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The Ballad of the Best Route Runner in Football

Keenan Allen has been a prized prospect, a draft steal, a breakout rookie, and an injury-plagued star. In 2017, he’s powered the Chargers by finding a new niche—as one of the best receivers in the NFL.

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Eighteen years before they were NFL teammates, Keenan Allen and Chris McCain were pint-size rivals on the rec football fields of Greensboro, North Carolina. McCain, now in his first full season as a reserve linebacker for the Chargers, was the 7-year-old star of the Fairview Raiders, while Allen led the Northeast Rams. Nearly two decades later, McCain swears that the player he tried to stop then was just a miniature version of the one he watches now. “People really don’t believe it when I say he still does the same stuff he’s been doing since we were kids,” McCain says. “I’m not exaggerating. He’s just perfected it. It ain’t nothin’ different.”

Maurice Harris grew up on Summit Avenue, less than a mile from Allen’s childhood home on McKnight Mill Road in the Rankin neighborhood of Greensboro. Harris, who would grow up to be a Redskins receiver, saw Allen almost every day, watching him roast defenders from the first time they played football. “It’s like he has something on him that people don’t want to touch,” says Harris, Allen’s cousin. “Him making somebody miss has always been effortless.”

Allen has been snapping ankles for so long that even he can’t remember his first victim. “[How long] have I been doing that?” Allen says when asked about a wicked route he ran against the Bills earlier this year. “I was like 7.”

Now in his fifth season with the Chargers, Allen has grown into one of the league’s most prolific receivers by relying on the same traits that once lit up Greensboro’s youth league. He infamously clocked a sluggish 4.71-second 40-yard-dash time at his pre-draft workout, but Allen’s on-field identity has always been defined more by elusiveness than speed. “I ain’t blazin’,” he says, parked on a chair in the lobby of the Chargers’ facility in Costa Mesa, California. “But I can do what I need to do.”

Allen racked up 1,046 receiving yards during his debut NFL season in 2013, the eighth-highest rookie total since the merger at the time. He developed a reputation as an exceptional route runner, and seemed poised to ascend into the upper echelon at his position. Yet various injuries have since sabotaged his promise, including a torn ACL that cost him the final 15 games of the 2016 campaign.

This fall, Allen has righted his trajectory. His 1,197 receiving yards rank fourth in the NFL, and on Tuesday the 25-year-old was selected for his first Pro Bowl. Earlier this season, Allen became the first player in league history to record at least 10 catches, 100 receiving yards, and a touchdown in three consecutive games. That scorching stretch helped propel the Chargers into the thick of the playoff race on the heels of an 0-4 start. Even after last Saturday’s loss to Kansas City dropped them to 7-7, they remain within striking distance of an AFC wild-card spot.

The receiver who’s spent a lifetime breaking off defenders may now be the one to fuel an improbable postseason run.

Keenan Allen in college Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Many of the nation’s best prep players emerge from powerhouse programs. Look no further than Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, the no. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft, who attended Fort Lauderdale football factory St. Thomas Aquinas High School before enjoying a decorated career at Ohio State. Allen’s rise toward the top of every recruiting list was different. He didn’t continue a lineage of Friday-night greatness. He started one.

Northern Guilford High School opened its doors in January 2008. Its first year with a varsity football team came that fall, when Allen was a junior. For that inaugural campaign, the Nighthawks slapped together a schedule full of private schools and teams from varying North Carolina classifications. They proceeded to go 10-1, with Allen breaking out as one of the most sought-after prospects in the nation. Two years later, Northern Guilford head coach John Roscoe won his first of three straight Class 3AA state championships, a feat he largely attributes to the ways Allen shaped his program. “Keenan really set the standard for Northern football players,” Roscoe says. “What people don’t know is that [he] would practice against our young guys, and they got to play against the best in North Carolina. I think that was a really big part in making our program grow.”

