Article By: D.J. Sellarole
Interview By: Melissa Meagher and D.J. Sellarole
Thanks to Nam Le for contributing to the interview questions.
Photography by David Herschorn and Sasha Chebil.
You can tell a lot from a man’s handshake. Insecure men tend to squeeze a bit too hard—just enough to make it awkward. Overconfident men are much the same, and guys who know they have that special “it” usually offer the firm “respect that I am the alpha male in this room” shake. I expected a mixture, perhaps, of all three, but instead, he shook my hand as I would expect someone to shake the hand of a trusted friend. He didn’t gruffly or gutturally blurt out his name, but instead introduced himself with a glancing, shy smile. Already I was entirely thrown off by this hulking man-child. Who did he think he was, acting like a normal, everyday nice guy? This was Keenan Allen, the face of Cal football, Heisman hopeful, general badass. It was the first time he knocked me off guard that morning, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
When I got out of bed on that gloomy mid-April morning for my interview with Keenan Allen, I had very set expectations for how things would go. Before I came to Cal, I had spent a long three years as a defensive lineman at College of the Canyons down in Southern California. Junior college football is all guts and no glory. The majority of the guys I played with were major scholarship athletes who had messed up their shot at the big show and were desperately trying to claw their way back to the top. Locker room anxiety was always at a high. We all knew that we had just one more shot, and the guys to our left and the guys to our right were always trying to steal that shot away. I was there because I came from a high school that was so small we played eight-man football (there are normally eleven players). No scout had ever heard of my school, and if they had, I probably wasn’t good enough to catch their attention anyway. It’s safe to say that my reason for being there was the most mild. The stories were always tragic, and the storyteller always played the part of the victim; in that way, I imagine it was a lot like prison.
It was in that environment that I had learned to anticipate the pulse of a college football locker room, and I expected Allen to fit into the familiar space of the memories I carried around in my head. It’s not that I was intimidated. Keenan Allen was far smaller than most of the guys I had played with, and I had known some crazy characters—guys who had a penchant for messing up their seasons by taking vacations in the local county jail. What had me on edge, as best I can describe it, was a stale, numbing fear—a fear that I hadn’t felt since turning in my pads and helmet for the last time. It’s a feeling that will never really leave me, a feeling that is wrapped up in sweaty shoulder pads and sore knees, the fear that the guy across from you is about to make you a nobody. I expected nothing less than a cold, hard stare and a cocky attitude attached to every answer Allen gave me. What I got from him couldn’t have shocked me more.
After watching the replay of Cal quarterback Zach Maynard’s 90-yard touchdown pass to his half-brother—Keenan Allen—it was hard to imagine a time when the North Carolina natives weren’t stars together on the field. After all, the two have been throwing to each other since Allen was seven years old, and the pair seems poised to dominate the 2012 season on college football’s greatest stage. Perhaps that’s why Melissa Meagher (my co-interviewer) and I both were so shocked when Allen revealed that his brother didn’t play at all until his senior year of high school. Allen didn’t play much as a freshman and told us that he figured he wouldn’t be going to college for football—he was “just a blocker,” and “not a very good one.”
“My sophomore year came and I started doing better,” Allen said. “I saw my brother and he started getting offers, and I realized, ‘Okay, I can do this,’ and I started going to camps. You start to prove yourself and people start looking.” It was hard for me to take this guy seriously. There was a level of vulnerability that I wasn’t used to hearing in his storytelling, as if he wasn’t worried about his image, or about asserting his dominance over his brother. The humility with which he told his story blew me away; after all—injuries and the end of the world aside—Keenan Allen is a guaranteed first round draft pick for the NFL in 2013.
As if he hadn’t stretched his modesty far enough already, Allen decided to elaborate. “[Maynard] didn’t play until his senior year, and we were on the same [high school] team . . . and he kind of had a big year,” he said. “Schools started coming and looking at him pretty fast. His process was much quicker than mine. He kind of led the way for me. Because I’m his brother.” I stared across the table at him with a stunned, dumb look, shook my head a little, twirled my pen, and tried desperately to retain my composure. Now, readers, allow me to tread carefully over Keenan Allen’s rather silly statement. It’s not that I’m trying to take anything away from Maynard, and I certainly wouldn’t call Allen a liar, but anyone who knows anything about the crazy world of college football recruiting is aware that Keenan laid everything on the line for his considerably less recruited—and less hyped—older brother.
