GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As Dale and Anne Caparaso sat across the table from their prized pupil, watching him devour his grilled salmon and vegetables, they couldn't help but marvel at how far he had come.
Not long ago, Geronimo Allison was a disinterested student on his way to becoming the worst kind of ex-football player -- not a has-been, but a never-was. And now, he was about to board an airplane bound for the Green Bay Packers' annual training camp, ready to battle the odds on a crowded wide-receiver depth chart.
Allison, though, was thinking further into the future than that, to when his playing career was over -- however soon or far off that might be. His plan was to come back to Spoto High School in Riverview, Florida, serve as Dale's assistant coach and make sure no other Spartans put themselves in the position he was during his sophomore and junior seasons, when he had to sit out because of academic ineligibility.
"He said he wants to come back and contribute, as a way of saying, 'Thank you,'" Dale Caparaso recalled Thursday afternoon of that dinner two weeks ago at a Tampa-area eatery. “But he already does that. Every opportunity he's back in town, he speaks to our players, tells them not to make the same mistakes he did, how he wishes he'd have played four years of high-school ball, maybe played at a big SEC school in college ...
"But that was the first time he's told me that he wanted to coach. I mean, that's as good a compliment as you can have. I just hope it doesn't happen for a long time. I hope he has a great eight, nine, 10 years in the NFL. And then I'll tell my principal, 'I just hired your next head coach.'"
First, though, Allison must focus on making the Packers' roster -- no easy task, given how many good players the team has at receiver. But given what it took for Allison to get to this point, he isn't about to let a little thing like competition deter him.
After all, the undrafted free agent from Illinois could have gone elsewhere -- he made pre-draft visits to Dallas, Houston and Tampa Bay -- but he chose Green Bay, where the receiving corps is so deep that it has been suggested that the team could keep as many as seven on the 53-man roster.
If that happens -- and that's still a longshot, as Packers coach Mike McCarthy spoke last week as if six is the max -- don't count Allison out for one of those spots. At 6-foot-3 and 202 pounds, his body type is different than those of the Packers' other receivers, and he has already caught quarterback Aaron Rodgers' eye with his smooth route running, sure hands and quiet, eager-to-please approach.
"Definitely, he's unique, if you look at the way he's built, but also the [muscle] twitch that he has and his ability to drop his weight," McCarthy said Wednesday afternoon, before Allison had two terrific touchdown catches during the team's red zone period at practice that night. "He's off to a really good start. He's definitely different than most guys we've had here."
Allison's path has also been different. And without Dale, who is entering his ninth season as Spoto's head football coach, and Anne, a teacher in the Hillsborough County school district who tutors her husband's players each summer, that path likely would have led Allison to nothing but regrets.
After working his way up to the varsity roster as a freshman, Allison's lack of effort in the classroom -- "I wasn't a big school guy; I didn't take it seriously,” he confessed -- left him academically ineligible for his sophomore and junior seasons. Then came a chance run-in with Anne as Allison and his mother, Melissa, were leaving a meeting with the high school guidance counselor.
"My wife was coming here to work with a group of football players in her tutoring program that she does every summer with our kids, and Geronimo and his mother were walking out," Dale explained. "She recognized him from him playing when he was a freshman, and now here he was, not even sure he was going to graduate."
Instead of going home with his mother, Allison instead went with Anne to the tutoring session. It was the first of many, and it proved transformative.
"First of all, getting him academically eligible was never a difficult thing. He's a bright young man with a lot going for him. He never failed here at Spoto because he was 'dumb,'" Dale said. "He just wasn't always motivated to do work in the classroom like he was to do work on the field. He just didn't see the urgency. But then he lost his sophomore year, lost his junior year and suddenly you realize, 'My future is going to be hanging here on the streets with the guys if I don't change.'"
Allison quickly got eligible, and after catching 26 passes for 567 yards and four touchdowns as a senior, he landed at Iowa Western Community College, where he led the school to the 2012 NJCAA national title, catching 69 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. The next year, he caught 65 passes for 882 yards but, more importantly, earned his associate degree in just three semesters.
From there, he went on to Illinois, where he caught 106 passes for 1,480 yards and eight touchdowns in two seasons -- and earned his bachelor's degree in communications.
"The hardest part was just buckling down and doing what I needed to do [academically]," Allison said before Thursday night's practice. "But when I started applying myself, I started seeing my grades elevate, and I was able to graduate and continue the path I was taking.
"Now the challenge is making the team and staying here and staying in the league."
Allison has already started winning one person over: Rodgers, who can be tough on young receivers if they aren't where they're supposed to be on plays. Although Allison's touchdown catches on Wednesday night came from third and fourth-stringers Joe Callahan and Marquise Williams, the two-time NFL MVP has taken notice of Allison's skills and encouraged him on several occasions during the first two weeks of camp.
"That makes me feel awesome. He's the greatest," Allison said of Rodgers' praise. "He speaks to me every now and then about certain routes, certain adjustments I make. I just try to do what I can. That's part of the learning curve. If he likes what he sees, he likes what he sees. It's my job to do my part and do my assignment."
With wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery still on the physically unable to perform list and Randall Cobb unlikely to play much, Allison could see extended time in Sunday's Pro Football Hall of Fame game against Indianapolis. If that happens, Allison believes he's ready.
"My job here is to play football, learn the material and do my job to the best of my ability. So that's my focus -- do what Geronimo is able to do," Allison said. "I'm still learning, still trying to get everything down. Sometimes your emotions can get the best of you, so you've got to try to stay mellow and just do what you can do. I'm going to try to stay into it and soak everything in."