When Roscoe met Allen before the 2008 season, his future superstar made only one request: He never wanted to leave the field. “I told him, ‘Keenan, that’s one thing I can guarantee ya,’” Roscoe says. Allen played a blend of quarterback and receiver on offense, lined up as a safety on defense, and served as a returner on special teams, sometimes even moonlighting as the kicker. He proved devastating with the ball in his hands, racking up an unfathomable 53 total touchdowns during his final season. Nighthawks quarterback and longtime friend Rocco Scarfone recalls a game against McMichael High in 2009, just days after the death of Allen’s grandmother, in which Allen touched the ball on five plays in the first half. Each ended with him standing in the end zone.

Yet even as Allen smashed scoring records, he built his résumé as a blue-chip recruit primarily on defense. During his stint as a prep coach in South Carolina, Roscoe copped a player-grading system from the staff at Mission Viejo High School in California. In nearly a quarter century as a head coach, a defensive player had never cracked 60 graded points in a single game. As a senior, Allen did it three weeks in a row. Allen describes his style as a safety with a single word: savage. “Imagine watching Sean Taylor in high school,” McCain says. “They even wore the same number.”

Recruiting service Rivals.com pegged Allen as the top-rated safety and fifth-best prospect in the class of 2010. He amassed scholarship offers from nearly every major college football program before verbally committing to Nick Saban and Alabama in November 2009.

Allen’s plans shifted in December of that year when then-Buffalo head coach Turner Gill left to accept the same job at the University of Kansas. Allen’s half-brother Zach Maynard was Buffalo’s quarterback before Gill bolted, and the coaching change granted him a release to transfer and immediately play for another school. When California offered Maynard a scholarship, it opened the door for Allen, McCain, and Harris to follow him to Berkeley and join forces in the way they’d always imagined. “[Zach] already knew,” Allen says, “if he went to a D-I school, it didn’t matter to me where he was going.”

The Golden Bears deployed Allen as a receiver, despite his half-hearted petition to go both ways. It took no time at all for him to look like the player who had torn up the North Carolina high school circuit. He caught 46 passes in his first season, breaking the freshman record DeSean Jackson had set in 2005. Allen’s natural wiggle on linear routes like slants and posts was plain when he was an 18-year-old frosh, but conquering more advanced concepts like curls and comebacks eluded him. Allen spent much of his first college offseason sharpening those plays on drills that required him to bend around a short pole of PVC pipe, and as a sophomore he tallied 98 receptions for 1,343 yards, both top-10 marks nationally among receivers. Against collegiate secondaries, a receiver with Allen’s shake and polish was akin to a cat toying with a mouse. “He’d almost play with DBs, especially when we moved him inside and he got up on a safety,” says former Cal receivers coach Eric Kiesau. “He would look the opposite way on purpose, snap out of it, and turn guys all the way around.”

Six games into that 2011 season, Cal met USC at AT&T Park for a Thursday-night game broadcast on ESPN. The Trojans’ loaded roster attracted a hoard of NFL scouts, including Colts director of player personnel Tom Telesco, who 15 months later would be hired as Chargers general manager. Allen snagged 13 passes for 160 yards that night against a secondary featuring future pros Nickell Robey-Coleman and T.J. McDonald. Sharing the stage with Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, and Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley, Allen was the best player on the field. “He was possessed,” Kiesau says. “It was one of those games. He was just in the zone.”

As one of the top prospects in America, Allen had planned to spend three years in college before entering the 2013 draft as a surefire first-round pick. Two years into his career at Cal, it looked as if nothing could stop him from achieving that dream.

Keenan Allen Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Ricky Proehl knew that something wasn’t right. The longtime NFL wideout and former Panthers receivers coach has known Allen since the latter was a teenage fixture at Proehl’s Greensboro sports complex. Allen decided to hold his pre-draft workout at Proehlific Park after a nagging knee injury forced him to miss Cal’s final three games of the 2012 season, the scouting combine, and the Golden Bears’ pro day. As Proehl watched his former pupil stretch, he could tell Allen was nervous. “Keenan was one of those kids — he just goes out and starts playing,” Proehl says. “He doesn’t do a lot of warming up and stretching. He was really trying to warm up his knee.”

