CFB 24/7  

 

How LB Dakota Allen turned 'Last Chance' into redemption

Print

HUMBLE, Texas -- Anthony Hawkins meets the irony head-on.

Could it have been him sitting in that detention center, finger-printed and mug-shotted? Should it have been him, instead of his half-brother, Dakota Allen, facing near-certain prison time? Lawyer-hunting and paying court fees? Yes, he nods. That was his path, not Dakota's. Those were his regrets. This was his story.

Now 29, Hawkins readily admits to a reckless adolescence, poorly chosen friends, and misdemeanor scrapes with the law that complicated his transition to adulthood. Sometimes he'd sneak out of the house at night, through his bedroom window and on his way to trouble, while his perfect younger brother peacefully slept. Dakota was the golden child whose resume couldn't fit on a single page.

Star athlete.

Honor student.

Summer Creek High senior class vice president.

A whiz at math who also helped plan the prom.

He was one of the best high school wrestlers in Texas, earned a football scholarship to play linebacker at Texas Tech, and made his way onto the Big 12 Conference All-Academic team as a freshman.

"I've never met anyone so good at everything he does as Dakota," Hawkins says.

Yet somehow, impossibly, it was Allen who ended up briefly owning the more tragic story: a felony burglary charge stapled to all those accolades and all that promise. The worst decision of his life not only threatened his football career but thrust him to the brink of hard prison time. Absent some near-miraculous good fortune, he wouldn't be getting the chance to tell his story to NFL personnel executives at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis later this month. Scouts evaluating his value and risk as a draft prospect will decide whether or not Allen's single red flag can be looked past, worked around, or used to stamp him as undraftable.

But after all it took to bring him here, back to the cusp of an NFL career, he's not complaining about how he's perceived.

He's just thankful it's the NFL, and not the law, that stands in judgment.

* * * * *


KEITH ALLEN ADMITS being pretty sheltered himself. The only son of church-going parents who could be strict with house rules, Dakota's father attended private school and rarely got permission to go to parties. His curfew wasn't loosened to midnight until his senior year, and even then his mother would be waiting up for him.

"If I came in after midnight, I knew not to ask to go anywhere the next time," he said.

With his stepson Anthony headed in the wrong direction, Keith and his wife, Stacey, weren't about to let the only son they had together, Dakota, hang around the wrong crowd. They showed him only one path -- the straight and narrow -- and he walked it. At 8, he and Anthony rode a bike to a local swimming pool and, for fun, tried to open and close mailboxes in one quick motion on the way there. A neighbor thought they'd stolen her mail and called police. The boys sat at their dining room table as the officer wagged an index finger and made sure they knew that tampering with mail was a crime, even though they hadn't touched a single envelope.

That's the deepest trouble Dakota Allen ever got in as a kid, his parents recall. He made straight A's in school, went hunting with his dad, and had a collection of sports trophies atop his dresser that covered every available inch of space.

"I had a rebellion thing going on because Keith wasn't my biological father, so I didn't want to respect his authority," Anthony said. "It was a 'You're not my dad, so I can do what I want' type of thing. Dakota, on the other hand, he was definitely sheltered."

It's little wonder, then, that when Allen left home for the freedom of college life at Texas Tech, he cut loose like college kids do. Lubbock was so far from the Houston suburb where he grew up -- more than an eight-hour drive -- it was easy to feel like nothing he did there would ever get back to Humble. By day, he maintained impeccable grades in some of the toughest coursework a freshman could take, acing Calculus II on a mechanical engineering track that was beyond the grasp of most scholarship football players.

But by night, he was catching up on all those parties he missed in high school. He built a close bond with offensive tackle Robert Castaneda, who had signed with Tech in the same 2014 class as Allen. They went just about everywhere together, and sometimes, found trouble together.

"We'd go to frat parties, drink too much, and a fight would break out. One time, Rob and I got jumped by like 15 frat guys," Allen said. "It was just me and him, throwing punches just to protect each other. That's when I knew I could depend on him."

After redshirting in 2014, he emerged as one of the Red Raiders' top defensive players in 2015. He made 12 tackles in an upset win at Arkansas, and 15 at Oklahoma a month later. For most of that season, he kept all his success in the classroom and on the field separate from his growing appetite for nightlife.

