ichael Allen rarely gets angry voicemails.
On the number in his office, blessed with New York’s legendary 212 area code, Allen generally receives calls related to his business. This one had anything but the humdrum pleasantries of cube life.
“Mr. Allen,” a gruff voice rang out through the receiver on the other end, “I just heard the stupidest thing to ever cross my ears. Please call me back.”
He had upset the one man in New Canaan, Conn., that you’re not supposed to cross: Lou Marinelli.
Among the faithful who follow Connecticut high school football, Marinelli is a legend. At the time of this fateful message, Marinelli had won nine state championships, not to mention several state and national coaching honors. Everyone who passed through New Canaan High School has felt his presence, especially in gym class. Marinelli is universally adored. Yet on this day, he didn’t feel like sharing in the love.
Of course, Allen knew exactly why the coach had called. His son, Zach, had walked into Marinelli’s office earlier that day to announce that he would be quitting football. According to Connecticut’s high school football rules, his high weight—he was well over 200 pounds in his freshman spring—meant he had to play exclusively on the line of scrimmage. Zach’s friends said he had great hands, so he wanted to play tight end. Blocking got boring. Maintaining his own—and his family’s—high academic standards wouldn’t be possible while playing on Marinelli’s mini-college football training program and balancing basketball and baseball, too.
Zach didn’t admit it to Marinelli, but there was another major reason: Football just wouldn’t make his dream of becoming a professional athlete come true. There’s only the NFL or bust for football players, with odds even harder if you don’t play Division I. With baseball and its many college teams and minor league levels, the possibility increases. The chances are made worse coming from Connecticut, despite the fact that New Canaan is the state’s unequivocal powerhouse. As Zach recalled, the only player that made it big since the 1980s was Conor Hanratty, whose career at the University of Notre Dame was derailed by injuries. To have a shot at the pros, he’d have to grab a ball and bat, not a helmet and pads.
So Zach could quit and focus on his other two sports. But the deal was that he had to walk into Marinelli’s office, shake his hand, and let him know in person that spring. And thus, the call.
Marinelli had every reason to be mad, Michael reasoned. His son was already well past six feet and made of pure muscle despite being almost a year younger than his counterparts. Zach was a once-in-a-generation prospect for an area of the country that isn’t known as a football factory. It’s not as if Marinelli wanted him to quit baseball—he wanted him to remain that well-rounded athlete. If Zach had to walk away from one of his three loves, it shouldn’t be football, a sport for which he was seemingly built.
Michael understood that frustration. It just wasn’t his fault, something he tried to convey to the angry man sitting in a high school gym almost 90 minutes away.
“Mr. Allen, I understand that Zachary is at the age where he makes his own decision,” Marinelli recalls of his response to these pleas for exoneration. “But we’re the adults here, and we should make this decision.”
Marinelli made that decision for Zach, with some convincing. Soon, all of his worries—boredom of being on the line, academics, and a shot at the pros—would disappear because of football, rather than in spite of it.
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This isn’t all to say that Zach Allen, now the next defensive superstar in a long line of them at Boston College, hasn’t always loved football—he has since he started playing youth ball in fourth grade. But the diamond was where his athletic career really began.
Allen spent many of his early days in the New York City suburb with his friends, with Sandlot-esque fields, with dreams of joining Alex Rodriguez—his favorite player—in the Bronx Bombers’ lineup. They’d take turns swatting for the fences, playing their preferred walk-up song in any way possible. For Allen, that was a cross between Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” While other kids would hit it to the warning track and be happy, Allen consistently knocked 20 of 20 over the fence during batting practice, almost 300 feet away, even at 10 years old. His Ruthian presence made him the guy every Little League coach had to pitch around.
He never made it to Williamsport, Penn., though Allen at least made the local papers. His team went to the Cal Ripken World Series, where Allen excelled from the mound to the corners of the infield. His team was the “Cardiac Kids,” as his mother, Irene, said, because of their propensity to come back late when they most needed it—a place where Allen got his love for playing in the clutch.
So when forced to make a decision between hitting game-winning home runs in the bottom of the ninth, or blocking for the guy that gets the glory, it’s not hard to see why Allen initially went for baseball. After speaking with his dad, Allen remembers, Marinelli eased his fears.
“He said, ‘I don’t want you for offensive line, I just want you to play the game and we’ll figure it out,’” Allen said. “And I ended up playing outside linebacker, loved it, was able to start my sophomore year, and just rolled with it.”
And roll with it he did. Switching between the strong and weakside, Allen seamlessly fit into Marinelli’s 5-2 defense. New Canaan values the outside linebacker as its best athlete, a player who can help in the pass rush or in coverage. Before Allen, the Rams routinely dominated the state. With him, they became nearly invincible.
