September 2006: Damon Allen — Measure of a Man

Measure of a man
Argos QB, 22 years in the CFL, is about to pass Warren Moon’s yardage, by Morgan Campbell.

02 September 2006 – Toronto Star

For three years, a scout from the Detroit Tigers hung around the Cal. State Fullerton campus, hoping to catch Damon Allen’s attention. But the baseball club’s pursuit of Allen, a star quarterback and pitcher fresh out of San Diego’s Lincoln High School, was most intense in the summer of 1981, just before Allen enrolled.

Fullerton’s head coach at the time, Gene Murphy, remembers the scout pressuring him to let Allen sign a contract before classes started. Otherwise, the scout would have to wait another year to make an offer.

Murphy turned him down.

And he can’t forget what the scout told him next: “He said, ‘What a disservice you’re doing to this kid. He’s going to get killed on the first day of practice and it’s going to be on your conscience.'”

Twenty-five years and four Grey Cups later, Allen is poised to become the most prolific passer in pro football history and Murphy can now laugh about that conversation. But at the time he didn’t react so calmly.

In fact, he had to burn a Detroit Tigers cap in front of the entire Fullerton football team to make his point: Damon Allen, all 150 pounds of him, was a quarterback.

Allen and his teammates got the message, even if the NFL never did.

If Allen passes for more than 164 yards Monday, when the Argos play in Hamilton, he’ll overtake NFL hall-of-famer Warren Moon for first place on pro football’s career passing yardage list. Moon, who played six years in Edmonton before jumping to the NFL in 1984, retired after 23 seasons with 70,553 passing yards. Barring injury, Allen will set the record midway through his 22nd season and he’ll do it without having played in the NFL.

And he’ll do it without wondering, what if?

“Each year that passes, I’m more convinced that this is where I’m supposed to be,” Allen says. “It might not be the NFL, but I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. If you respect the game of football it doesn’t matter what league you play in.”

As a 10-year-old, Allen needed only one play to convince his San Diego youth league coaches he could be a quarterback.

Early in his first year in organized ball, Allen lined up as a defensive back and, during one practice, a quarterback heaved a wobbly pass that Allen batted down. He corralled the rolling ball about 30 yards from the line of scrimmage and his coaches told Allen to bring it back.

Instead, he threw a tight spiral on target to the head coach, who tossed the ball back and asked him to do it again. So he did.

“The coach said, ‘You’re my quarterback,'” recalls Allen’s father, Harold Allen Sr. “And he’s been a quarterback ever since.”

NFL scouts, however, were tougher to win over. Not that Allen didn’t give them a reason to check him out.

Fullerton had a losing tradition when Allen arrived on campus in 1981, but he graduated with back-to-back conference titles, officially losing only once in his last two years. A 1984 loss was overturned when it was discovered that Nevada-Las Vegas had used ineligible players.

As a slender but strong-armed senior, he passed for 2,469 yards and 20 touchdowns, throwing only three interceptions.

“It was a lot of fun coaching Damon because he was a really sharp guy,” says Jerry Brown, Fullerton’s offensive co-ordinator during Allen’s tenure. “During two-minute drills we would just give him parameters. With someone else you would signal in the plays, but with Damon you let him call his own plays.”

Murphy, who took over at Fullerton a year before Allen arrived, remembers his best games as if they happened last week instead of last century:

The game against heavily favoured Colorado State that Fullerton won behind three TD passes from Allen.

And the Long Beach State game when Allen passed for three TDs and rushed for two more.

The Titans were undefeated heading into the game against Nevada-Las Vegas, led by another lean, athletic quarterback with a strong arm – future NFL star Randall Cunningham. Going into the fourth quarter that night, Fullerton trailed by 18 points, but Murphy wasn’t worried.

“Everybody around him knew that as long as we have Damon, we’ve got something special,” Murphy says.

Allen rallied his squad to 17 unanswered points and Fullerton could have won on the game’s final drive if not for a dropped pass in the end zone.

But none of those performances persuaded NFL scouts to envision Allen as a pro quarterback, even when he finished 16th in Heisman Trophy voting that year. His play in the Senior Bowl and his workout at the NFL combine did not have the desired effect.

Despite his flashy stats, NFL scouts couldn’t get past another set of numbers: 6 feet tall, 160 pounds; fine for a wide receiver, where the Rams suggested he play, but no NFL team wanted a stringbean under centre.

“He’s got the arm strength and he’s got the mind to run an NFL offence,” says Brown, who was on the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff from 1988 to 1991. “But you’re not going to find any quarterbacks in the NFL that small.” And NFL offences of the 1980s weren’t looking for quarterbacks that mobile.

“If he was playing (college ball) right now he’d be an NFL prospect,” Murphy says. “That’s what they’re looking for now, mobile quarterbacks. The prototype back then was the Dan Marino type. Six-foot-2, 6-foot-3 and can’t run.”

That prototype was also white, although no one, least of all Allen, is certain that his race kept NFL teams from giving him a chance to play quarterback.

“Back then (racism) was a possibility,” Murphy says. “That and size. But God dang, he could play. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

Allen is aware of the old stereotype that blacks lacked the brains to play quarterback, but says it was never applied to him, even by skeptical NFL scouts.

“With me it always came back to size,” he says. “Nobody ever questioned my ability to think.”

Besides, the NFL’s quarterbacking colour barrier had already started to crumble in 1985 when Allen finished school. That spring the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Cunningham, a season after Moon first suited up for the Houston Oilers.

And by then, Moon had already provided Allen with a clue to his football future.

Allen discovered the CFL in 1982, when an NFL strike forced some U.S. broadcasters to show CFL games. That season he watched Moon lead the Edmonton Eskimos to the Grey Cup and later that year he learned the Eskimos had already acquired his CFL rights.

“When the NFL was talking to me about changing positions, I knew I could go to the CFL and play quarterback,” Allen says.

So, like Moon, he began his pro football career in Edmonton, spending six seasons there, spread over two stints. But unlike Moon, Allen never parlayed his CFL success into an NFL job.

In 22 years in Canada, he has never even received a serious contract offer from south of the border. At times, Allen says, NFL teams would call his agent, but he says he hasn’t spoken directly to an NFL team since coming to the CFL.

“I wanted a team to come after me instead of me coming after them,” he says.

It didn’t bother him to see CFL stars Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia head south, but it sure confused Allen’s father, especially since former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci had coached Allen in college.

“I was shocked when Mariucci took Garcia instead of Damon,” Harold Allen says. “Damon’s a better athlete and a better quarterback. I don’t know why they did that.”

Allen doesn’t know, either, but he doesn’t worry about it. He appreciates his CFL success and even though he always wanted to test himself against the NFL’s best, he knows he probably wouldn’t have approached Moon’s record playing there.

“Who’s to say I go to the NFL and play as long as I did here?” he says.

“I wouldn’t trade 22 years here for five years in the NFL.”

Copyright ©2006 Toronto Star

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