When I say less hyped, I’m not simply stating my own opinion. I would never claim to have that kind of interpretive skill for evaluating big time talent. The guys and gals over at Scout.com, however, are paid decent money to obsessively overanalyze guys like Allen and Maynard. The site is the Holy Grail of recruiting, and in college locker rooms across the nation—unless you’re Keenan Allen, apparently—the number of stars attached to one’s name dictates your bragging rights.
Zach Maynard is awarded two stars out of five, and the universities listed under the “Schools of Interest” section are Buffalo (the school where Maynard played his freshman campaign), Temple and Middle Tennessee. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with that profile. In fact, by normal standards, it’s rather exceptional, seeing as most high school ball players (this journalist included) are now sitting at home watching him play on the big screen. It’s just that Allen’s account of Maynard paving the way doesn’t exactly add up, considering that Scout.com deemed Allen worthy of its highest honor—the coveted five stars. His “Schools of Interest” include Alabama, Clemson, Oregon, Tennessee and South Carolina (I only listed here five of the nine powerhouses that offered him a full scholarship).
As a big time sports fan, I often ponder what separates the chumps from the greats. At some point in their careers, Reggie Bush, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers all played with guys like me—regular, average athletes who blocked for them, caught passes thrown by them, and even tackled and tried to hurt them. Sports writers through the mysterious ages have tried to put a finger on the magic combination that pushes these otherwise ordinary men to extraordinary levels of physical prowess. It usually comes down to some corny formulation of determination, will to win, and sacrifice—the drive to succeed in the face of extraordinary adversity.
I tried hard to dig “it” out of him, the story I expected and wanted to hear. I wanted him to tell me one of the stories that I had heard a thousand times before from all the “victims” I had left back home. Bum coaches, greedy parents, too much time spent with the wrong crowd. I was conditioned to think this way, and when I looked at Keenan Allen’s stat sheet, I became convinced of the existence of some great, tragic, driving force—which is why I had anticipated that he would be angry, selfishly driven and territorial. Keenan Allen—the from-a-distance-imposing bundle of smiles—just wasn’t having it. It says quite a bit about his character. There’s no melodrama, no sob stories, no false bravado. Even better, I’m still sure that there is a story—everyone has a story, but Allen doesn’t use it as a crutch or as a chip on his shoulder.
Anyone with a Google search bar and a little bit of time could see that, if Allen wanted to be a victim, he could be. The Internet armchair critics, obnoxious and accusing as ever, make Allen’s recruiting process out to be a scandal on par with Watergate. “Is Alabama’s Top Recruit Trying To Blackmail ‘Bama?” an especially incredulous blogger inquires. What the fellow is referring to, of course, is the fact that Allen insisted on being a package deal with his brother. “Zach Maynard is exploiting his brother’s fame,” says another Internet expert. Accusations of money under the table and secret job offers are thrown around flippantly, and all of that research I did beforehand was swirling in the back of my skull as I looked at this big amiable goof sitting across from me. “Keenan,” Melissa said, “describe the recruiting process for us. What was that like?” I was ready with my Watergate line of questioning; I was the sharp, keen warrior-journalist. I was twenty steps ahead of this kid—he’d never outfox me.
Allen looked at us with a blank face, shrugged and said, “I didn’t really care. I told my brother to pick a school, and thankfully he picked Cal. There’s no better place to be a student-athlete. I just followed him.” Once again, I was caught off-guard. I was dumbfounded, and before I had time to reshape my follow up approach, Melissa blurted out, “So . . . basically you just follow your brother around?” And just like that, we were all rolling in laughter and the scandal was swept up with his easy personality. “I wouldn’t say all that,” he retorted smoothly with a twinkle in his eye, “but yeah, we stick together.”