Except, occasionally, against the Darien (Conn.) Blue Wave, New Canaan’s biggest rival. Every year, the two towns play each other in the “Turkey Bowl” on Thanksgiving, the season’s final game. In Allen’s junior year, Darien got the best of New Canaan—but it certainly wasn’t his fault. In fact, friends and family still talk about one play to this day.
Many of Allen’s teammates on the defense happened to score touchdowns that season, except for him. He joked with his dad that it’d be funny if he just ran off the edge and took the ball straight out of the quarterback’s hands. Sure enough, the Blue Wave gave him that chance.
With four players wide in a spread set, New Canaan set up only three on the line of scrimmage, with Allen slightly behind in a half crouch. Because of that set, a diminutive running back lined up against the monstrous Allen. He handily brushed by the back’s left and ran right at the quarterback’s face. As he dropped his arm back to pass, the camera on the replay shifts downfield. In reality, the ball had already been snatched out of his hands by Allen, just as he said he would. Seconds later, he had his arms out, Jason “the Jet” Terry style, celebrating a touchdown.
Allen’s good friend, Kyle Levasseur, was doing play-by-play at the time. He still hasn’t seen anything like it.
“I said to my color guy off-air, ‘No high school player is making that play,’” Levasseur said.
Allen had the last laugh, too. A couple of weeks later, New Canaan and Darien met for the state championship on a snowy field in nearby Stamford, Conn. Yet again, Allen stepped up when it mattered most. He tipped a pass and returned it 50 yards, tumbling into the end zone with a go-ahead touchdown—and a state championship.
In his senior season, Allen did it all over again. Now an expert at scoring on defense, he had some fun along the way. Giving homage to his basketball days, Allen returned another interception for a touchdown in a 35-20 rout of nearby Greenwich. To celebrate, he dunked on the goal post, á la his football idol, then-New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
The dunk earned Allen a 15-yard penalty, but also the respect of an NFL player.
@PetePaguaga @SPBowley epic!!! I'm a big fan of Zach now! #TDSwag
— Jimmy Graham (@TheJimmyGraham) September 28, 2014
Like the previous year, New Canaan lost to Darien on Thanksgiving. Yet again, they came back and won the state championship. Allen’s efforts helped him become the school’s all-time record holder for sacks, as well as win the 2014 Connecticut Gatorade Football Player of the Year. When asked if Allen’s the best player he’s had over what’s nearly 40 years of coaching, Marinelli was stumped.
“Everyone wants their son to be Zach Allen,” Marinelli said. “If he’s not in the top three, I don’t really know who the other two would be.”
Allen earned a bigger honor that year, one that had little to do with football. He has his preschool self to thank—or blame—for that one.
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Zach Allen has always been big for his grade. But he’s never been old for it.
As early as 4 years old, Allen showed flashes of academic excellence. Given his size, his parents saw little need for preschool. So they pushed him ahead almost a year and a half to the following grade. Michael and Irene know that academics is all about effort, even if the results don’t follow. Zach proved he could do it at a high level so early. In some sense, that may have backfired.
“You do the best you can,” Michael said. “You don’t have to be the best, but you do the best that we can do. And early on, he proved he got A’s. So now he’s got to get them. If [he and his sister Alexandra] were really smart, they would’ve flunked in first and second grade and we never would’ve expected anything of them.”
Unlike the athlete stereotype, Allen has a good idea of his limitations within sports.
“Football can end any day, and doesn’t last forever,” Allen said.
So Allen always strove to remain as competitive in the classroom as he did on the football field. He didn’t particularly enjoy writing—Allen says that he didn’t understand why he’d have to use more adjectives to describe a brown dog, “It’s just brown,” he’d tell teachers. With math, he found a passion in using formulas and figuring out set systems. Like football, math has an exact game plan for which to attack. He’s continued that at BC, by studying finance in the Carroll School of Management.
His dedication to his studies led to one of the nation’s highest academic honors for student-athletes. Allen was one of five football players recognized as a National Football Foundation National High School Scholar-Athlete. He was invited to the New York’s famous Waldorf Astoria to receive the honor, alongside four other standout players, including UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.
The self-realization—that football isn’t forever—has always showed. Instead of thanking the academy when he won Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year, Allen spent the majority of the speech talking about his sister, Alexandra, and how great of a dancer she was.
“For someone who’s so successful at everything he does, he’s so humble,” Alexandra said.
It’s an almost Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. On the field, Allen is as ferocious as anyone. Off it, it’d be hard to even tell he’s a football player—you know, except for his size.
He and his sister’s favorite pastime is fighting with their mother to keep the Christmas tree up til the end of January, blocking her path so she can’t take it down after New Year’s Eve. At home, the two often spend time watching Harry Potter movie marathons on the channel formerly known as ABC Family—it’s the only show upon which the two can agree. Last summer, Allen came home with a new passion: the Moana soundtrack.
