Keenan Allen considered quitting NFL
The toll most players pay when reaching a new level, from high school to college, college to the NFL, is patience. It’s fewer reps. It’s working on the scout team. It’s standing on the sideline, waiting for opportunity that, in a season, can come at any time or, just as easily, never at all.
Some pay their dues in stride.
Keenan Allen, as a competitor, couldn’t bear it.
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The Chargers rookie loves football but hates the sideline. That hate festered this year to the point, he said Wednesday, he seriously considered quitting. In August, he was on the fence and sought guidance. In September, he was on the brink. He looks back now, a front runner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, yards from a new franchise record, days short of the regular-season finale.
“It’s crazy,” Allen said. “I came a long way.”
When the 6-foot-2 wide receiver arrived as a freshman in Berkeley, Calif., the five-star prospect from North Carolina was regarded as the nation’s best safety and his state’s top recruit. He did not stand on the sideline.
When he came to San Diego, he did.
The Chargers were fairly deep at wide receiver this April when drafting Allen in the third round. They believed he was a playmaker, of which they could not have enough, and from the spring on, they coached the 21-year-old hard in practice. He worked behind veterans, and be it for nuances in route-running, an occasional drop or maturity issues Allen has acknowledged having grown from, he struggled at times over the months.
Allen leads the team with 957 receiving yards. On Wednesday morning, he spoke to his mother on the phone, wishing her a Merry Christmas.
Their September phone call during training camp was very different.
“‘I need help. I’m losing. I’m about to quit,’” Allen recalled Wednesday in the locker room. “(I wasn’t) living up to my expectations of starting. I’ve never been a role player-type guy. Not easy at all. … I’ve never had to do it before. I never had to adjust.”
She advised him to pray.
He did and chose to wait.
That concept of waiting had worn on Allen. A productive three-year career at California ended in October 2012 with a knee injury. He announced in December his decision to turn pro a year early. He believed in his abilities. He wanted to contribute. He never was a third-round pick in his mind. He certainly wouldn’t ever be a reserve.
Then he was.
Despite the Chargers losing wide receiver Danario Alexander to an August season-ending injury, Allen saw zero offensive snaps in a season-opening loss to the Texans.
“After I didn’t play after that first game, I was about another snap away of not playing from quitting,” Allen said.
He doesn’t know, he says, how he would have told the Chargers.
But afterward, he’d have gone back to Berkeley and finished his degree. He may have changed his major from African American Studies to something in line with becoming a music producer. He’s sung as long as he can remember, been playing pianos and keyboards since, in the 11th grade, seeing a friend do it and deciding to teach himself.
He considers sports his first love and music his second.
This week, local multimedia reporter Annie Heilbrunn published a video in which Allen showcased his affinity for music and, for the first time, discussed the option he weighed of leaving football.
Opportunity can come at any time, and for Allen, it came before anything rash. The Chargers have leaned on him since a Week 2, third-quarter injury to Malcom Floyd in Philadelphia.
“Not having Malcom, Danario going down, that gave him opportunity,” tight end Antonio Gates said. “That’s what this league is about, making the most out of your opportunities. Now, he’s in a position where, quite frankly, in my mind, he’s probably going to be the No. 1 receiver next year just because of what he’s able to do. …
“I’m quite sure nobody saw this coming. In OTAs and training camp, in my mind, I never envisioned Keenan in the lineup this year, this soon with this kind of impact. I thought about Eddie (Royal) in the slot. I thought about Vincent Brown. I thought about Malcom. I thought about Danario. He was like fifth, sixth on the totem pole.”
The great misnomer to conclude about Allen, it seems clearly, would be to doubt in any way his passion for the game.
Teammates have seen it.
He prepared to be ready when called upon. He overcame that college knee injury and has battled through shoulder injuries, all while not missing a practice all season. On the field, he is a competitor — just this month, in Denver, he hurdled one Broncos defensive back and lowered his head into another to score a touchdown, unwilling to be denied.
Frustration from a competitor is natural.
Gates weighed retirement when slow to regain form after foot injuries. He was unable to separate from defenders to his standard. Teams double-teamed him less often. Some singled him with a linebacker, the worst part that it’d work.
Quarterback Philip Rivers said, while not mulling retirement, he recalls frustration in his second NFL season.
He stood on the sideline, the backup option behind veteran Drew Brees.
“I remember pulling out of the stadium and thinking, ‘Ugh. Another week of preparation and another week I didn’t do anything,’” Rivers said. “You go through the ‘poor me’ stage, and it made me really grow in appreciation for Charlie (Whitehurst’s) role, a lot of guys’ role that they prepare like crazy, they practice like crazy because ‘if I’m called upon, there are going to be guys depending on me.’ …
“It would have been a shame (about Allen) because the guy’s a heck of a talent, a heck of a receiver, a super smart player. He’s got a bright career ahead of him.”
Allen needs 45 receiving yards Sunday against the Chiefs to set a rookie franchise record for most yards in a single season. John Jefferson owns the mark of 1,001, set in 1978.
It’d be an important milestone.
Already, he owns the Chargers’ rookie record with five 100-yard games in a season. Their last rookie to have back-to-back 100-yard games was Don Norton in 1960. Allen, from the brink and back, has done it twice.
To win is first and foremost. To catch Jefferson, though, “would mean a lot, just from what I came from,” Allen said.
He doesn’t believe in rookie mistakes — no player is perfect. There are lessons, though, essential to learn.
He’d tell a young player what he was taught: Keep going. Pay the toll.
“Don’t give up,” Allen said. “Patience.”