His job is to move forward, to keep pushing others back, and turns out, Jonathan Allen is pretty good at it. When he was younger, concerned parents pulled their children off the football field, sparing them the wrath of the bruising, hard-hitting grade-schooler. In high school, Allen’s coaches at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn couldn’t use him on the scout team because the offense struggled to run its plays. And at the University of Alabama, Allen has emerged as perhaps the best player on the best team in the country.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” his coach, Nick Saban, said recently.
With a bright future ahead — most analysts project the senior defensive end as a sure-fire top-five pick in the NFL draft next spring — there’s good reason for him to keep looking forward.
“I don’t really worry about the past,” the 21-year-old Allen said. “It is what it is. It definitely shaped me into the person I am. I focus on what I can control.”
His full history isn’t listed on his official bio, and it’s not something he volunteers too often. The stormiest parts predate his football days, and he says he doesn’t even remember much of it.
“He overcame a lot,” his father, Richard Allen, said. “At a young age, you’re oblivious to the fact that you’re living in a hotel, that you’re not going to school, doing the things a kid is supposed to. He was oblivious to that.”
At the tail end of a stellar senior season and on the cusp of the Peach Bowl, one step away from Alabama’s potential national title defense, Allen feels far removed from his unconventional childhood, which included a custody battle, a stint in foster care and a family that was drawn closer together by hardship.
He’s a 6-foot-3, 294-pound machine that knows only one direction: to keep moving forward.
Allen was born into a military family and was just 2 years old when his parents divorced. The Army would take Richard Allen to South Korea and later Fort Lewis, outside of Tacoma, Wash. His sons, Richard III and Jonathan, meantime, remained with their mother in Pittsburgh.
At some point, the boys fell out of touch with their father. Their mother stopped letting them talk on the phone. She also stopped sending her sons to school, paranoid about the government and world around her.
“She was just mentally unstable,” the boys’ father said. “I’m not going to say anymore.”
Allen didn’t attend kindergarten, and missed so much school that he later had to repeat the second grade. The boys’ father didn’t even realize they’d relocated to South Carolina with their mother. The local school district became concerned, and the brothers were eventually placed into foster care by the state’s Child Protective Services. Jonathan was 8 at the time.
“I had to lean on my brother a lot,” he said. “He’s the one I really leaned on. He’s the one who got us through a lot of things.”
Richard III is seven years older and kept reassuring his younger brother that everything would be okay.
“I knew a lot more than Jonathan did,” he said. “A lot of times it was literally just me and him — in a house by ourselves, in foster care by ourselves. So we had to take care of each other. I was really all he had at the time. He was nervous, but we had each other.”
The boys stayed in foster care for nearly 10 months while their father’s case worked its way through the legal system. A judge found the children were “educationally neglected” and required the children’s mother to undergo psychological evaluation, though court records show she missed all three appointments.
Richard Allen was granted full custody, and in 2004, 9-year-old Allen was reunited with his father when a judge ruled that the children could not return to their mother because “doing so would cause an unreasonable risk of harm to the children’s life, physical health, safety and mental well-being.”
Looking back, Jonathan doesn’t remember that period as being particularly dangerous or harmful.
“Honestly, those are some of the happiest times of my life,” he said. “I remember me and my brother playing football, playing games. I know it might sound crazy now but back then, as long as I was with my brother, I didn’t really care what else happened to be honest.”
He said he holds no bad feelings toward his mother, who wasn’t available to comment, but the two haven’t spoken in years.
Richard Allen relocated his family to Chesapeake, Va. His younger son had to work through some anger, he said, but it was a temporary phase. Meantime, his older son kept remarking how talented Jonathan was at football, how his younger brother would insist on playing with the older boys in pick-up games at the park.
“Dad, they can’t stop him,” he’d tell his father. “Jonathan’s running over them.”
“I always wanted to do what my brother did,” Allen explained. “I was smaller, but it didn’t matter to me.”
Allen began playing Pee-Wee football, lining up at both running back and linebacker. His father asked him early, “Do you want to play to have fun or do you want to play to win and be the best player you can be?”
“He said he wanted to be the best, so I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to push you to be the best,’ ” Richard Allen said.
The father regaled his sons with stories about the physical play of Earl Campbell, Ray Lewis and Hershel Walker. Afternoon practices and weekend games became invaluable family time.
“Football really brought all three of us together,” said Richard III, who’s now an Army staff sergeant stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. “We all really loved football, and watching Jonathan excel at football brought us all together. That was great bonding time for us growing up.”