After studying for a test stressed him one Sunday, Allen searched for a distraction. His roommate, linebacker Jimmy Martin, and former teammates, Ethan Tucky and Sharrieff Grice, were happy to oblige. Allen had noticed them watching Moana on Netflix. The Allens had always appreciated the art of Disney movies—a trip to Orlando was typical for a family vacation—but Moana was one of the few he had yet to see. For the next 12 hours, they blasted the soundtrack and knew all the words to every song. According to Alexandra, he’s carried that melody—loudly—to the shower at home. And sometimes, it replaces the mid-2000s rap and Avicii he might play before games.
“It will never get old,” Allen said, laughing about opening up on his passion, one he says shouldn’t have to be a secret. “I’m excited if I have kids just to watch the movies.”
And, as his mom says, there’s little about which to be intimidated.
“He can look imposing but he’s a mush inside,” Irene said.
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Even the mush inside can’t stop the competitive fire when it comes to his intellectual pursuits. The Renaissance man inside Allen can’t hold back when it comes to a game of chess.
Like most other parents who want their children to be little geniuses, the Allens signed Zach up for chess club in second grade. The club won a national tournament, but as sports piled up, he gradually drifted from the game. When Martin and Jack Kenny brought a chessboard to his room last year, Allen prepared to show off his skills. There was just one problem: He forgot how the pieces worked. Instead of allowing himself to become exposed, Allen ghosted his roommates for a week when they asked to play. Secretly, he was practicing on a free chess app to get his mojo back. After about a week, he took Martin and Kenny’s challenge.
“And then I started beating them, and no one else could beat me after that,” Allen said. “You’ve got to keep the mind rolling.”
And, just like football, where he chomps at the bit to play the Clemsons and Florida States of the world, Allen doesn’t enjoy it when the academics are easy. Sure, he prefers math. But his favorite teacher couldn’t be further from numbers.
From a waiting room in St. Mary’s Hall’s Jesuit residence, Rev. Robert Farrell, S.J., recalled the summer session before Allen’s freshman year. Farrell’s English class is rife with incoming athletes who have little interest in poetry and the works of Willa Cather. But Allen, he recalls, was “an angel sent from God for the class.” Allen received an A on each of Farrell’s daily quizzes. Though he remained reflective and quiet, Allen’s mind drove the conversation when few others wished to participate. The two remain in touch, through their occasional meetings in the Jesuits’ dining hall.
Allen even challenged his mom this summer. Because he planned to stay again for a full summer session to get ahead academically, Allen felt he deserved to have his car up there. He bet his mom that he could get straight A’s in the spring, and should receive the keys as a reward. Though she never doubted his intellect, she made the bet that there might be an A- or two in there, simply given the rigor of BC and football practice. Sure enough, he pulled it off. “At times,” she says, his intellect “can be infuriating.” But as Martin believes, it just makes him an even better football player, and an impressive man.
“Football and all of the other sports are full-time jobs,” Martin said. “So the time that you put in, there’s very little to put into other work. And that makes him even more incredible.”
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Just as he was close to quitting football altogether, Allen was as close to not coming to BC.
After having some success as a sophomore, Allen figured he might have a chance at playing Ivy League football. With his academic prowess, that would certainly be a great choice, and he considered it when the Holy Trinity of American universities—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—each came calling his name. But Allen wanted something more, the chance to get the academic experience he desired while also playing at an elite level.
In his junior year, Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern came calling. It seemed like a perfect fit: one of the nation’s best academic schools, and a former linebacker at the helm.
The only issue was that he didn’t have much time. The offers he received paled in comparison to Northwestern. With each passing day, Northwestern kept calling. Three spots left, two spots left, then one spot left, with the official visit on the horizon. It’s not an uncommon game for college coaches to play, but Allen didn’t want to be without a chance at a dream school. According to his dad, it didn’t help with his anxiety.
In a panic, Allen committed. But that didn’t dissuade Steve Addazio and Frank Leonard. The two BC coaches came after Allen hard, aiming to close that fence around New England. When they offered, it was too similar to Northwestern—with the added benefit of having his family watch him—for Allen to say no.
“I called and asked him after his freshman year, ‘Are you sorry?’” Marinelli said. “And he said, ‘No Coach, this is the right place for me.’”
And now, it’s the right place for him to get to the NFL.
This season, Allen will take over for Kevin Kavalec alongside Harold Landry, a projected first-round draft pick, as BC’s starting defensive end. And as Landry gets double covered throughout the year, he’s likely to get an opportunity to show himself off. The same thing happened in the Quick Lane Bowl, where Allen put up his best performance as an Eagle with two sacks. As the pass rushing option, he posed a strong threat to opposing defenses. Now, he’ll be ready on every down, ready to chase down the dream he thought football would prevent him from getting.
And the next call his dad gets, he hopes at least, will be a good one.
Featured Images Courtesy of the Allen Family