Sept. 4, 2010
What defines a man?
It has been discussed, debated and lectured for as long as time.
The literal definition of a man is simply an adult person who is male, but we all know there is much more to a man.
If one is not able to specifically characterize a man, then maybe it is easier to identify attributes of a man?
Loyalty, class, unselfishness, dedication, pride, determination, leadership and response to adversity are just a handful of qualities present in a man. Each has molded senior tailback Armando Allen Jr. into the man he is today.
"Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I'll show you someone who has overcome adversity" -- Lou Holtz
Allen had not even stepped foot on the Notre Dame campus before adversity faced the Opa Locka, Fla. native.
Allen was considered one of the top high school running backs in the nation. The Miami Herald rated him as the 2006 top overall senior prospect in Dade County. Allen was even ranked as the eighth-best overall prospect nationally -- and second among running backs -- by the Sporting News prior to his final scholastic season. He ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the `06 U.S. Army All-American Bowl combine and was chosen offensive MVP.
Then came the night of Aug. 17, 2006.
Allen sustained a serious leg injury in a preseason game against Coral Gables. Midway through the second quarter, he was on his way to the end zone when an opposing defender lunged for the back of his shoulder pads. Allen had just planted his feet to change direction and his whole body weight shifted.
He suffered a broken and dislocated ankle as well as a fractured fibula. In one game, one play, one second, everything seemed gone.
Allen would miss his entire senior season at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, but he refused to let the injury determine his course in life.
Allen rehabilitated the injured leg, but was faced with the difficult decision of where to attend college and continue his football career. He was from a fruitful recruiting area long dominated by the big three Florida schools - Florida, Florida State and Miami (Fla.).
Unfortunately, questions lingered. Is he healthy? Will he return to the explosive back he was prior to the injury?
"Notre Dame was one of the few schools that stuck by me," Allen says. "It made everything much easier for me. They were loyal to me from the beginning. It absolutely played a big role in me coming here."
Allen narrowed his choices to Tennessee, Notre Dame, Florida and Florida State. Most figured he would remain home and choose between Florida and Florida State, especially after the injury, but Allen eventually paid a visit to South Bend.
"When I took my official visit, Notre Dame was so different than other colleges," Allen continues. "You can feel the difference; it felt like home. It was a totally different atmosphere from my high school and the area in which I grew up."
He graduated from high school in December, gained admittance to Notre Dame, verbally committed to the Irish and enrolled to the University early in January for the 2007 spring semester.
"My broken ankle played a role," Allen says. "It made me realize that football is not guaranteed forever. I felt like I had the best of both worlds. I had the opportunity to play big-time college football and also receive a quality education. It just made my decision that much more clear."
"I think everyone should experience defeat at least once during their career. You learn a lot from it." -- Lou Holtz
The `07 Notre Dame football campaign is one that most would like to forget, but Allen remembers it daily, especially his first game at Notre Dame Stadium.
"I remember hearing all those people cheer," Allen says. "I stopped, looked around and thought `this is big time football.' It made me realize how important this place was and how important the fans are here and how they love Notre Dame football. I had goose bumps."
Allen sprinted out of the tunnel for the first time. The rush of adrenaline filled his veins with a feeling unlike any he had ever experienced. Allen pumped his fists and raised his arms. He let it all soak in. Allen gazed around sold out stadium and felt at home again. One small issue; here comes the opening kick.
"I remember them kicking the ball and realizing, `this is really coming to me,' Allen remarks. "Just to have that ball in my hand and running down the field, it was one of those things I really needed. More than anything, I remember the ruling on the field was a fumble. How can I start my college career like this?"
The officials would eventually determine after replay that Allen was down before the ball came loose. The return went for 25 yards, almost the house, but it was a brief flash of hope in an otherwise disheartening game and eventual season.
In total, Allen saw action in 12 games in `07, including four starts. He recorded a team-best 1,176 all-purpose yards and ranked second on the team in rushing with 348 yards. Allen also caught 24 passes for 124 yards and one touchdown, but fell far short of his own expectations.
"I missed my whole senior year of high school," Allen says. "So the transition coming from my junior year to the college level was really overwhelming. I understood my role and understood this is the time when you really need to understand that it's very, very different and you're not playing with high school kids anymore."
Allen expected to help the Irish win games, not produce numbers. Notre Dame went 3-9 and he felt responsible to give more to the program that had already given so much to him.
"Am I going to quit? That never came across my mind," Allen emphasizes. "How can I not only make it better for me, but how can I help make it better for others?"
"Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it." -- Lou Holtz
Allen returned in 2008 a different running back. He spent that offseason strengthening the ankle. Allen wanted to make those same kinds of cuts again, on a dime, which made him such a dynamic recruit. He also added versatility and knowledge of the college game. The game was more than simply taking off around the edge and sprinting up the field. Those holes that were there in high school were not anymore.
"I wanted to just get on the field and let my athleticism take over, but it took me some time to really understand the college game," Allen observes. "I had to truly have an understanding of the playbook and my opponent. Only then would things really slow down to let your athletic ability shine."
