With injuries seemingly behind him, soft-spoken Keenan Allen is out to punish opposing defensive backs and establish himself as the game's top wide receiver
By Jim Trotter | Published Sept. 25, 2018
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."