After more than 30 minutes of prep, Allen stepped to the starting line and logged his now-notorious 4.71 40-yard dash. “You look at Keenan, and he’s not gonna light it up,” Proehl says. “He’s not a 4.3 guy. But he’s probably a mid-4.5 guy, a low-4.5 guy.”

Bad knee and all, Allen completed a full workout for the assembled scouts in attendance. Proehl says that watching Allen catch and cut, he saw the same player he’d marveled at for years. “Maybe he wasn’t 100 percent, but you could see, this kid’s special,” Proehl says. “There aren’t a lot of great route runners.” Coming into his junior season at Cal, Allen’s worst fear was suffering an ill-timed injury, and that became reality when he went down in an October game at Utah. “I wasn’t really trippin’, though, because I still ran routes, and I thought I did a damn good job,” Allen says of his workout. “I thought I was solid—even with the 4.7 [in the 40]. I guess not.”

Allen and fellow Greensboro product David Amerson had been familiar faces on the city’s basketball courts for years. They struck up a friendship while rooming together at North Carolina’s annual high school all-star game, and followed each other’s college football careers while Allen tore up the Pac-12 and Amerson starred as a cornerback at NC State. The pair then trained in Florida during the spring of 2013, and when it came time to plan a draft party, they decided to hold a joint celebration at the home of Eric Leak, the financial adviser they shared. About 40 people gathered at Leak’s spacious Raleigh home on April 25. Flat-screen TVs filled the walls, the bar was stocked, and platters of food made their way around the room. “It was a perfect situation, a perfect night,” Amerson says. “Everything went right besides the one thing we needed to go right.”

Two teams had hinted that Allen was among their targets in the first round. The Panthers were interested, and Proehl told anyone in the Bank of America Stadium draft room who would listen that the local kid was worthy of going 14th overall. “I had him as a first-round pick,” Proehl says. “We would have taken him in the first round. I think our GM loved him. But that [40 time] was the kicker.” After the Panthers chose Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Allen knew his hopes rested with the Vikings, who had two picks in the first round and craved a go-to receiver. When Minnesota took Tennessee speedster Cordarrelle Patterson with the 29th pick, Allen’s heart sank. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, now who needs me?’ Allen says.

Thirty-two picks in the first round came and went with Allen hunched over the bar, making obligatory conversation while wanting to disappear. The 2010 draft was the first to broadcast Round 1 on its own day, meaning that the entire party—the booze, the food, and the ESPN cameras—had to recommence the next night. For Round 2, excitement gave way to politeness. “You could tell people were just trying because they felt bad,” Amerson says. “Like, ‘We’ve got to show up the second night.’” Allen tossed on a Chicago Bulls snapback and a plaid short-sleeve shirt and reluctantly slinked back to Leak’s house to await his fate.

About halfway through the night, with the Redskins on the clock at pick no. 51, Amerson’s phone rang. He was headed to Washington. Barely three years after being labeled the top recruit in North Carolina and a season removed from earning first-team all-conference honors, Allen was the second-best prospect at his own draft party. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” Allen says. “It was terrible.”

Twenty-five picks and nearly an entire round later, Allen’s cell buzzed. It was first-year Chargers head coach Mike McCoy. Allen was headed to San Diego. But by that point, joy had turned to spite. “Chip [on my shoulder], all day long,” Allen says. “[I was going] to bust all they ass.”

Keenan Allen Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Ask any member of the Chargers organization about Keenan Allen, and chances are that person will bring up the same moment. “It was the second game of the year [in 2013],” offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt says. “Malcom [Floyd] got hurt, and Keenan was kind of thrust into the game. We weren’t sure how he was going to handle that. And ever since then, it’s almost as if somebody flipped a switch.”

