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From Anonymity To Immortality

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Larry Allen's path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame began as a sleeper prospect out of Division II Sonoma State. Photo by Kirby Lee/NFLPhotoLibrary.
Larry Allen's path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame began as a sleeper prospect out of Division II Sonoma State. Photo by Kirby Lee/NFLPhotoLibrary.

I needed the money.

Even if I hadn’t, it’s not likely I would’ve turned down the unusual freelance assignment that had fallen in my lap. An editor at a magazine I’d been contributing to had given my name to someone looking for a writer to handle what sounded like an easy, straightforward gig: Write a series of mini profiles of a few dozen prospects in the NFL Draft Class of 1994. Each bio in brief would appear on the back of these players’ rookie trading cards.

At 27 years old, I was starting to suspect my chances of ever appearing on the front of a baseball card were growing less likely. So, I decided that a byline on the back of a football card was a palatable Plan B.

And so I set about writing a set of 61 Signature Rookies football cards. I was given a list of players to feature, and began shoehorning bios into my 80-word boundaries (no easy task for a writer who, every time I’d sneeze, 400 words would come out).

Luckily, I was well familiar with a good chunk of the players assigned to me. I’d been covering Tennessee and the SEC for four seasons by then and had seen many of the prospects on the list: Florida's Errict Rhett and Alabama’s Antonio Langham and Auburn’s Wayne Gandy. I also covered Memphis State quite a bit, and so I knew enough to knock out 80 words on Isaac Bruce.

Some of the others, though, were beyond my scope of first-hand familiarity. Eric Zomalt? Sounded like something you couldn't buy over the counter. You have to remember, this was the spring of 1994. I had been covering games in the field with a TRS-80 Model 100 computer and submitting articles to magazines on pages typed on my trusty Smith-Corona. The Internet was in its infancy. There was no YouTube; its founders hadn’t even graduated high school yet.

So finding out about guys I hadn’t covered or watched on the one ESPN channel (ESPN2 launched in ’93, but no one I knew had it yet) or one of the four networks (Fox, I believe, had just started covering college football in ’93) was tricky. It required calls to Sports Information Directors across the country, who told me stories and faxed me stat sheets about guys I’d mostly heard of but had never seen.

The list of 61 included one draft prospect so obscure, I hadn’t even heard of his school. I suspected that Sonoma State was somewhere out in California, but I wouldn’t have bet the Gus Frerotte rookie card I was writing on it. Maybe a Sonoma State was something you'd take an Eric Zomalt to induce?

Sure enough, I connected with the school's SID and learned a little about a promising offensive lineman who’d spent two seasons there. I was able to glean enough from the conversation to write this about Larry Allen:

“As a Junior College transfer, Larry completely dominated his opponents with his massive size and excellent athletic ability. He was named in 1992 to the All Northern California Athletic Conference team, and was honored as a Kodak Division II All-American. In 1993, he repeated with those awards and was also named as the NCAC Offensive Player of the Year.”

I was proud to have found 59 words to put together for the prospect on card No. 4. And I became intrigued by the possibility of a Division II lineman making the jump to Sundays. 

Not that I was suddenly bullish on his chances of NFL success. I wasn’t nearly as high on him as I was on, say, card No. 54, Alcorn State linebacker John Thierry (“ . . . will have no trouble making the transition from small program to big time.”) or card No. 27, Temple tackle Tre Johnson (“ . . . has all the physical tools to succeed at the professional level.”) or card No. 38, Texas Tech running back Bam Morris (“Undoubtedly, Morris is a top-notch NFL prospect.”)

Still, I felt a sort of insider's pride when the Cowboys took Allen in the second round, with the 46th pick overall, as if Id' been the one to discover him and tell Jerry Jones about him myself. Clearly, the kid from Sonoma State did belong in such a prestigious deck of cards with the likes of Brentson Buckner and Carlester Crumpler and David Palmer (the Alabama running back, not the fictional president from “24”).

Now, 19 years later, Allen will enjoy the greatest of honors that can be bestowed upon a football player. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Marshall Faulk as the only members of that Draft Class of 1994 so honored.

He played 203 games in the NFL, was named to the All-Decade Teams in both the 1990s and 2000s, earned 11 Pro Bowl selections and won a Super Bowl ring. This weekend, Larry Allen gets a bust in Canton as the crowning glory of a professional career that began with a paragraph on the back of card No. 4.