The elder Allen was a sergeant first class when he retired from the Army. After a few tumultuous years for his sons, discipline and order were suddenly basic tenets of childhood. They couldn’t play sports unless they earned straight A’s. Two hours were set aside for homework each night. The younger Allen even managed to complete both the seventh and eighth grades in one year to get back on track.
Those early days weren’t about the NFL or a college scholarship for their father; it was simply an effort to maximize potential and effort while instilling a work ethic.
“Honestly, I didn’t know if he was going to play professionally or not,” Allen’s father said, “but I wanted him to be the best at everything he does. Just like when he played trombone: He was the first chair.”
Midway through Allen’s freshman year of high school, the family relocated to Ashburn, where the boys’ father was working as a government contractor and the younger son enrolled in Stone Bridge. He put his name on a sign-up sheet for the football team, writing down his preferred positions: running back and linebacker.
Coaches saw his 6-2, 180-pound frame and tried him at wide receiver. When they saw how much power and athleticism was packed into that frame, though, they moved him to defensive line. Just a sophomore, he emerged as one of the area’s most dominant players, tallying 20 sacks. Scholarship offers started rolling in. During his junior year, he had a special mailbox set up at the school just to handle the college inquiries.
He faced double- and triple-teams, but still earned a series of accolades. He was a three-time All-Met player, totaled 44 sacks in three high school seasons and enrolled at Alabama as one of the top defensive line prospects in the country.
“I wasn’t even sure I could play here, to be honest with you,” Allen said. “I was scared to death. I had no expectation. I just wanted to play.”
Allen quickly showed he could contribute, but he wanted more. He started 12 games as a sophomore, earning all-SEC honors but was still used mostly on passing downs. His junior year he was again all-conference but was far from an every-down player.
“Last year, he could’ve been a starter at most places,” Saban said, “probably played about half the time. But we had a lot of good defensive linemen. They all rotated and I think that really helped our team in the long run, and I think it helped him in the long run.”
Allen wasn’t as sure.
He entered the national title game last January convinced that it’d be the last time he dressed in crimson and white. “I wanted to leave,” he said. “I didn’t want to come back.”
After the season, though, he sat down with Saban to discuss his future. The veteran coach told Allen he’d received draft grades that suggested he might be a second- or third-round pick.
“I was [ticked] off about that,” Allen said. “I felt like I was a first-round talent.”
Plus, Allen needed to undergo offseason surgery for a torn labrum and might not have a chance to improve his draft stock at the NFL draft combine or private workouts.
To his father’s chagrin, Allen decided to return to Alabama for his senior season. The school took out insurance policies, protecting Allen in case injury ended his career or impacted his draft status.
“I know that some people would criticize Saban for talking guys into coming back,” Allen’s father said. “It appears it may work out well for Jonathan. I support him 100 percent because ultimately it’s his life.”
Allen repeatedly draws comparisons to Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick in the 2010 draft who’s a three-time all-pro defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. Allen is explosive off the ball, quick as anyone his size. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has said he’s been underrated his entire career, and Daniel Jeremiah, a former pro scout who’s now an analyst for NFL Network, called him “a one-man wrecking machine.”
“You can make the case that he’s the most consistent and reliable player in college football,” Jeremiah noted in one recent analysis.
Allen returned to school this year with the intention of putting his draft stock in his own hands, eager to show that he should be on the field for every snap. He finished the regular season with 56 tackles and 8½ sacks. He also returned two fumbles for touchdowns, creating several highlight-reel takedowns in the process. For his efforts, he was not only named the SEC’s defensive player of the year but also won the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation’s best defensive player) and the Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end).
“The nation is finally seeing what me and my dad and a couple of others have known for years,” his brother said.
Allen’s 26 career sacks at Alabama rank second on the school’s career list behind only Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. And in his four seasons at Alabama, the Tide has lost just six games. Off the field, he managed to graduate in 3½ years, earning his bachelor’s degree earlier this month in financial planning and consumer affairs.
“It’s been honestly a perfect season,” Allen said. “I can’t imagine a better season than this.”
He said he doesn’t feel compelled to live down the past. In fact, he has never watched tape of last season’s national championship, a 45-40 Alabama win over Clemson that featured a defensive showing that still gnaws at Allen. “I’m happy we won, but it wasn’t a good feeling,” he said.
And he tries not to think ahead to the spring, to the NFL, to a career he’s dreamed about since he was chasing after the older kids in the park. He concedes it’s difficult at times. Allen is wired to focus on what’s in front of him and to keep moving forward.