‘More to it than being a football player’
Will Allen says paying forward was among Jim Tressel’s expectations of his players.
We’re all in this together.
That’s a big lesson Will Allen took from his experience on the 2002 national championship team, and it applies just as well to the foundation he launched eight years later to help kids.
Allen, who played for 12 years in the National Football League, said Coach Jim Tressel’s leadership turned a Buckeyes team that many outsiders doubted into a group of guys who cared about one another and the people around them.
“That was a cool part of being on the team,” said Allen, 34. “He cared about our development as people. It helped us bond as a team. We knew he cared for us and not just football.”
The Buckeyes went 14–0 that season, with two of the wins — including the regular-season finale against Michigan — sealed with game-ending interceptions by Allen. Ohio State clinched the national championship, its first since 1970, with a 31–24 win over the Miami Hurricanes after two overtimes. In winning, the second-ranked Buckeyes, who had been 11½-point underdogs, ended the defending champions’ 34-game winning streak.
Today, Allen and about 20 other members of the 2002 team stay in regular contact through group texting.
“Coach Tressel and the staff, everyone, we just decided in order to get where we wanted to go, we had to focus,” said Allen, a defensive back who was named an All-American a year after that championship season. “We knew we had the pieces, and nobody believed in us. It was a great experience, believing in what we could do.
“It encourages you, being on a national championship team,” he added. “It encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities.”
Off the field, Tressel expected his players to serve others — as mentors or by visiting hospital patients, for instance.
“That just triggered something in me that there was more to it than being a football player,” Allen said. “And once you have wisdom or knowledge, you have to apply it in your life in some way. I wanted to help young people, to show I cared about them, that the community cared about them.”
So in 2008, he founded the Will Allen Foundation, which connects with high school students in Pittsburgh and his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and helps them prepare for life after graduation.
The foundation guides the teens in practical ways. That could be instruction on how to manage money, study for college entrance exams, find a good trade school, use social media responsibly or prep for a job interview. The kids visit science and technology labs, cultural centers and financial institutions.
And, as you might expect, there are football camps. The free camps, for kids ages 10 to 18, help participants develop football skills in a non-contact setting.
In pay-forward fashion, teens involved with the foundation help others during the holidays, providing underprivileged kids with shopping trips and gift cards to buy presents for family.
Allen said the personal growth he experienced during the national title season prompted him to contemplate what more he might do in the world.
“The season definitely had an influence on my development as a football player, my development as a team player,” he said. “I’m just humbled and thankful for all the opportunities I get.”
After starting 15 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2015 season, Allen became a free agent. He hopes to sign with a team to play again in 2016.
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