DANVILLE — Larry Allen’s journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame can be traced back to Compton, Calif.
It was the summer of 1987, just a few weeks before he was to start his junior year at Centennial High School. His grandmother, Bertha Dotson, had a heart-to-heart talk one day with Larry, telling him, “You’ve got to find something you like to do, and go do it.”
Larry had a very close connection with his grandmother, who owned restaurants and a catering business. He looked up to her and respected how hard she worked and listened to what she had to say.
Later that year, he started playing football for the first time.
“I don’t like to brag or anything, but I had two sacks my first game,” Allen said the other day, looking back on that day when he played defensive end.
Allen’s journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, can also be traced to Napa.
Allen left town after his eighth-grade year at Redwood Middle School.
After going to three different high schools in three years, he returned to Napa, receiving All-Monticello Empire League and All-Napa County honors for Vintage High in the fall of ’88.
He hasn’t forgotten the friends and teammates that he made here. He hasn’t forgotten the care, attention and support that Ron and Lois Hatton and their family provided for him, taking him in and giving him a home during his senior year.
“I had a lot of great friends there,” he said. “I had fun. Going to Vintage was one of the greatest experiences I had.”
There are a lot of people that Allen — an offensive lineman who played 14 years in the NFL, primarily at left guard — plans to thank during enshrinement ceremonies Saturday as a member of the Class of 2013 at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio.
Allen, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, was elected to the Hall of Fame in February, along with Cris Carter, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells, Dave Robinson and Warren Sapp, by a selection committee.
It will be televised by both NFL Network and ESPN.
The addition of this year’s class of inductees brings the total number of members in the Hall of Fame to 280. The Cowboys now have 12 players in the Hall of Fame.
Considered to be one of the NFL’s all-time best offensive linemen, he was named to the NFL All-Decade Teams of the 1990s and 2000s. He was also known for his all-around strength, with a 705-pound bench press and a 900-pound squat.
With assistance from his oldest daughter, Jayla, who will start college at Pepperdine this year, Allen has been working on his induction speech for a couple of months now. He was a first-year eligible nominee, as he has been retired now for five years.
With a laugh, he said, “It will probably be on the shorter side. I’ll try to memorize it as best as I can. I get a little nervous up there with public speaking.”
A Hall of Fame career
A second-round pick by Dallas in 1994 out of NCAA Division II Sonoma State, Allen went on to play 12 years for the Cowboys (1994-2005), finishing his career by playing two years for the San Francisco 49ers (2006-07).
He had a highly decorated career, playing in 203 games. Combining size and strength and athleticism, Allen was a dominating force on the line. He played at 6-3, 325.
“I was fortunate enough to get drafted by Dallas,” he said from his home at Blackhawk, a community in the San Ramon Valley. “During my first mini camp, I’m stretching with Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’
“The more I saw Emmitt run by me, the better it was for me.”
Allen’s presenter at the Hall of Fame will be Jerry Jones, the owner, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys.
“Larry is one of the greatest players in Cowboys history, and arguably the very best guard to ever play the game,” Jones said on the Cowboys web site. “He was obviously a special talent, but the fierceness and tenacity that he brought to the field separated him from the rest of the pack. I have never been more proud of anyone who has reached the Pro Football Hall Fame. Larry Allen represents the best of the very best.”
Jones has been like a father figure to Allen, 41.
“If I ever had a problem I couldn’t solve on my own, he was there for me,” said Allen. “He was there every day at practice. I got to know him.”
Allen led the way for Emmitt Smith, who set a Cowboys’ franchise record with 1,773 yards rushing in a single season. Allen started at right guard in two NFC championship games and during Dallas’ 27-17 Super Bowl XXX victory over Pittsburgh.
He was named as the NFL Alumni’s Offensive Lineman of the Year in 1997 and the NFL Players Association NFC Lineman of the Year twice (1996-97).
He was named first-team All-Pro seven straight years and first-team All-NFC six times.
In his first season with 49ers, he led the way for Frank Gore, who set the team single-season rushing record (1,695 yards).
During his career, Allen played in more Pro Bowls than any other Dallas Cowboys offensive player in franchise history. He is also in the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
“I knew going in that it’s a rough sport, and the position I played, you’re going to bump heads every play,” said Allen, who has had eight surgeries — a combination of knee, shoulder, ankle and elbow issues.