Soon enough, however, they would collide.

For reasons he's still unsure of, he was benched in a November loss to West Virginia and didn't enter the game until the second half. When he did, an ankle injury put him out for the rest of the regular season -- two more games -- and his mindset took a negative turn. He didn't know if his ankle would heal quickly enough to play again that season, and even if it did, the benching made him wonder if he'd lost his starting role anyway.

"In a locker room, there are two groups -- guys who are playing, then there are the guys who feel like they should be playing," Allen said. "And I kind of joined that group. I joined the pity party."

Nobody was the life of the pity party quite like Trace Ellison. By the accounts of multiple players on the 2015 Red Raiders team, the freshman offensive tackle from Frisco could take a good time over the top. Efforts to reach Ellison through Louisiana-Monroe, where he now plays offensive tackle, were unsuccessful.

"When Rob would come over to the house, Trace would be with him sometimes," Allen said. "I thought, 'If Rob thinks he's cool, I guess he's alright.' But I always had a weird feeling about him."

However crazy Allen and Castaneda were, Ellison was said to be crazy on a different level. Just six weeks after Allen's injury derailed his redshirt freshman season, the three took crazy to another level together.

* * * * *


MORE THAN THREE YEARS after the fact, Allen's memory of the worst decision of his life invariably veers toward the moments a voice inside warned him.

The moments he wishes he could have back.

The first came when Ellison and Castaneda first approached him with the plan while the Red Raiders were preparing for a Texas Bowl appearance against LSU. Following final exams for the fall semester, most students had gone home for the holidays, leaving a December hush over the Tech campus. Also out of town was a man the three understood to be a marijuana dealer who lived in a home just South of campus. The idea was to break into the residence and take whatever marijuana and cash could be found.

Late on the night of Dec. 20, the three pulled up to the house in Ellison's truck.

"Man, this is not a good idea," Allen thought, as Ellison knocked on the door for several minutes to be sure nobody was home. He returned to the truck and gave rise to Allen's inner voice once again. "He said, 'What do you want to do?' " Allen recalled.

Go home, play football, and graduate would have made three fine answers to that question.

Allen knew better.

He used to worry about the direction his brother was taking. Anthony's life is on a positive track now -- two steady jobs, married to a woman he says helped straighten his path, father to a 3-year-old son he adores -- but it wasn't always that way.

Anthony wasn't in a gang, but admits to having friends who were. At one of his peaks for risk and danger, he once joined a confrontation between two groups of armed teens. Fortunately, the only shots fired were aimed straight up in the air as a warning. If Dakota learned all the do's from his parents, he learned some don'ts from Anthony.

Yet here Dakota was, on the brink of something worse than any bad choice Anthony had ever made.

Today, Allen is convinced he'll never ignore that inner voice again. But on this night, he did.

The trio proceeded to the back yard and entered through a window above the kitchen sink. There was no alarm. A search of the house yielded no cash or marijuana. Other than a television and a digital camera, which Castaneda said were later discarded, they found only a safe they thought likely contained what they were looking for.

It was massive; about four feet tall and three feet wide, and heavy.

God was it heavy.

Ellison pulled his truck into an alley to shorten the distance it would have to be carried, but it still took all three players -- two 300-pound offensive linemen and a 225-pound linebacker -- to move the safe to Ellison's truck bed. It only took about 15 minutes, the same amount of time Allen will have to explain it to NFL clubs during the team portion of interviews at the combine. They took the safe to Castaneda's residence, and Allen went home, leaving Castaneda and Ellison to the work of opening the safe with a crowbar. The next day, Castaneda informed Allen that the safe contained several firearms. One looked like a war antique, a bayonet with a knife extending from below the barrel. But with no marijuana in the safe, Allen was no longer even sure they had robbed a drug dealer. His share of the loot was three guns. He first suggested that they not sell them, but eventually gave Castaneda two to sell, and kept the third.

"It's something I've got to be a man about and know I'll always have to live with what we did," Castaneda said. "If I had the mindset as a freshman that I have now, it would have been way different."