Allen’s tremendous rookie season shaped a narrative that he was an instant star, but his early days in Southern California were mostly grim. As a mid-round pick, Allen found himself buried on the depth chart for the first time in his football career. “I wasn’t a first-round draft pick, so I wasn’t getting love,” Allen says. “I was watching. I’d never done that before. So I was like, ‘I’m not trying to do this. This is boring.’”

Former Chargers receivers coach Fred Graves says Allen was impatient, even if he was never disruptive. Rocco Scarfone remembers how defeated his friend sounded in those initial months, how different the voice on the other end of the phone was from the self-assured guy he’d always known. “For someone who’s been better than everyone else their entire life and pretty much dominated, it was a new situation for him,” Scarfone says. “It kind of wears on you—to go from being the man to not being the man anymore.”

As Allen watched from the sideline for most of training camp, he began to question his future in the league. When camp ended, he called his mother and told her that he was ready to walk away. “I don’t know how much he loved football at the time,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers says. “He had a rough go at it.” Allen’s mom eventually convinced him to stick it out, and that resolve was soon rewarded. Floyd went out with an injury on the offense’s first play of the second half in a Week 2 matchup with the Eagles. Before sending his 21-year-old receiver onto the field for the first time, Graves had a simple message: Be Keenan. Two snaps later, on a third-and-8 from the Chargers’ 22-yard line, Allen beat cornerback Cary Williams on a deep dig and made a sliding catch for an 18-yard gain.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s got a little something to him,’” Rivers says. “And it was a gradual build from there.” Three weeks later, Allen torched the Raiders for six catches, 115 yards, and a touchdown. In Week 9, he blew past Amerson to corral an easy 16-yard score.

Rivers and Allen formed an early kinship over their fixation on football’s minutiae. Deciphering coverages, understanding leverages, and perfecting angles became a mutual pursuit. It wasn’t long before the veteran passer began to understand that while Allen lacks top-end speed, he makes up for it with the uncommon way he changes speeds. “Everything is so smooth, and everything looks the same,” Rivers says. “It’s so hard to defend.”

Keenan Allen Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Five days before a 30-13 win over Washington in Week 14 of this season, the Chargers receivers spent a chunk of practice working on an in-breaking route the staff planned to install in the playbook. It wasn’t long before Allen had all the movements down perfectly. “He yelled at me, ‘That one’s going on the teach tape,’” wide receivers coach Nick Sirianni says. “And I said, ‘You’re right. I’m just not sure everyone can do what you just did.’”

To instruct novice receivers, Sirianni creates video compilations of every route that the offense uses. Each montage starts with the ideal example, so invariably they all begin with a clip of Allen. “There are so many Keenan Allen routes,” Sirianni says. “I try to [open] my teach tapes with, ‘Hey, this is the best one to teach a young wideout how to run this route.’ And it seems like every route that I have has Keenan Allen at the beginning of that tape.”

Sirianni has more examples than ever this fall because of how often the Chargers have aligned Allen inside. Set up away from the sideline, he’s given the chance to work in open space, and the ways he can use it are limitless. Sirianni has long believed that slot receiver is Allen’s natural position, which is remarkable given his frame. “His quickness off the line of scrimmage and in and out of breaks is like a guy who is 5-5,” Sirianni says. “Keenan is 6-3, 210 pounds.” This can make meeting Allen for the first time jarring. He’s an undeniably big man with the agility of a tiny one.

Allen’s formula to becoming the best route runner in football involves equal parts natural talent and meticulous obsession. Roscoe remembers late nights spent on the fields at Northern Guilford, where Allen would remain long after practice had ended. “I’d say, ‘Well, what are you doing now?’” Roscoe says. “And he’d say, ‘I saw Larry Fitzgerald make this move, and now I’m working on it.’” Even now, Sirianni catches Allen poring over clips of Antonio Brown and others on his Microsoft Surface, digging for wrinkles that he can add to his arsenal.