“I have good and bad days. I just deal with it. I get a little exercise each day. Most of all, I’m OK.”
Allen remembers his rookie year getting thrown to the ground by Reggie White in a Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay.
“I said, ‘This can never happen again,’” he said. “I got in the weight room.”
Allen signed a one-day contract with Dallas, allowing him to retire with the organization that drafted him, prior to the 2008 regular season.
He lives in a 13,000-square foot home, which has six bedrooms and eight bathrooms. He is proud of the Cowboys memorabilia that he has on display, with framed jerseys of Smith, Aikman, Irvin, Leon Lett, Erik Williams, Randall Cunningham, Chris Warren and Mark Stepnoski.
He has a weight room in his home and an office that is filled with helmets from his Pro Bowl days and game balls.
“I come in here and just reminisce,” he said.
Larry and his wife, Janelle, have three children, Jayla, Larry Jr. and Loriana.
Larry Jr. plays a guard position on the football team at De La Salle-Concord.
His dad helps out as a volunteer assistant, coaching the offensive line.
“It’s a great tradition. That’s why I brought my son there,” said Larry Sr. Allen.
Allen went to Armijo, then Tokay-Lodi and Centennial. His mom, Vera Allen, brought Larry back to Northern California for his senior year. With Vintage, he played on the grass field at Napa Memorial Stadium.
“She’s always looked out for me,” Larry said.
It was a rough experience growing up in Compton, said Allen, adding that it taught him to be a tough person.
Larry became friends with Steve Hatton in the eighth grade in Napa.
For his senior year, he lived with the Hatton family. Steve and Larry were teammates at Vintage.
“The Hattons took me in their home and took care of me,” he said.
Steve’s dad, Ron Hatton, and Steve’s son, Nate, will attend the ceremony. Steve is a Napa High assistant football coach.
Others from Napa are going to Canton as well, including Todd Pridy, who is Napa High’s head baseball coach; Todd’s father, Edd Pridy, and Todd’s sons, Jack and Jason; and Tom Moore, Robbie Heinrich, Jamie Larson and Troy Solomon.
“He’s a good guy,” said Steve Hatton. “We look forward to going back there.”
Steve has followed Allen’s football career since high school.
“He was a mauler. He would drive opponents into submission,” said Hatton.
Allen’s journey to the Hall of Fame is an inspirational one, as he never signed a national letter-of-intent upon leaving Vintage.
“One of my all-time favorite players as an example of someone who persevered through a lot of adversity, who was a total unknown in high school and who also went to an out-of-the-way small college is offensive lineman Larry Allen,” said Mark Tennis, editor of CalHiSports.com. “He didn’t really come into his own until he was several years out of high school and even then that was at Sonoma State. He’s one of the greatest offensive linemen in football history and he didn’t sign on signing day.”
Playing on the offensive line
Allen was a top run and pass blocker, giving up an average of just 3.2 sacks per season and only being called for 13 holding penalties over his career.
“Being a lineman is hard. It’s a tough job,” he said. “You’ve got to be tough to play it. You’ve got to be ready to go get ’em. You’ve got to come off that ball.”
There is a lot that goes into playing on the line. It’s being strong and physical and aggressive. It’s having quick feet and having explosion. It’s having the right technique.
“In my mind, I didn’t think I was that good,” said Allen. “But I just didn’t want to lose my job.”
To this day, he misses the day-to-day hitting involved in the game. He misses putting on a helmet and pads and lining up and taking on an opponent.
“It’s fighting legally, I guess,” he said. “You have to read tendencies. You have to know when a blitz is coming.”
The road to Canton
After playing two years at Butte College in Oroville, Allen went to Sonoma State and played for Coach Frank Scalercio. He was a standout during the 1992 and ’93 seasons. He was a two-time Kodak All-America and first team Associated Press All-America pick, and a unanimous selection on numerous other All-America teams.
He was named the Northern California Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year as a senior.
He was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001.
“(Scalercio) worked with me and got me into Sonoma State. They only had three coaches at the time, so it was a little rough,” Allen said of his two years at Sonoma State. “(Scalercio) helped me out a lot. He helped me set five-year plans, where you want to be in five years.
“From a small school, I did not like to lose at all — period. If I had 70 good plays and one bad play, I’d be mad about it. I just wanted to win every play. That was my main focus.”
On Saturday, Allen will take his place among the game’s elite.
“Like many guys have said, it’s like going to football heaven,” said Allen.