After the Texas Bowl, Allen went back to Humble for a few days before returning to campus. He awoke one night in a cold sweat from a dream that police had arrested him for the crime not in Lubbock, but where his reputation was sterling, where nobody fathomed him capable of such a crime -- in Humble.

Allen got less than $500 from Castaneda for the guns and can no longer recall how it was spent.

"It's a shame," he said.

* * * * *


FOUR MONTHS HAD PASSED, and Allen thought he would never have to answer for what he'd done. The home owner reported the stolen guns to police upon returning to Lubbock on Jan. 9, three weeks after the burglary, but the case was cold until the victim discovered one of his guns in a pawn shop display case in April. Police traced the sale, which led to the man who bought it from Castaneda. Reporting on the arrest warrant affadavit, a once-public document that Lubbock authorities will no longer release, indicates Castaneda declined to identify his accomplices by name, but told police their jersey numbers. Castaneda disputes that account.

"I never told anyone any jersey numbers," he said. "The police told me they already knew everything."

Police had already spoken to Castaneda on May 3, 2016, the morning when Allen learned they wanted to interview him next. Allen knew he had to make the call that would shake his family to the core. Before he even met with law enforcement, he phoned home, crying, to confess to his father what he'd done.

Keith handed the phone to Stacey; he couldn't listen.

Stacey dropped to her knees and screamed.

One of her first calls was to Anthony, but she was so hysterical, he couldn't make out what she was saying and sped home worried there had been a death in the family. When he arrived, he couldn't believe his ears.

"It sounded like some dumb stuff I would've done back in the day," he said.

Upon pulling into the driveway and seeing Stacey standing outside, Anthony noticed a cigarette in her hand. She had quit smoking two years earlier -- the longest stretch he could ever remember his mom being smoke-free -- and now she was burning Marlboro Lights one after another.

Keith lost his appetite. He subsisted on a sandwich here and there, but lost 15 pounds from the stress within a couple weeks.

To cover the cost of an elite attorney for his son, Keith used money from the sale of his mother's house, which he had sold after Dakota's biggest fan died in 2011.

For all the hardship Allen brought on himself, the depth and scope of which he was only beginning to realize, it was the collateral damage that cut him deepest. From mom's smoking to dad's weight loss, from the attorney fees to the shame on the family name, he owned it all.

"Honestly, the impact on everyone else hurt me more than the impact on me," Allen said.

Two days after calling home, Allen was dismissed from the football program, then later learned he was formally expelled from school. Although Texas Tech policy mandated his expulsion, he was allowed to finish out the final days of the spring semester. While other Texas Tech students studied for final exams during dead week, Allen was shopping for criminal defense attorneys. Not surprisingly, he flunked his final exams the following week, wrecking what had been a stellar academic standing to that point.

The first attorney he sat with advised him to consider a felony burglary charge like a career-ending knee injury where football was concerned. In other words, he'd never play again. His best-case scenario, according to the lawyer, was a few years in prison.

After final exams, Allen came home to an untenable situation.

Keith took his car keys when he walked in the door and could barely speak to his son. Stacey's pain came more from a place of sadness, but Keith was angry. He works from home as a designer of multi-family housing units, so he was around the house all day, stewing while Dakota pondered all that had been laid to waste.

"The look on his face told me he didn't think I was the same person," Dakota said.

He eventually moved in with Anthony to escape the tension at home.

For six weeks, the two bonded in a way they hadn't ever before. Dakota helped Anthony launch a car-detailing business that, nearly three years later, still helps Anthony pay the bills. After his first day on the job, scrubbing cars under 100-degree Texas heat, Dakota vomited on the side of Anthony's house from exhaustion. He hadn't escaped the reality that his life had taken a dramatically bad turn, but he had found a place where, temporarily at least, he didn't feel judged. Anthony had spent his share of time around bad kids and Dakota both, and knew there was still a hell of a big difference.

"I didn't judge him. I don't judge anybody, but especially not my baby brother," he said.

Stacey made dinner for the family on Sunday nights, hoping for ice to break between father and son. But Dakota didn't feel comfortable under his own roof; Anthony forced him to go, even though he knew Stacey's cooking would be eaten in silence.

