter, now with the Atlanta Hawks, as Mainland athletes to have their jerseys retired.

“Mainland High School, it’s my bloodline,” Allen said. “It’s who I am. It’s just as important to me as the Falcons are to me now. That’s why I have love for Mainland. And that’s the love that I hope I’ll have when I retire from the Falcons, if they keep me long enough.”

Wilson still marvels about how Allen overcame the odds. Folks might know Daytona Beach best for those MTV spring break parties, but it also earned a reputation for gang activity and violence. In 2010, Daytona Beach police and the feds instituted “Operation 819,” which targeted 42 violent suspects.

“We’ve had some bad stuff that has gone on in this town, really bad,” Wilson said. “People on a regular basis are getting shot. Drugs are being run through. There’s violence. In this town’s certain spots, we always try to get our kids the hell up out of here because it’s a trap. A very high percentage of kids here, they don’t make it.

“But Ricardo Allen, he is the epitome of what we’re trying to raise these kids to be.”

Allen made it. And so did former Mainland football star and now New York Jets defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who Allen will see Friday (7:30 p.m. ET) in the Falcons’ first preseason game. Allen and Williams are successes for others to follow.

Florida State starting free safety Cyrus Fagan might be the next to go from Mainland to the pros. Fagan, who helped out at Allen’s youth football camp this summer, said he used to watch Allen’s college highlight film to help him get hyped up to play high school games.

“Ricardo is just like a big brother,” Fagan said. “He’s inspired me a lot; more than he would ever know. Just coming from small Daytona, people don’t expect us to do the things that we do. And he’s leading the way.

“I just continue to put in this work and continue to look up to him because he’s got that heart. He’s not the biggest man. He’s not the fastest man. But he works, regardless of the situation. He’s been through a lot, and now he’s starting for the Atlanta Falcons. That motivates me.”

Maybe soon, when Allen comes home to visit Mainland, he’ll have a championship ring to show off. Quinn has constructed an intimidating defense much in the mold of what he had during his dominant days as the Seattle Seahawks‘ defensive coordinator. Allen is the quarterback of the defense and the “eraser” responsible for limiting big plays as the last line of defense.

If Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the offense can regain the same swagger it had during Atlanta’s 2016 run, the Falcons could be back in the mix and possibly become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

“In this world, almost don’t count,” Allen said. “We know what type of team we are. We’ve put a good group together. We have a group of players that we know can compete against anybody in the world.”

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