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Chargers' soft-spoken Keenan Allen is a killer on the field

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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- He was not supposed to be on the football field in the first place. Keenan Allen was just 6 years old, and the minimum age requirement was 7. As if that weren't reason enough for concern, he was playing up two age divisions, against much bigger 9- and 10-year-olds.

Stepdad Scott Lang and his wife watched anxiously as the opening kickoff went up, and Allen, on the very first play of his very first game, disappeared beneath a wave of tacklers. When Allen emerged, tears filled his eyes. His equipment was too big, causing his chin strap to slide over his throat and momentarily choke him.

Lang felt a sense of trepidation. He was the one who had fudged the paperwork so Allen could play on the same team as his older brothers, and now, as the emotional youngster walked slowly toward the sideline, Lang was concerned not only about his son's health, but also his own.

"I thought, 'I'm going to need a place to live if he's hurt,' " Lang said over the summer. "I looked at him and said, 'You gonna cry? You want me to take you out?' He's shaking his head, and the helmet is just wobbling. I told him, 'Son, I'm gonna give you some advice: Grown men play this game, not little boys. It don't matter what the age is, you've got to be a gladiator to step inside this box. If your mindset ain't that, you're not gonna be successful.' "

The words struck harder than any defender ever could. Allen took them and carried the message around as if it were a backpack, toting it to every game and every workout, using it as fuel to become a recreation-league legend, high school All-American and, now, Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Los Angeles Chargers.

To watch the 6-foot-2, 211-pound wideout on the field is to witness someone who plays the game with both a carefree attitude and a fierce competitiveness. The former can be seen anytime music fills the air before a game or during timeouts. He dances as if no one is around, moving his body with the rubber-band elasticity of singer Chris Brown, one of his personal favorites. And when the music stops and the action begins, mild-mannered Keenan gives way to alpha-dog Slayer.

"I [adopted] that name my rookie year," he says, slowly stroking his long black beard. "I had some fans commenting on my social-media page, and one dude was like, 'You're a slayer.' I just took it and ran with it. I'm like, Yeahhhhhh, that's a good little name. It kind of goes with my game, 'cause I be killing dudes."

The resume reflects a highly productive player whose only opponent has been injuries. Allen earned All-Rookie and Rookie of the Year honors from various organizations in 2013 after breaking team rookie records with five 100-yard receiving games and 71 receptions. Two years later, he caught 67 passes through eight games -- third-most in league history at the midpoint of a season -- but missed the second half of the year because of a kidney injury. He returned healthy in 2016 and was having his way with former Chiefs Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters in Week 1, drawing two penalties and catching six passes for 63 yards in the first half. But a torn ACL did to him again what no defender could: shut him down.

"I was just like, 'Whaaaaat? I just came off an injury. I can't play again?'  " he recalled. "My total mindset after rehab was just to come back and play all 16 games. Just let my game take care of itself."

Last season, the man who loves to play Beethoven on the piano turned in a classical performance while playing the full year. He finished with a franchise-record 102 receptions, set a league record with at least 10 catches, 100 yards receiving and a touchdown catch in three consecutive games and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He was in such a rhythm with quarterback Philip Rivers that he never realized he was making history. Everything was coming so easily, it felt like he and Rivers were alone, tossing the ball around the park.

There will come a day when he will fully appreciate the significance of his record-setting accomplishment last year, but that time is down the road, because so much work remains. While others celebrate the 1,393 receiving yards he recorded in 2017, he essentially shrugs, because that trailed the receiving totals of Antonio Brown and Julio Jones, contemporaries who often are mentioned as the best at the position. Allen won't be satisfied until people regard him as the best in the game.

"I'm very hungry to be the best ever and be recognized by everybody," he says. "It's very important to me. That's why I play the game -- that's why I've always played the game -- to be the best no matter where I was at, no matter what I was doing."