"You could feel the elephant in the room," Anthony said. "Keith wouldn't smile. He'd give Dakota a couple death stares, and not say anything. I wanted him to relax, but I could understand his frustration."

* * * * *


STACEY HAWKINS SAT IN HER FORD F-150 pickup not knowing how long she'd be stuck in the parking lot of the Lubbock County Detention Center. Four weeks had passed since she'd begun crying herself to sleep at night, and she'd just driven Dakota eight hours back to Lubbock, much of it in a driving rainstorm, for two reasons: her son had to be formally booked on his charge, and his possessions had to be cleared out of his apartment.

Dakota suggested she drop him off at the detention center, then go to his apartment to get some sleep, and he'd call her when he was released on a $5,000 bond. The formal charge: second-degree burglary of a habitation. They didn't know if it would take an hour, or if he'd be there overnight, but Stacey wasn't going anywhere.

"I didn't care how long it took," she said, her voice cracking almost three years later. "I wasn't leaving him there."

She tried sleeping in the backseat of the truck but couldn't. Half of her was mad that Keith didn't make the trip with them, but the other half understood why her husband couldn't be in a car with Dakota for a 16-hour round trip. She turned on the radio, but no song could take her mind off why she was there. She smoked, to the best of her recollection, about 10 cigarettes.

Inside, Dakota felt like he lit them all.

He turned in his possessions, had his mugshot taken, and sat in a holding area waiting to be processed. He noticed tattooed faces and heard random yelling from the holding cells. An elderly man waiting to be booked asked Dakota what he'd done to be arrested, and when Dakota didn't respond, he volunteered his own circumstance.

"They caught me smoking a little weed," the man said. "But I'm glad they didn't look in my cigarette pack, because they would've found some rocks."

"When he said that, I'm thinking, 'I've got to get out of here,' " Allen said. "I remember thinking it was not somewhere I ever wanted to be again."

It was around 3 a.m. when he was finally released, and after catching a few hours of sleep at his apartment, Allen and his mother loaded the rest of his possessions into a U-Haul trailer and got back on the road for the eight-hour drive home.

On their way back, as they approached College Station about an hour from home, Allen realized the mugshot taken the night before was already exploding on Twitter.

* * * * *


THE ATTORNEY KEITH ULTIMATELY HIRED to represent his son, Guy Womack, initially had no reason to believe he could secure a better outcome than the lawyer who'd all but told Dakota his life was over. The prosecutor in the case, Sunshine Stanek, told Womack there was no room for leniency.

"The office policy at the time was that for charges like this, there is no probation offer, no pre-trial diversion, nothing like that," Womack said. "It was a matter of how much prison time."

While Womack was trying to persuade Stanek to take things slowly, a grand jury was quickly convened and secured an indictment against Allen, Castaneda and Ellison. Their tickets to jail weren't yet punched, but they were being fast-tracked. Womack's only play was to convince Stanek to lend weight to his client's track record -- the absence of any past criminal activity, the academic excellence, the promise of a gifted athlete -- along with the crime.

He built a file of around 25 documents that made the case for Allen's character. Certifications of accolades, letters from former teachers and coaches, proof of achievements. Some references were easy to obtain -- Summer Creek High teachers who didn't even teach Allen asked to contribute a letter referencing only their positive personal interactions with him. Others were harder to come by. Scott Howard, Allen's position coach in high school with whom he was very close, told his former player the two had to have a long talk before he'd sign his name to any letter written on Allen's behalf.

Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, Tech's coach at the time, contributed a letter of his own.

"I do not believe this incident defines who Dakota Allen is," Kingsbury wrote in part. "After knowing Dakota for nearly three years, I am convinced this was an isolated decision and not a pattern of irregular behavior. Based on the reputation he's leaving behind here in Lubbock, Dakota has the character to have a great impact in our society."

Ultimately, the file helped persuade Stanek to break from standard procedure and offer Allen a 12-month pre-trial diversion program. That meant no jail time, and an opportunity for Allen to avoid prosecution if he adhered to an assortment of probationary conditions. Ellison and Castaneda, whose football career spun off to Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls and then to Iowa State, got the same deal.

"It was a million-to-one shot," Womack said. "Dakota was very, very lucky in all this."

