Case of mistaken identity torments ex-Steelers safety Will Allen

Several outlets, including ESPN, ran this picture of Will Allen with a story about a different Will Allen who pleaded guilty to a Ponzi scheme worth millions. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH -- Willie James Allen was relaxing at home last Monday night. After a meal, he reviewed materials for the Will Allen Foundation's Holiday Giving Program.

Then he checked his phone, and the nightmare that began in April 2015 resurfaced. At least 10 messages from friends and family were alerting him that the case of mistaken identity had returned.

The former NFL safety saw his playing picture plastered across the Internet next to headlines that said "Will Allen" was the perpetrator of a wide-ranging Ponzi scheme and had swindled many people, including former athletes, out of millions of dollars.

And just like in 2015, his stricken mom was incredulous, asking him how this could happen. She was one of the first to call.

And then came the hateful Twitter messages from people telling him to "do your time and quit being a criminal," Allen recalled.

Allen tried not to panic but admits he was devastated. The whole ordeal felt like a "gut kick," he said. His stomach was uneasy. He didn't know what to say. Eventually, he prayed for guidance.

"That's what makes it so difficult -- to question my character," Allen, 34, told ESPN.

The man who pleaded guilty to federal fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges is Will D. Allen, the 2001 first-round pick of the New York Giants who also played for the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. The non-criminal Allen was drafted in the fourth round in 2004 by the Tampa Bay Bucs and also played for the Dallas Cowboys and -- most recently -- the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2013 to '15.

When the Ponzi story broke in April 2015, Allen estimates that more than a dozen media outlets used his image to accompany the headlines. As a result, Allen paid lawyers "enough" to handle various cease-and-desist letters.

But when several outlets, including ESPN, featured a picture of Allen the former Steeler with its headline last week, on Nov. 21, Allen decided to sleep on the issue after saying a prayer -- and then he took a few steps to correct it. He took to Twitter to highlight the misidentification and the damage done to his reputation. He posted several pictures of himself doing community work with the message, "This is who I am!! Not a criminal!!"

He also consulted a public relations expert on damage control. He called a few people he trusts for advice.

Knowing the problem might consume him if he let it, Allen used last Tuesday to attend foundation meetings and prep for Thanksgiving. In his home, Allen was in charge of deep-frying the turkey and making the greens, for which he has a top-secret Cajun recipe. He marinated the turkey with creole butter sauce well in advance, and then greased it with peanut oil.

The widespread misinformation "kind of crushed me," Allen said. His life is nothing like the other Allen's, yet many won't know the difference.

"You get all the negativity and [people] can say whatever -- I can't really do anything about that," Allen said. "You kind of have to stop and pause for a minute. ... But there's no telling who reads that and how they perceive it. We're in a society where it's largely about perception."

Allen can handle probes from friends who knew he didn't commit those crimes. But he has also had to quell a few concerns on the foundation trail over the last 18 months, forcing him to explain things anytime someone asks if he's "that guy."

The Will Allen Foundation's latest project is raising $30,000 for gifts for underprivileged children in Pittsburgh, where Allen still lives. The foundation aims to "provide programs and resources in an effort to instill hope, remove barriers, promote education, advocate civic responsibility, and change lives in the community." Allen works on his foundation throughout the year and makes public or corporate speaking appearances. He's staying in shape in case an NFL team calls.

Through this process, Allen has learned that some people have no filter. They have jokes, too. When someone broaches the story, Allen politely clarifies. Staying measured is important to him.

"I've had to answer a lot of questions," Allen said. "I've tried to do all I can to move on from that."

Allen lives downtown with his wife, who tries to calm him but is upset, too. Recently Allen asked out loud around the house, "Oh my goodness, what can I do?" And here's the thing: Sentencing is scheduled for February. That could produce more headlines.

"I just want them to get it right," Allen said of media outlets. "It would have been easy to look back at 2015 and know what happened."

Allen still wants to play football. He tried out for the Giants in October but understands a return might not happen. If it's over, Allen's career ended on a strong note -- 13 starts, 80 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception in 13 starts with the Steelers in 2015. The franchise got younger at safety and opted not to re-sign Allen.

Talking football prompts Allen's one memory of an interaction with the other Allen. Before a game, Willie once approached Will with a joke. "Will the real Will Allen please stand up?" Willie James Allen said.