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Jonathan Allen’s work with Washington’s homeless youth is inspired by his own experience

Jonathan Allen is entering his fifth season with the Washington Football Team. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The day after the Washington Football Team pulled off a stunning victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen joined a virtual conference to speak with 15 students who lost parents serving in the military. Allen, whose brother is an Army sergeant first class and whose father is a 23-year retired Army sergeant first class, understands the challenges and commitments that military life requires of a family.

“In football, people like to give speeches and they like to give motivational stuff, and that’s good and dandy, but what’re you going to do when that feeling goes away?” he told the students of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation. “For me, I always look back to my ‘why,’ and my ‘why’ is my family, first and foremost.”

Moments later, one of the students surprised Allen by informing him he had been selected as Washington’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for 2020. With the honor, $40,000 was donated to an organization that has become the heart of Allen’s mission off the field: helping homeless youth.

Allen used to be one of them, spending nearly a year in foster care with his older brother before they reunited with their father. His experience, he believes, led him to where he is now, as not just a first-round draft pick in the NFL but as someone with a story and a platform — someone who can help those experiencing some of the same things he did at age 8.

As Allen has evolved into one of Washington’s leaders and a key member on its defense, his consistent play and hard-nosed approach have stood out on a team that was often rife with turmoil during his first seasons. But his work off the field has ingrained him in the community, and as Coach Ron Rivera continues his rebuilding effort, Allen appears to be an ideal fit as the type of player the team says it wants for the long haul.

“On the field, you see a guy that competes and gives it all he has and does a nice job with his leadership, you really do,” Rivera said of Allen late last season. “He’s … playing some good football right now for us. Off the field, I know he has a passion for the military like I do because he grew up in the military. He understands how important it is to give back. That’s the thing that I really appreciate.”

‘He was moved to make a difference’

Allen was 3 when his parents divorced. He and his brother, Richard Allen III, who is seven years older, went to live with their mother in Pittsburgh as their father, Richard Allen, moved around with the Army. The elder Richard has said their mother was “mentally unstable,” and the boys eventually lost contact with him, moved to South Carolina and were held out of school. The two were in foster care for nearly a year as their father’s custody case filtered through the courts.

Jonathan relied heavily on his brother during the difficult times. He has said he remembers the happy moments during that time, and he still talks to the family that adopted him for a while. But the elation of reuniting with his father and stepmother in 2004, after a judge granted Richard Allen full custody of his boys, was unlike any other.

“It was a relief,” Jonathan said. “My dad is a great dad, an awesome dad, so being able to go back with him was a blessing. … It was one of the happiest days of my life, for me and my brother.”

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The family relocated to Chesapeake, Va., where instability and uncertainty were replaced by a regimen instilled by Richard. The boys had rules. School was a priority, and a strong work ethic was the standard. Jonathan made up for lost time in school, but his past left behind some anger.

When he was a freshman in high school, the family relocated again to Ashburn, where Richard was a government contractor. Jonathan enrolled at Stone Bridge, quickly became one of the top defensive line prospects in the country, committed to Alabama, played four years and collected a slew of accolades, then was plucked by Washington in the 2017 draft.

When he made it to the NFL, Allen knew he had to do more than just play. He wanted to help children — including many who maybe aren’t all that different from him.

With the help of his wife, Hannah, a former rower at Alabama, Allen connected with Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an organization that helps homeless youth find shelter and families create stability. Founded in 1974, Sasha Bruce has expanded to become one of Washington’s largest youth providers, with drop-in centers, street outreach programs, shelters and residential housing, along with various educational and development programs.

“He was moved to make a difference in the lives of young people,” Sasha Bruce’s founder and executive director, Deborah Shore, said of Allen. “What is wonderful about him is his willingness to talk about his experience. He does it without shame or worry. He really can be a great spokesperson for how you can be resilient.”

