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Jason Allen Works
To Make It Work

by Jeff Berlinicke

Six years. Six long years of patience, sweat, more patience, a severe injury, even more patience, then, finally a chance to fulfill dreams far beyond his wildest expectations.

When Jason Allen charged out onto the field at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC, on December 31, it was the prelude to a new year for almost everybody but Allen.

For Allen, a graduate of Fort Myers High School, it was the beginning of an end. An end for someone who had been there from the beginning.

Confused?

Allen ran out on to the field in Charlotte leading the University of South Florida football team in its first-ever bowl game, an eventual 14-0 loss to North Carolina State in the loathsome-named Meineke Car Care Bowl. The loss was a dreary ending to a career that had so many starts and sudden stops that took nearly seven years to come to a finish, a career that was declared over several times before Allen led his team onto the field that New Year’s Eve in Charlotte.

The USF program was little more than a tiny piece of agate when Allen signed on with the Bulls back in 1999. At the time, USF was a Division I-AA program competing against the likes of New Hampshire and Hofstra. Allen himself was unheralded. After a decent, but inauspicious high school career at Fort Myers, Allen decided to walk on at USF. He had interest from some colleges, but after tearing his ACL and MCL during a playoff game against Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, Allen’s career appeared to be over.

“The doctors told me he didn’t know if I would ever play football again,’ Allen said. “It’s my love and my dream, though, and I never had any doubt in my mind.”

Instead, he decided to do whatever it took to continue his career. He walked on anyway at USF, knowing he’d have to sit out his first season for rehabilitation.

The rehab was nothing for Allen who was dealing with another tragedy that hit close to home. His father, John, was suffering from cancer and Allen spent his time concentrating on his studies at USF, the football team, and his father. His father won out as far as the attention, but eventually died in 2003. It affected Allen and kept him going despite his own hardships.

“My father was my backbone,’’ Allen said. “It was very emotional.’’

Allen continued, but USF linebackers coach Wally Burnham knew it weighed heavily on his mind as Allen watched his father wither away.

“It just drained on him,’’ Burnham said. “He went home every weekend and saw that his dad was sick, and for a young guy, that was tough. He wasn’t playing a lot at that time, so it was doubly tough.’’

Things got worse. He finally started getting some playing time in 2001 when he played in all 11 games and got one start, finishing the season with eight tackles, and the future started looking bright despite his father’s illness. He played in six games in 2002, and got more playing time the following season. Despite his father’s passing, Allen kept up his solid work ethic. Just as hi sdad was his backbone, but Allen was becoming the backbone of a USF team that made the jump to Division I-A in 2001.

Then, tragedy struck again. Allen tore his right pectoral muscle in the spring of 2004 and was forced to miss another season.

“Injuries are sometimes how individuals view it,’’ Allen said. “I never saw it as a setback. I only saw it as the opportunity to come back again.’’

Sitting out the 2004 season was tough, Allen admitted, and he knew he’d be the oldest player in the locker room once summer practice started all over again last August. By that time, USF had made the move from Conference –USA to the Big East, guaranteeing the Bulls a shot at a major bowl game if they won the conference. It also meant the Bulls would be getting recruits previously thought unobtainable. It also meant that Allen, 24, would be little more than an elder statesman since the team was loaded at Allen’s linebacker position.

Or so it seemed.

Allen started the season well back on the depth chart, but started picking up playing time quickly as the Bulls went on a run that led to the first bowl game in school history. Allen didn’t start, but registered a team-high seven sacks off the bench. He never complained, but coach Jim Leavitt said Allen was a leader on a young team that needed some veteran guidance.

“I don’t know if I have ever seen anyone come along and develop to be such a force and impact on a team in all the years I’ve coached,’’ said Leavitt, whose resume includes defensive coordinator at Kansas State. “It’s unbelievable how much that guy helps us. He has spirit, heart, work ethic…you can’t help but love the guy.’’

Allen has seen it all at USF. He was there when the program operated out of a trailer and worked out in a tiny weight room where the mirrors would fog over from the sweat and perspiration. Allen expected it. That’s what a Division I-AA player is expected to endure. He knew when he came to USF that there were no promises of a bowl game, no promises of national television, just the promise of playing football for a few more years.

“We had to grind it out every day,’ Allen said. “I want to show our new players what we have now, and show them what we used to have. They need to understand what it’s all about.’’

The Bulls clinched their first bowl appearance with a 31-16 win over Cincinnati on Nov. 19. Allen reflected on what he has seen, watching the shabby treatment given to Division I-AA teams to a USF schedule that usually includes trips to football powerhouses that turn Saturdays into a Bull roast. It’s the price any team pays to make a mark with the big boys.

“I’ve been through a lot here, more than anyone, and I am just excited,’’ Allen said as he walked off the Raymond James Stadium turf that afternoon. “I never thought I’d be at this point, but it’s a great feeling after all we’ve been through.’’

Allen has already earned his bachelor’s degree and is close to completing a second. He’s completed a lot of things the last six years and that New Year’s Eve in North Carolina was the culmination of it all. The loss in the bowl game doesn’t matter. Allen has dealt with far larger things than that. •

from the May-June 2006 issue

"I never saw it as a setback. I only saw it as the opportunity to come bac again."