* * * * *

ALLEN PULLS UP TO THE GREENSBORO HOME of his uncle, Maurice Harris Sr., and parks his black SUV on the gravel driveway. It is a beautiful July afternoon, not too hot or humid, with rays of sunlight filtering through outstretched tree branches. He walks to the back of the house and stops to reminisce with family and friends. He and his cousin, Maurice Harris Jr., a third-year wide receiver with the Redskins, were nearly inseparable as children, and the backyard was their playground.

On one side of the driveway is a towering tree that still bears marks where a backboard was screwed into its trunk so the boys could play basketball. On the other side is the spot where a 4-foot-deep pool has been cemented over. Allen once tried a quasi-high dive into the water, only to catch the edge of the pool, leaving a scar on his knee that is visible today.

And yet, the real magic for the boys took place at the bottom of the driveway, around a line of trees and up a slight embankment. There, a field as big as any young boy's dream stretches 400 yards long and 100 yards wide. As a 5-year-old, Allen and Harris Jr. (who is a year younger) helped their parents and other siblings clear away rocks, tree roots and debris to create a wonderland that hosted family cookouts, classic-car shows and, most notably, spirited football games.

"This is where it all started," Allen says, a nostalgic smile creeping across his face.

He and Harris Jr. spent countless hours out back playing baseball and hide-and-seek. But mostly they played football, working daily to hone their skills. They perfected their spin moves by doing 360s around a tree; strengthened their legs and improved their balance by running routes in the snow; and sharpened their competitive edge by inviting over high school friends for pickup games. The most memorable featured 15 players to a side. There were no pads, no helmets, and no regard for personal safety. Participants walked away with bruised bodies and egos.

"We're competitive," Allen says, "Once somebody starts talking junk, we're trying to kill him the next play."

If Allen was devastating in the backyard, he was athletically lethal on high school fields, tallying an incredible 53 touchdowns as a senior. Before enrolling at Northern Guilford in Greensboro, which opened its doors prior to his junior year, he made one request of coach Johnny Roscoe: to stay on the field at all times. Roscoe assured him that would not be a problem. He knew he had a special talent in Allen, who could play quarterback, running back, receiver, linebacker, safety, returner, punter, place-holder and, when needed, kicker.

Asking the retired coach with the country drawl to choose his favorite Allen moment is like asking a parent to choose his or her favorite child. Roscoe chuckles and pauses, then mentions the game Northern won, 6-0, when a defensive back went high and appeared to intercept a pass, only to have Allen strip him of the ball before he landed and make his way into the end zone. He also mentions a game that took place several days after Allen's grandmother died. Allen was so emotional that Roscoe wondered how he would perform. Then he watched his star turn eight touches in the first half into five touchdowns, two on punt returns.

"Eventually their coach stopped punting to him," Roscoe says. "They would line up like for an extra point and just kick it out of bounds."

He also mentions a game in which quarterback Rocco Scarfone, one of Allen's best friends, threw a hitch pass near the goal line. When a defender came up and lowered his head for the tackle, Allen leapt over him and -- in mid-air -- struck a Heisman pose. "He was a showman," says Roscoe, who quickly points out that Allen was also a workaholic. He would study highlights of pro receivers and then stay long after practice to try to replicate the moves. When Roscoe would have the quarterbacks over to his home for film study early in the week, Allen would be sitting right there, as well, ensuring he was on the same page with them.

His dominance wasn't limited to offense. During a three-game stretch as a senior, he graded out above 60 at safety. The significance? In the nearly 25 years that Roscoe had utilized his grading scale, no player had ever scored that high in a single game. Rivals.com ranked Allen as the No. 1 safety in the country and the fifth-best prospect overall in the Class of 2010, and he was prepared to play defense in college -- until he participated in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

"I played all safety in the game, and it was just miserable watching the offense and not [being involved]," he says. "I was like, 'Nah, I can't do that.' I'd rather watch the defense get killed and me go off [on offense] than be on defense just waiting to make a play."

He initially committed to Alabama but switched to Cal after his older brother, Zach Maynard, a quarterback, transferred to Berkeley from Buffalo. The two are extremely close, along with middle brother Durel Lang. So tight that when Zach transferred to Cal, Keenan followed him, and cousin Maurice Harris Jr. came soon after.