Allen has always been able to hone a new skill by observing it being performed a handful of times. The summer before his senior year of high school, he decided to take up piano after watching his friend David Anderson play Beethoven. The Scarfones have a baby grand in their living room, and during visits to see Rocco, Allen would shuttle back and forth between the keys and a laptop upstairs that he used to watch tutorials on the composer. Scarfone says that over the course of a couple weekends, Allen taught himself to play. He was soon performing flawless renditions of Maxwell and Trey Songz tracks as if he'd been a musician all his life. “He has the uncanny ability of picking things up quick and mastering it,” Scarfone says. “It kind of makes me mad. There’s nothing he’s not really good at.”

Honing pass patterns has been no different. As a rookie, Allen would study cornerbacks’ habits in an effort to gain the upper hand. But he ditched that approach years ago. In his mind, the complement of routes he could assemble would be too much for any cover man in the league.

Beyond practicality, Allen derives a perverse sense of pleasure from leaving a defender in a heap. “I just like seeing somebody look bad,” Allen says with a sly grin, “and making it look good.” His favorite ankle-breaker of this year came in Week 4 against the Eagles, when rookie corner Rasul Douglas was given the unenviable task of checking Allen one-on-one. On a third-and-4 from the Chargers’ 19-yard line, Allen shook Douglas, hauled in a quick toss, and bolted 49 yards up the left sideline. “I had a return route,” Allen says, “and it was literally an Allen Iverson crossover, without the ball.”

Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward is familiar with the challenge of checking Allen in man coverage. The two-time Pro Bowler, who led the NFL in interceptions last season and is widely considered one of the league’s top cover guys, can count on one hand the number of times he’s bested his teammate on a slant route in practice. “I might have stopped it one time,” Hayward says. “When I did, I was feelin’ like I just won the Super Bowl.”

In the week before the Chargers’ game in Dallas on Thanksgiving, Sirianni was chatting with Hayward when the conversation turned to Allen. Sirianni asked if Hayward thought he could match Allen for an entire game if given the chance. Hayward’s answer was easy: Yeah, try me. The day after Allen posted an 11-catch, 172-yard, one-touchdown outing against the Cowboys, Hayward found Sirianni before practice. “I came back and told him, ‘Ya know what, I don’t know if I could do it all game,’” Hayward says.

Keenan Allen Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Allen’s lethal array of moves was on full display during the Chargers’ 2016 season opener in Kansas City. He hauled in an 11-yard grab on the final play before the two-minute warning in the first half, good for his sixth catch of the afternoon. Then, on the very next snap, Allen lined up in the slot, put a move on Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson, and immediately collapsed to the turf.

“I knew when it happened,” he says. His right ACL was torn. After missing the Chargers’ final eight games of the previous campaign with a lacerated kidney, Allen’s season was over less than two quarters into Week 1.

As he talks about that day in Kansas City, all of the contradictions that comprise Allen are on display. At times, it’s impossible to believe that he’s only 25 years old. He has a habit of stroking his flowing beard while he speaks, as if he’s a sagacious old wizard. His hairline has long been receding. Describing his season away from football, he mentions the perspective he gained as the father of two young daughters. “She’s running around right now, literally,” he says of 2-year-old Kamari. “She smiles and goes.”

But there are plenty of signs that point to just how young Allen is. He’s rocking crew-length Stance socks that feature Michael Jackson on one foot and the Thriller werewolf on the other. He’s a video-game fanatic who live streams clips of him merking people in Call of Duty.

More than four months before his 26th birthday, though, it seems like Allen is finally where he’s supposed to be. He’s already experienced what could be a full career arc: the heralded rise, the sudden fall, the rookie breakthrough, and the heartbreaking slate of injuries. Now he’s on pace to finish 2017 with 1,368 receiving yards, and his prime has barely just begun.

The hope is that a strong finish to a special season can help the Chargers cap an unthinkable comeback in the AFC playoff hunt. Both the Bills and Titans have the inside track to secure the conference’s second wild-card spot, but a realistic path to the postseason exists for the Chargers. It would mark the perfect ending to the type of season Allen always knew he had within him. “It’s where I knew I would be,” Allen says. “This is what I could always do—and what I’ve done.”

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