* * * * *


THE DAY ALLEN FILLED A SUITCASE with belongings before traveling to East Mississippi Community College, one of the places expelled Division-I players go to refurbish their hopes for a football career, he packed the pain he'd caused his family and the damage he'd done to his future right along with socks and underwear.

He asked his parents not to drive the nine hours to watch him play. There's not even a hotel in the crossroad town of Scooba, Mississippi, population 694, and EMCC's Sullivan-Windham Field (capacity 5,000) was even smaller than Turner Stadium, where Allen played for Summer Creek High (8,000). Allen would've been embarrassed for them to see him there.

"He was beating himself up over what he had done," said Brittany Wagner, the school's academic counselor and a central figure in the Netflix documentary Last Chance U, which chronicled two EMCC seasons, including the one Allen spent there. "It was obvious he was wrestling with self-forgiveness."

He also wrestled with his purpose at EMCC. He aced classes at Texas Tech so tough they weren't even offered at EMCC, and served as a math tutor for his teammates. Wagner was used to players needing her for much more than academic guidance -- she's worn the hats of a life coach, a mother figure and a motivator as well. Allen needed her, she said, for none of that.

The football competition? It was a step down for someone who'd just made 87 tackles for Texas Tech as a freshman the previous year. With no real challenges available to rebuild a tattered self-image, Allen set about to rebuild it another way.

His grandmother's way.

The Allen family had never been regulars at church, but Mae Helen Allen had always insisted that a young Dakota say a prayer before meals, and that demand planted in him a seed of curiosity for bible scripture. He showed up at a local Baptist church in Scooba one morning, by himself, curious about what was behind those prayers. He approached assistant linebackers coach Cason Bicknell about his interest in the bible, and Bicknell drove to Meridian, Mississippi, 40 miles south of Scooba, to buy him a King James version.

Before he even played a down for EMCC, Allen found a spiritual purpose in Scooba that, to him, was more important than football. He asked to be baptized, and Bicknell, with the blessing of a local pastor, obliged. When Last Chance U aired the baptism nearly a year later, social media critics questioned Allen's choice of EMCC, suggesting he used the documentary merely as a vehicle to rehabilitate his image. Truth is, his baptism wasn't at all made for TV. In fact, it happened before producers had even come to town to begin shooting the series. The documentary's clip of Allen being dipped in an above-ground pool, grainy and poorly lit, was taken with a cell phone. Producers hounded Bicknell for the video, but Bicknell told them Allen's salvation wasn't his to share and wouldn't even approach Allen about giving permission for its use.

Allen signed off after the fact.

"I told them I'm not afraid of showing the world I got saved," Allen said. "I wasn't ashamed of it."

EMCC offensive coordinator Marcus Wood held weekly bible studies at his home with interested players, and Allen would show up consistently.

"If he missed one, he'd come to me the next day asking for notes," Wood said. "I've studied the bible with a lot of players, and never been asked for make-up notes. That's not someone who cares whether a Netflix camera is rolling."

For virtually every player at EMCC, the two most important priorities are academics and football. Those came almost too easily for Allen -- his priorities were spirituality, and of course, meeting his conditions for pre-trial diversion. Scooba turned out to be an ideal place for both. One requirement was that he couldn't enter a bar, or even a restaurant with a bar.

No problem. Scooba, Mississippi, fills churches, not bars. In fact, it has a half dozen of one and none of the other.

For his court-mandated 24 hours of community service, he was assigned volunteer work at a local elementary school.

Abstinence from alcohol? Check. The nearest place to get a drink was miles outside of town, attached to a gas station and intermittently out of business.

A gas-station Subway sandwich shop was the only restaurant, and there certainly wasn't any fun to be had after Allen's 11 p.m. court-mandated curfew in a sleepy Mississippi town. EMCC only held classes Monday through Thursday, so the campus was barren on weekends -- football games were on Thursday nights, and students would scatter to their hometowns and leave the campus all but empty. To get into trouble in Scooba, Wagner said, "You had to go find it. You had to want it."

Most EMCC players try to forget Scooba the minute they leave. Allen will never forget the place.