In November 2019, Jonathan and Hannah unveiled a technology center in the Sasha Bruce House, the only 24-hour shelter for youth in D.C. With the help of volunteers, they pulled up old carpet, repainted walls and outfitted the space with new furniture, Microsoft Surface laptops, Internet and gaming systems.

“I could just see that when we were there, he felt comfortable and he could relate to all the kids that were there on some type of level. I couldn’t,” Hannah Allen said. “But it warmed my heart to see that he could relate and that there was just so much to give back to these kids who went through a similar process as him.”

Before the pandemic, Allen would try to regularly visit the Bruce House and spend time with those living in the organization’s nine residential homes.

“I try super hard not to make it about me and what I went through,” he said. “I really try to make it about them, and listen to them, talk to them if they want to talk, or really just hang out. I’ve seen a lot of kids go through things similar to what I went through, just the inconsistencies with housing and moving and going to live with this family member or that family member. The ones that really kind of hit home are some of the younger kids who are like 8 years old with anger issues and not really understood.”

Over the past year, Jonathan and Hannah have found ways to stay involved. They “adopted” two families as well as the 20 children living at the Bruce House over the holidays, purchasing gifts to make them feel the comforts of home. They also donated nearly 100 meals to families over Thanksgiving and contributed $45,000 to Sasha Bruce’s Rapid Response funding initiative, while Allen participated in weekly counseling sessions with youth in the community.

Shore envisions the $40,000 donation from the Walter Payton award potentially helping young people get into college and certification programs.

“The vast majority of people don’t realize that there are unaccompanied homeless youth that are in the homeless populations,” she said. “… So his ability to bring attention to homeless youth is an enormous gift.”

‘This is where I want to stay’

Of Washington’s four first-round picks on its defensive line, Allen is the longest-tenured. The pangs of defeat throughout his first few years with Washington were frequent, but even though he never shielded his distaste for losing, his past kept him looking ahead.

“I remember that really eating at Jon,” Washington defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis said. “It still eats at Jon. He would talk about that constantly: ‘Things are going to change; things are going to change. We’re going to get things on track.’ He would say things like that all the time, just always looking ahead, always trying to make changes and tweak things.”

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In Allen’s first three years with Washington, the team went 17-31. But when Rivera was hired in 2020 as head of Washington’s football operations, Allen found a like mind in another military brat.

“He reminds me a lot of Coach [Nick] Saban, and a lot of the lessons I learned in college he reinforces,” Allen said last season, referring to his coach at Alabama. “He expects that and he demands that and he doesn’t allow anything less than the standard.”

Rivera, whose father is a retired Army veteran, has taken a warm but oftentimes militaristic approach in rebuilding Washington, fixating on a uniform standard. In free agency and the draft, Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew have emphasized the need to acquire players who not only fit the team’s playing style but also have what they’re looking for in terms of intangibles — a strong work ethic, a team-first mentality, an appreciation of the details and an ability to lead by example.

In short, they sought more Jonathan Allens, a player who joins virtual team meetings 15 minutes early, takes the team’s first-round pick out to dinner the day after the draft, is voted captain, is a menace on the field and is a dedicated family man off it.

Last season, Allen played a career-high 809 snaps for a defense that ranked second in yards allowed; he recorded the second-most quarterback pressures on the team. He has the look of a franchise building block, and as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, he and Washington could soon agree on a long-term extension.

The caveat for Washington is its all-first-round defensive line will soon come at a significant cost. Starting with Allen in March, one will be due for a new contract each year if the team exercises all of its fifth-year options — Daron Payne in 2023, Montez Sweat in 2024 and Chase Young in 2025 — and keeping all of them may be impossible.

If Allen gets his way, his future will be with Washington. His desire to play his entire career here always has been about more than football. His “why” is here, with his family in Ashburn and Sasha Bruce Youthwork in D.C.

“It’s always been my dream to play my career in one spot,” he said. “I understand football is tough — it’s a process — but we’re moving in the right direction, from the front office to the players, and I love everything that we’re building here.

“This is my home. This is where I want to stay.”

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