Before I even had time to decide if Allen’s “Thankfully he picked Cal. There’s no better place to be a student-athlete” comment was bullshit or not, he explained why he said it, and there was not even the slightest scent of cover-up left lingering in the room. “I like it because no one knows me. No one’s coming up and going, ‘Oh, it’s Keenan Allen.’ Sure, if I’m at a basketball game and they say, ‘In the crowd tonight is Keenan Allen,’ then people know, but it makes me feel good that people don’t just know me as the football player.” “So,” I asked him, “why the drive for success if you don’t like the fame? You said you wanted to be on Sports Illustrated, and now you’ll be on Caliber. Don’t you know people will recognize you?” “Oh, I want them to know,” he said. “I want to be known, for sure.” “You just don’t like being bothered and chased around,” I joked. He laughed, and then added, “Exactly. I want the success, just not all that. I’m not a very social person. I just kind of like to go with the flow.”
At this point in the interview, Melissa and I had given up any hopes of deeper scandal or dark tales of hardship and woe. Keenan Allen is a rare breed of celebrity. Ultimately, the only statement we managed to get out of him that was remotely worthy of a Hollywood sport film was that he strove for success “to prove to doubters” that they were wrong. Even then, it was in a sporting, joking way; Keenan didn’t have cantankerous enemies in mind. His doubters, the ones who seem to bother him, anyway, seem playful at best. In high school, for instance, Allen was a top ranked safety, a defensive position as opposed to the position he plays at Cal. In college, Allen is a wide receiver, an offensive position. When I asked him if he ever missed playing safety, he answered, “All the time. I’m always on the coaches to let me play.” Surprised, I asked, “Why do you want to play safety so bad when you have so much success as receiver?” With his trademark wink and smile, Keenan answered, “Because the defense thinks I can’t do that. I want to show them that they are wrong.”
At this point, I was desperate to elicit some real aggression from Keenan Allen—maybe I was nursing my shattered imagining of how I had thought the conversation would go. I blindsided him with my best shot, hopeful that he’d give me answers I could anticipate and expect and use. “What are your top five pump up songs?” I asked. Of course, I expected Lil Wayne, Eminem, maybe Young Jeezy. Those are locker room staples; they are angry artists with angry lyrics inspiring angry young men to do angry, violent things. They were my favorites, always blaring in the locker room, and I thought perhaps Allen and I shared that code. He leaned back in his chair, smiled again and said, “The Weeknd, maybe some Drake. The Birds, by the Weeknd, for sure.” At that point, all I could do is laugh. The man had out-gamed my every expectation and move, and I was helpless under his seamless humor. “Do you ever let that calm go?” I asked, letting my exasperation leak through. “Of course,” he sayid, “I get angry on the field all the time. Especially at my brother. When he doesn’t pass and I’m open, I let him have it.” And then Allen laughed; he was probably thinking of Melissa’s earlier comment about how he follows his older brother around. “Only to a point,” the smile seemed to say, “does that calm flow stay intact.” Watch out, Nevada. Keenan, in all his poised, calm, affable glory, will be stepping onto that field September 1, and he might be playing to prove someone wrong. More likely, he’ll be singing The Weeknd out there—Keenan admitted that if he could have any career other that football, he’d be a singer—just waiting for someone to piss him off. One thing is certain; I know that I’ll be in the stands rooting as loud as I can. What can I say, maybe I’m not the best journalist in the world; my skill for objectivity must not be that great if I can leave the interview room as my subject’s new biggest fan, but I blame that on Keenan. He can handle it, just the same as he’ll handle the season opener and every game after that: with a song on his lips and his brother by his side.
Who is your number one mentor?
“I know who I really want to say…because I said that person last time…but my mama got really mad, so I’m not going to do that…Of course it’s my mama!”
What is the number one thing you want to accomplish in your time at Cal?
“I want to make the Dean’s list…I don’t even know…I’d do something wild if I made Dean’s list. What do you say to a student-athlete who’s made Dean’s List?!”
What is your intended major?
“African American Studies.”
Favorite class so far at Cal?
“Physics for Future Presidents”
“Fast Food Nation”
What award do you want to win the most?
If you weren’t a football player, what career would you want?
I would want to be a singer. I’m always singing. It’s like I have the Tourette’s, but with singing.”