* * * * *


THROUGH THE FIRST COUPLE OF MONTHS of EMCC's season, Allen learned he'd had a much easier time finding God than Division-I colleges had finding him. He led the Lions in tackles with more than 100, but the burglary precluded most colleges from recruiting him. In some cases, the coaches had no interest; in others, the coach wanted Allen but knew his school's administration wouldn't.

"I remember (then-Ole Miss) coach (Hugh) Freeze telling him, 'I want you, but I can't sign you. My president will not let me sign you because of this record,' " Wagner said. "That was hard for Dakota. He thought, 'I'm done. I can't overcome this mistake.' "

Even with the charge dismissed, only Bowling Green and Troy had interest until Texas Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs texted Allen on Oct. 5, 2016 to ask if he'd be interested in returning to the Red Raiders. The idea thrilled Allen, but Gibbs warned the possibility was neither easy nor certain. Allen first had to have his expulsion overturned in a hearing before Tech's Office of Student Conduct. Until that hurdle was cleared, he wasn't even allowed on the campus. The ruling on his appeal held that he could return to Texas Tech as a student in the fall of 2017, but his ban from campus would remain in place through the summer of that year.

"Talk about having nine lives as a cat," Womack said. "He had so many people in possession of authority and influence go to bat for him. But he made them all look smart."

Allen's parents were initially reticent to see him return to the Red Raiders. Would he be welcomed back by the community? By the student body? By former teammates?

Meanwhile, Gibbs and Kingsbury had to sell his return to TTU Director of Athletics Kirby Hocutt. Re-admitting a player with such a felony charge in his background, even dropped, was an uneasy proposition for both coach and AD. In virtually any similar case, returning to the school where a serious crime occurred is unheard of for a reason -- a bad outcome would reflect on coach and school as much as player. And of course, public criticism would roar that Allen was afforded a second chance as a football player that a regular student would never warrant.

The money decision for an athletic director is to let the player get his second chance somewhere else. But Hocutt made a different move, approving Allen's return. Among the things he cited was the sincerity of an apology Allen left on his voice mail when he'd been booted from the Lubbock campus a year earlier.

"The right thing to do is not always the easy thing to do," Hocutt said. "I'm sure there was some (criticism) out there, but when you're confident you've made the right decision, you block out that noise and move forward. And giving Dakota a second chance was the right thing to do."

Allen's two roommates, Collin Bowen and Braden Marusak, refused to sublet his room after his expulsion. Instead, they ate his share of the rent -- at a cost of nearly $200 each per month for the 2016 fall semester -- and left his room exactly as he left it on a hunch he'd be back.

In six months, he was.

* * * * *


ALLEN IS CURRENTLY TRAINING for the combine under Brent Callaway at the EXOS training facility in Dallas, knowing his formal interviews with NFL personnel executives in Indianapolis will be every bit as important as the physical testing the event is more known for. They're sure to ask why he did what he did, and why they should feel certain he wouldn't ever again.

"Everyone vouches for his character, and everything points to what he did being isolated," said a regional scout with an AFC team. "You don't have a hard time believing he's a good kid. The question is more about who he orbits around. Teams will want to know he won't put himself in a room with someone else's bad decision."

Allen will take an open-book approach -- nothing to hide and everything to gain. After all, what came forth from his reprieve might make the best case to NFL general managers. To wit:

Before he first took the field for his second stint at TTU in 2017, his teammates voted him team captain. He went onto lead the Red Raiders in tackles with 102.

» In 2018, he was named, once again, to the Big 12 All-Academic football team.

» He graduated from Tech on Dec. 15, acquiring the college degree his parents wanted for him most of all, because they hadn't.

» Allen's relationship with his father has been fully repaired. "We're proud as hell of the man he's become," Keith said.

» After missing Dakota's final college game due to pneumonia, Stacey quit smoking days later on Thanksgiving last year. Allen's convinced it's for good.

» Allen says the first check he'll write as an NFL player will go to pay his father back the proceeds from the sale of his grandmother's house.

And then there's Allen's Summer Creek High coach who made him reconcile before writing a letter of recommendation, Scott Howard, who remains one of his strongest supporters.

"I would trust Dakota Allen," Howard said, "with my wallet, watch and wife."

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop