As Penn State signee Marcus Allen and N.C. State signee Micah Till took the stage in the Wise High School auditorium for the Pumas’ National Signing Day ceremony Wednesday, each looked the part of a power conference football recruit. But what Allen, a well-sized defensive back at 6-1 and 190 pounds, and Till, a lumbering tight end at 6-5, 260, and their Coach DaLawn Parrish recalled were their early high school days when neither looked the part, and the moments that molded them to fill it.
Till sat behind the podium in a Wolfpack red shirt, and watched highlights of a stellar Pumas career that included two years as a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders unable to muscle him off the ball nor leap to combat his height. He watched a one-handed grab made while just getting his feet into the end zone, he watched himself catch a jump ball in the corner, and he watched himself leap over two defenders to haul in the game-winning catch in the Maryland 4A state championship game in 2012.
But the story Till told the family and teammates on hand was of the days when he was chubbier, less muscle than pure weight, but trying to convince his coach he could move off the defensive line to his preferred tight end spot.
As Till recalled it, Parrish told him he could play tight end if he could beat out the team’s current tight end, who was much smaller.
“I’m thinking, ‘I got this,’” Till said.
On a day when weather forced the Pumas to practice inside, Till was run out of the Wise lunch room by his speedier, smaller teammate.
“That’s when I was like, ‘No,’” Till remembered. “I’m going to play tight end.”
So he lost weight and honed his size and athleticism — “chiseled himself into a man,” as Parrish put it — and grew into a potent and versatile combination that earned him first-team All-Met honors on the defensive line, even as he reeled in 12 catches for 294 yards and two scores this season.
“I wouldn’t be here without that,” Till said. “That’s what pushed me to become what I am today.”
As Till slimmed down to reach his tight end and FBS dreams, Allen sprouted up to fit the major college recruit profile. Parrish recalled his early memories of a shorter, less imposing Allen, holding his hand below his shoulder and remembering him as “about this tall.”
“Then, a few months later, I’m clearing out the halls, and this kid in the same year comes towards me,” Parrish said, hand raised above his head this time. “He’s about this tall. I’m like ‘Who is that?’ He was like, ‘Coach, it’s me…Marcus.’”
Parrish said that while Allen’s height gave him the body of a star, he hadn’t yet realized his own potential.
“It became a trust game,” Parrish said. “Do you trust [the coaches] to make you into a great player?”
Allen did, but he still had to learn to trust himself. In his first game at free safety, Allen recalled, people kept reminding him that there was no one behind him.
“Stay deep,” his coaches, father and teammates told him. “Trust your linebackers.”
With nerves so strong he remembers them clearly to this day, Allen took the field for his first varsity game. When the ball was snapped, he said, “everything came natural.”
“At the end of the game, I made my first interception ever,” Allen said. “That’s when I think I started to gain confidence.”
Still, it wasn’t until he received his first offer from Pittsburgh after his sophomore year that Allen began to believe he might have something special.
“I started to think, ‘Wow, people seem to think I’m really good at this,’” Allen remembered. “So that’s when I started really working.”
It paid off, as Allen emerged as one of the most treacherous defensive backs in Prince George’s County before his senior season was cut short by an ankle injury that required surgery and left him unable to play throughout October and November.
Allen says he’s done rehabbing now, though still working to strengthen the ankle, and expects to be fully ready when Penn State practice begins next year. But as he stood for pictures with friends, family and the Wise staff with a Penn State hat on and looking every bit the part of a Big 10 defensive back, it was clear Allen was looking back as well as forward.
Wise football “changed my whole life,” Allen said. “I started off as a little guy, then they grinded me into a man, really. I never expected to be like this. I just want to make sure I keep working at the next stop.”
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