The plan for Allen was to spend three years at Cal, then make the jump to the NFL as a first-round draft pick. Everything appeared to be on schedule after stellar freshman and sophomore seasons, but a knee injury caused him to miss the final three games of his junior year. He was not fully healed when pro scouts came around in the offseason, but he ran for them anyway, clocking a pedestrian 4.71-second 40-yard dash. Predictably, he fell out of the first round. Unpredictably, he lasted until the third round, where the then-San Diego Chargers selected him with the 76th overall pick.

It was humbling and embarrassing, as well as motivating. But would that translate into success on the next level?

* * * * *

GO TO THE CHARGERS' WEBSITE and click on Allen's bio. Scroll down to his rookie season, and you will find highlights from every game that year, except the season opener against the Texans. There is no mention of it, because -- despite suiting up -- he did not play a single snap.

The guy who had always been the best player on his team, if not the best player on the field, the guy who requested to never come off the field in high school, never saw it in his pro debut. Even worse, the Monday night game was in prime time on national television. The snub hurt and angered Allen. As he left Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego after the 31-28 loss to Houston, he was leaning toward quitting football to pursue a music career.

Singing has been a passion of his seemingly from the first time he heard a tune. He sang in the choir in high school and mastered the lyrics of Disney songs as efficiently as he mastered his playbook. He also loved instruments and taught himself to play the piano over a single weekend by watching YouTube tutorials.

"It was just like in football, where he would look at a route one or two times and then go out and run it," says Scarfone. "He would watch the tutorials a couple of times on a laptop upstairs, then run down to the living room in our house and copy it on our baby grand. He also loved to sing. I have hundreds of hours of him singing Chris Brown songs on my computer. He thinks he's a better singer than football player."

When Allen woke the morning after not playing, he was angrier than he had been when he went to bed. He got in his car and drove to the training facility but could not bring himself to go into the building. He picked up his phone and called his mom.

"I don't want to play no more," he told his mother. "They're not giving me my fair shot. I feel like I'm better than some of these guys, and [receivers coach Fred Graves is] not gonna play me. So, I'm done."

"No," she replied. "You've been working way too hard for this. This is where you want to be. This is what it is. You just gotta be patient and let God work."

He eventually decided to go inside the Chargers facility, and when Malcom Floyd went down with an injury on the Chargers' first play of the second half that week in Philadelphia, Allen finally had his chance, although he initially failed to realize just how significant the moment was. He thought Graves was going to put him in the slot, which meant he would only play in three-receiver sets. But Graves put him outside at the X, which meant he was assuming the role of No. 1 receiver for good.

"You're the guy," Graves said. "It's time to go."

"OK, bet," Allen said. "I'm ready to go."

Two plays later, with the Chargers facing a third-and-8 from their 22, Allen fought off tight coverage from veteran cornerback Cary Williams to make a diving catch for 18 yards. The play was noteworthy not only because of what happened during it, but also what took place after.

"I got up talking junk," Allen says.

The chatter is part of his game. "When I get out there, I'm confident, I'm comfortable, and I'm gonna let you know about it, too," he says.

Defensive backs might have a hard time believing this, but on a summer afternoon two months ago, Allen was at a loss for words. I asked him to pretend I was a cornerback lined up opposite him. What type of bold slander would he direct at me?

Allen leaned back on an oversized couch and, as he often does, silently stroked his beard. He seemed slightly embarrassed.

"That's the thing, we gotta be on the field for that," he said. "It just comes then, because that's Slayer talking. That's the alter ego I can just tap in to. But I'm not like that off the field."

Out of uniform, he is a man of limited words around those he doesn't know. He often will act like he's not paying attention, but he's taking in everything. Teammates did not know how to read him when he first joined the team. Ditto some coaches who mistook his persona for indifference or a lack of love for football.