The improvement was immediately evident. Allen exploded with a then career-best performance in a 38-21 rout of Purdue, rushing for 134 yards on 17 carries. He entered the game with a career-long run of 15 yards, but exceeded that bar four times against the Boilermakers.
Allen played in all 13 games in 2008 and started eight contests. He would lead the Irish in rushing with 585 yards and ranked second on the team with 50 receptions, good for 355 yards.
But it was his team-first attitude that carried more weight. Fellow sophomore Robert Hughes and then junior James Aldridge shared the running game spotlight with Allen and he was more than gracious to do so.
"I have never really cared about stats," Allen says. "It is winning at the end of the day. If I can do anything to better help my team prepare to win, I want to do it. Even if coach wanted me to hike the ball, I'll do it. That is just the person I am."
Allen capped off his sophomore campaign in style. He registered 184 all-purpose yards in Notre Dame's bowl game victory against Hawai'i, the first postseason victory for the Irish since 1994. Allen also tallied a 96-yard kick return touchdown -- the first kickoff return score by a Notre Dame player since Vontez Duff in 2002.
The burst was back.
"The best thing I ever learned in life was that things have to be worked for. A lot of people seem to think there is some sort of magic in making a winning football team. There isn't, but there's plenty of work." -- Knute Rockne
Prior to his junior campaign, Allen added 10 pounds and concentrated on a running back's greatest strength - his legs. He spent the entire summer at nearby Miami-Dade Community College and became rather familiar with the steps of the football stadium, working out 90 minutes a day, four times a week, up and down.
Allen had transformed himself into a solid, powerful, every down running back. That transition was in full effect against Michigan in 2009.
"Last year, I really felt healthy for the first time since high school," Allen remembers. "I started to feel like I was getting back to who I was as a running back. I went into the Michigan game and felt like my legs were back. I was really into it."
Allen rushed for a career-best 139 yards against the Wolverines and was called upon on third-and-5 or less five times, netting first downs on four of them. He helped the Irish rally from a two-score deficit with a determined eight-yard touchdown plunge with 5:13 remaining in the game to give Notre Dame a 32-31 lead and then converted the ensuing two-point conversion on Statue of Liberty play putting Irish up, 34-31, which, unfortunately, did not hold up as the Wolverines grabbed the victory in the waning seconds, 38-34.
"It was such a good feeling, but unfortunately it came during a loss," Allen says. "I really put that game on my shoulders too. I made a couple bad plays and a penalty. With the maturity I have now, I would never do that again."
Allen did not let another setback deter his march, following up the Michigan effort with another 100-yard rushing game the ensuing week against Michigan State. This time, and most importantly to him, it came in victory. Allen became the first Notre Dame running back to eclipse 100 rushing yards in consecutive games since 2007. He even tossed his first career touchdown pass to become the first Irish running back to register a rushing and passing touchdown in same game since Allen Pinkett in 1984.
Unfortunately, the steady climb again stalled. The ankle that caused him to miss his entire senior season of high school and left him short of 100-percent as a freshman was ailing him again. Allen was forced to miss the entire Purdue game; most of the Washington contest, and was far from healthy against USC. He would, however, fight through the injury in an effort to help the team to victory the following game against Boston College.
Allen ran for 98 yards on 21 carries but was hit with another shot to the ankle in the process. He left the game momentarily, but returned after taking just a couple of plays off.
By his own admission, returning to the game was something that could never have happened a year or two ago. He gained tough yards between the tackles and even carried some defenders along the way to the second-most carries in his career. It was all worth it. Notre Dame upended the Eagles, 20-16.
The remainder of the season did not go as Allen planned, however, as he was forced to sit out three of the remaining five contests with recurring ankle problems. The Irish also would go on to drop their final four contests and Allen was again put to the test mentally in the face of adversity.
"It forced me to gain some maturity," Allen says. "We walked around campus with everyone knowing we had not lived up to expectations. It forced us to become a team and build the brotherhood that we understood; we are in this together and nobody can break us apart."
"Adversity has the propensity of eliciting talents that under more prosperous circumstances would have remained dormant." -- Ara Parseghian
Allen's senior season has finally arrived. He will walk out of the Irish lockeroom; turn right down the tunnel and head toward the entrance to the playing field just as he did four years ago. Sure, it is a football player donning the same jersey, but Allen is far from the same person.
"I'm walking out of a place that transformed me into the man I am today and will be in the future," Allen reflects. "That is why you come to Notre Dame. You are going to be raised right and learn those qualities that will better your situation when you leave."
His experiences, both positively and negatively, have molded a completely new person. A man. In fact, maybe more than just a man.
The Victory Clog, the Victory March, Hike Notre Dame, Celtic Chant, Down the Line, the Rakes of Mallow, 1812 Overture, and the alma mater, Notre Dame Our Mother, are very much a part of the sounds of a Notre Dame Football Weekend.
However, there might be reason to bring back a cheer that dates back to the earliest days of Notre Dame Stadium. In the early 1940s, one could attend a Notre Dame football game and hear the following cadence.
"He's a man, he's a man, he's a Notre Dame man."
Armando Allen is just that.