By Jeff Rice, Beaver Stadium Pictorial Contributor
When he moved the mattress in his son's old bedroom a few weeks ago, Shawn Allen discovered there was something carved into the baseboard. He snapped a picture with his phone and sent it to that son, asking him how long the words had been there.
"Marcus Allen is going to the NFL," it turned out, was etched into the wood by a 10-year-old, who is now a 21-year-old senior safety at Penn State.
Marcus Allen has long been confident, and his gregarious personality, his father is pleased to see, hasn't changed as he has blossomed from scrawny high schooler to one of the nation's best defensive backs. Beneath the 1,000-watt smile and the swagger, though, burns an intense drive that has sharpened its focus over the past year. That drive has gotten Allen through a couple of nerve-wracking spots that shaped the player he would become.
When Allen was a freshman at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, he tried out for the junior varsity squad as an outside linebacker. He recalls weighing in at 150 pounds.
"He was about 135," Shawn says, laughing. "One fifty was really generous."
In any case, Allen injured his shoulder that season and missed a good chunk of time. JV coach Jeff Johnson told him he needed to bulk up if he was going to play linebacker for him as a sophomore. So Shawn took him to a local gym every afternoon -- whether he wanted to go or not.
One day, Allen was on the basketball court with his friends at the time he was supposed to be meeting his father for a workout. Shawn tracked him down and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he needed to be in the gym.
"I was mad the whole time," Allen recalls. "I had an attitude. But I still worked out."
Those workouts put muscle on Allen's growing frame -- enough to make him a serviceable high school linebacker. But when his sophomore season at Wise began, Dalawn Parrish, the varsity head coach, had another idea: he wanted to move Allen to safety.
Allen remembers Parrish, who is a social studies teacher at the school, giving him lessons on his backpedal technique in the middle of his classroom. Further work with Roman Morris -- whose son Stephon was a Penn State defensive back at the time -- at the Prime Xample Skills Academy helped sharpen that technique as the season approached.
Shawn Allen, who was coaching the JV squad with Johnson that year, remembers being curious and even a little apprehensive when Parrish told him he was planning to move Marcus up to the varsity that season. Sure enough, Marcus beat out an upperclassman for the starting job and he made it a point after that not to give the coaches any reason to move him back to linebacker.
"I fell in love with the DBs and the DB swagger," Allen says. "I didn't want to play linebacker again."
Allen was nervous for his first start at Wise and three years after that, when Ryan Keiser suffered a scary injury in the days leading up to the Ohio State game, he found himself in a similar situation, thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman against an offense loaded with future NFL skill players in a primetime contest.
As if the gravity of the game itself wasn't enough, Allen remembers hearing that there was an announcement back at his high school that he would be starting the game.
"I felt more pressure about letting people down," he says.
Allen's teammates told him he was in that spot for a reason. He called his father to tell him the news and Shawn did his best to pump his son's tires.
"I was terrified," Shawn says, laughing. "I was terrified the entire game."
There was little reason to be. Allen finished with 11 tackles and a pair of pass breakups as the Nittany Lions roared back from a 17-0 halftime deficit and nearly stunned the Buckeyes in overtime. He had 11 more tackles the following week against Maryland and went on to finish the season tied for third on the team with 58 tackles.
Allen had showed so much promise as a true freshman -- good range, a nose for the football, an ability to deliver hits like, well, a linebacker -- that expectations for his second season in the program might have been a little too high, at least according to media reports he saw or heard about.
"They were making me seem like I was going to be the next big thing," he says.
Like most sophomores, Allen had his ups and downs during another 7-6 season in 2015, playing through a few injuries not many people outside the program knew about. As he learned how to read quarterbacks and route trees, he also came to understand how the media who covered his team worked.
"You're going to go through trials and adversity all the time," he says. "It's how are you going to respond to it? That year, when I got all the negativity from the media, that made me want to grind harder and now that I know what it comes with."
When he represented Penn State at Big Ten Media Days this past summer in Chicago, Allen quietly made mental notes of the reporters who had been the most critical and were now quick to praise him for his standout 2016 season, when he led the squad with 110 tackles.
The aspiring broadcast journalist also made notes of which reporters had different questions to offer than the same tired lines and how they got their subjects to respond. When it comes time for Allen to move from interviewee to interviewer, he says, "I know I'll have something good that can change the game."
Those goals will have to wait, though. Allen still has a lot of football left, not only his final season of college but, if all goes well, the NFL. That mindset informed his approach to the entire offseason. During spring break, he and teammates Mark Allen, Saquon Barkley and DeSean Hamilton went to Orlando to train with performance coach Tom Shaw, whose clients at the facility included Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
During the summer, Allen focused on nutrition, dropping some bad weight to get to his current 205 pounds, and spent much of his free time working with Hamilton and the rest of Penn State's wide receivers, sharpening his ball skills with the JUGS machine and learning everything he could about their route concepts.
He credits former Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin with setting an example of putting in extra work, and as one of the Nittany Lions' current leaders, wants to continue spreading that example to his teammates.
"I just want to be a person that shows them the right way to act," Allen says. "Everyone's not perfect, but I want my name to be remembered when I leave Penn State as 'That guy worked hard, he still had fun but when it came to business, that's when he got serious.'"
There isn't much that makes Allen nervous on the field these days, which is the result of both his experience and the work he has put in. He likes that there are no traces of ego on the team after last year's run to the Rose Bowl, and he can sense a shared hunger to achieve even greater things in 2017.
Shawn Allen could only smile at the carving in the baseboard, knowing a goal set more than a decade ago grows closer with each day and that the player who prowls the defensive backfield for Penn State today isn't much different from the 10-year-old who wrote it, or from the 15-year-old who made his first start for Wise six years ago.
"Marcus is the same Marcus that left for Penn State in terms of his playfulness, how easygoing he is," says his father. "He's remained grounded throughout all of this."