Setting goals helped Allen reach the top

Every week, ESPN RISE will spotlight professional athletes we believe should inspire those of you in high school who are striving to get better at your sport. Many of them were once just like you are right now -- unknown, unlucky, unrecruited and unappreciated.

Did any of these athletes give up? Nope. They followed their dreams, continued to get bigger, stronger, faster, and once an opportunity was presented to them, they kicked open that door.

For the first installment of this series, the editors at ESPN RISE couldn't think of a more inspiring football player than legendary lineman Larry Allen. Some believe Allen is the strongest player to ever play in the NFL. He benched 225 pounds an astounding 43 times at the 2006 Pro Bowl.

Allen, who has yet to officially retire from the NFL after spending the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, is known most for the 12 years he played for the Dallas Cowboys. The 6-foot-3, 325-pounder was an All-Pro for eight of those seasons and made it to the Pro Bowl 11 times. Most impressive, Allen earned all those Pro Bowl selections at four different offensive line positions.

When Allen was in his prime, legend has it that defensive linemen who were supposed to go up against him would come down with illnesses or injuries two or three days before kickoff. Most of these maladies came after watching Allen on film, and there became a common name for them: Allen-itis.

So where did this Larry Allen come from? He had to be some gargantuan-like figure in high school, a player ranked near the top of all the recruiting lists with major college programs such as Ohio State, LSU, Notre Dame, USC and all the others clamoring for his signature on a letter of intent.

That couldn't be further from the truth. Allen was a complete unknown while in high school, partly because he ended up attending four different high schools. He grew up in Compton, Calif., and had a difficult childhood. In fact, the scars from when he was stabbed 12 times (four in the face) at age 10 during a fight with a neighbor are still visible.

Vintage High School of Napa, Calif., is where Allen finished up his high school education. But because of the constant moves, Allen didn't receive a high school diploma; he got his GED as an adult.

Allen didn't even begin to play football seriously until he went to Butte College, a junior college in Oroville, Calif. He still wasn't recruited after two years at Butte, but went on to Cal State Sonoma in Rohnert Park, Calif.

It was at Cal State Sonoma where the power, quickness and his sheer dominance as a lineman began to show. He said in an interview just before the 1994 NFL Draft that it wasn't until he wrote down his goals on a piece of paper and then looked at those goals every day that things began to change.

"I learned a lot [by writing down my goals]," Allen said. "It was always my dream to play in the NFL. My coaches thought it was far-fetched at first, but that was what I wanted to accomplish."

Most of Allen's goals were short-term, but designed to help him achieve his ultimate dream. First, it was to become an all-conference player. Others were to reach certain totals in the bench press and dead lift and, of course, there was lowering his 40-yard dash speed.

By Allen's senior year at Sonoma State in 1993, he had dropped his 40-yard dash speed to 4.85 seconds, he improved his vertical leap to 30 inches and reached 490 pounds on the bench. Allen was so impressive in that senior year that he was invited to the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine.

At the 1994 NFL Draft, Allen was picked at No. 46 in the second round by the Cowboys. He started for the Cowboys the next year and was in the Super Bowl blocking for Emmitt Smith by January 1996.

"NFL clubs will find you wherever you are," Allen said. "You just have to work hard and set goals. And you have to think about your goals each and every day."

Are you like Larry Allen? At ESPN RISE, we want to you to know that you are not alone.

We might not be writing stories on you this season and you might not sign a letter of intent in February, but if you do some of the things that Larry Allen did, in several years you might be showing up on "SportsCenter" -- or getting ready to go into the NFL Hall of Fame.