"If you're just meeting him and have 30 minutes with him, the first 10 are going to be like talking to the wall," says former major-league pitcher and baseball executive Dave Stewart, whose son and nephew are good friends with Allen. "After that, after he gets a feel for who you are, if he's comfortable with you, he's going to show you who he is. He will fill the room with laughter."

Says Scarfone: "He's a guy who'll do things for you even if it makes him uncomfortable. In high school, my little cousin went to school with us, and she was infatuated with Keenan. He was a senior; she was a freshman. He was the BMOC; and, again, she was a freshman. Well, my aunt had this idea about having him pop out of a cake and sing Happy Birthday to her because he loved to sing. I knew it would make him uncomfortable; he was pretty reserved at the time. But he agreed, got there early and hid in the cake. Then he popped out and started singing to her. It made her year."

Now 26, Allen spends most of his time away from the field with his two young daughters and fianc��e, who is expecting their third child. Family is everything to him. He grew up surrounded by enough aunts, uncles and cousins to fill entire bleacher sections on Friday nights in the fall.

When he needs an escape, he finds it in music. He had not played the piano in a while last summer when he took a seat behind the baby grand in Scarfone's home. He rubbed his hands together, stretched his fingers and then found his comfort zone by playing Beethoven's "Fur Elise."

"Music puts me in a happy place," he says. "I don't know why, but I could go to the bathroom, go take a shower, and just sing my life away; be in there for a whole 16 songs and be comfortable. The harmony in a choir is so beautiful."

In many ways, he is a young man with an old soul. He will listen to rap and hip hop, but his genre of choice is R&B. The mellower, the better. Check his playlist before games and you're likely to find Usher, Tank and Chris Brown, not necessarily something befitting someone who goes by Slayer.

"It's just the calm before the storm," he says. "I don't get juiced up by the rap. I just can't do it. It's too much yelling and too much screaming. I'd rather just have my cool little vibe."

But once the game starts, mellow gives way to mania. It's the competition that drives him, the opportunity to test his best against yours. His footwork is among the best in the game, allowing him to keep defensive backs guessing and to get in and out of cuts before an opponent can react. He is about quick bursts, not long speed.

"He can juke out somebody in a phone booth," Scarfone says.

Future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald was among the players that Allen used to study while in high school. Now it is Fitzgerald who takes note of his younger counterpart.

"I have watched him closely since coming out of Cal," the Cardinals star says. "I was always impressed by how well he moves for a man his size. He's virtually unstoppable versus press coverage, with his ability to change direction at the line of scrimmage. He gets in and out of his breaks with wonderful precision. He can high point the ball in 50/50 situations and can make plays with his feet once the ball is in his hands after the catch."

Allen contends we have seen only half of what he has to offer. This was the first offseason since the offseason following his rookie year that he did not have to rehab some sort of injury, and he took advantage by focusing on details, like using his footwork to beat press coverage off the line or making each of his routes look the same to cornerbacks. Trainer Steve Calhoun regularly put him through drills to simulate every movement he might need to make in a route, all the better to make it second nature once the game begins.

He does the mental work Monday through Saturday so he can let his body take over on Sunday. "Once I touch the football field, I don't feel like I can be touched, and it just comes from the repetition of me putting in the work," he says. "When I play, it's just instinct. I don't have to think too much, I'm just out there playing my game."

Allen entered the season as one of only six players to average at least six catches and 70 yards receiving (minimum 100 receptions) since 2013 -- averages he has almost identically maintained through the early portion of the current season, despite an off game on Sunday (three catches, 44 yards) against the hometown-rival Rams. The others were Brown, Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Thomas and Demaryius Thomas. On the one hand, it's a compliment, because he is in elite company; on the other, it is an affront, because he is surrounded by others. That never sits well with a man who wants to stand alone.

"Keenan is his own man," says Zach. "Everybody has his own legacy, and his was destined to be football. It's been that way since an early age. He's just been gifted. He's special. From the moment our dad told him it's a man's sport, Keenan has been Keenan. The Slayer. That will be his legacy."

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