Editor's note: The Choice is a four-part series that dives deep into four of the 2019 NFL Draft's top prospects, detailing how their early lives and decisions prepared them for this moment. Last in the series: Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen.
When you take a walk down Kirkland Street, it is as if you have been transported back in time.
Both sides of the one-block stretch just off Alabama State Route 10 are lined with vintage advertising signs for such vestiges as Buster Brown Shoes, Mother Penn Motor Oil and Rexall Drugs — just to name a few.
At Huggin’ Molly’s restaurant, located next door to the blue Philco marker, a visitor is greeted with a warm smile and a place to sit at the soda fountain. On the menu is a “1950s Old-Fashioned Grilled Cheese Sandwich.”
A visitor asks how the identifying decade makes the sandwich different than the standard grilled cheese.
“It’s just a grilled-cheese sandwich,” the waitress answers.
Almost everything in Abbeville, Ala., seems perfectly fitted for the descriptor “1950s old-fashioned.”
Abbeville is situated just minutes from the Georgia border, so close to the line separating the Eastern and Central time zones that it can create a sense of uncertainty about the accurate hour. But, also, it’s not as if anyone really cares. The pace here is slow and unhurried.
It is where edge rusher Josh Allen, one of the top five prospects in this week’s NFL draft, went to reset after eighth grade when he started to see things going awry around him in New Jersey.
Downtown Abbeville, Ala., will make visitors feel as if they've stepped back in time, with its old-time signage (Photo by Matt Maiocco / NBC Sports Bay Area)
Allen spent his first three years of high school in Abbeville while living with his aunt and uncle. It is where he discovered football and began developing into the player who became the nation’s top defender as a senior at the University of Kentucky.
“Everybody knows each other,” Allen said of Abbeville. “It’s a small town. Everybody is good people. It’s just home. It was real homey, Southern, not a lot of traffic. Manners are at an all-time high there. It’s just comfortable.”
Today, it is difficult to observe Allen and picture a time when he was not comfortable. He radiates pride as he hauls his 15-month-old son atop his shoulders. He has an easy smile and an unforced charm.
Allen transformed himself into one of the top prospects in the land after deciding to return for his senior year of college. He weighed 262 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times and ran 4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash. His athleticism serves him well, whether he is turning and running with tight ends down the field or blowing past flat-footed offensive tackles en route to another hit on the quarterback.
He is expected to hear his name called early Thursday night at the NFL draft in Nashville.
But long before his strength caught up to his height and he became the nation’s leading sack artist while playing in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference, Allen exhibited the work ethic for which he is known just to be able to fit in socially.
Sweet (new) home Alabama
Allen did not have it easy during his early years in New Jersey.
He stuttered as a youngster and was placed in special-education classes during elementary school. It was not until he attended college that he was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I went to the same classes every day,” Allen said of his youth. “I had to go to speech class twice a week. I really didn’t think anything of it because I was so young, and I didn’t know any better. Now, I look back and think I really did get left out of a bunch of things, a lot of opportunities.
“Everybody gets bullied. Everybody gets made fun of. For me, I tried to have jokes right back to the person. That’s how I am today. I’m goofy. If somebody makes fun of me, I make fun of them right back.”
Josh grew up with four sisters and twin brother, Isaiah, in a four-bedroom apartment in Montclair, N.J. After completing eighth grade, he decided to move to the South to live with his aunt and uncle, Jill and James Barber, in Alabama. His aunt is the principal at Abbeville Elementary School.
“I was good with it because I knew he was with my sister, and I knew she would take care of him just like I would have,” said Kim Allen, Josh’s mother. “He didn’t miss a beat, I didn’t, and she didn’t.”
Even on the surface, Abbeville is a unique place, with a small downtown area resplendent with the business signs that harken to a bygone era and a simpler time.
“It might remind you of Mayberry or something,” Abbeville mayor Billy Helms said.
Certain things about Abbeville are, well, uniquely Abbeville. Take the name of the town’s top-rated restaurant, for instance.
There’s the legend of Huggin’ Molly. For generations, parents have told stories to their young children of a phantom or witch-like figure who appears out of nowhere, then screams and hugs kids who disobey orders and wander off after dark.
“That’s what parents told their kids. If they didn’t behave and do right, Huggin’ Molly would come out,” the mayor said. “I’m 70 years old, and I’ve heard that all my life.”
Of course, Allen was well beyond the age designed for that scare tactic when he moved to Abbeville. Those who spent the most time around him say he was always the model of comportment. Even from the time he was young, he did not require any ultimatums to act a certain way. In Abbeville, he was living with one of the most influential and respected women in town.
“She is a stern lady,” said Brandon Buck, an assistant football coach at Abbeville High and a gym teacher at the elementary school where Jill Barber is the top administrator. “She stayed on him, but Josh wasn’t really the kind of kid that you had to stay on.
“By him being with her, her being a principal of the school and demanding that respect, and him being here in Abbeville staying with the principal, he knew he always had eyes on him. But he’s the type of kid that you didn’t have to worry about having eyes on him.”
Perhaps things might have turned out differently had he remained in New Jersey. Allen said he did not move to Abbeville to escape the bullying but because he started to witness a troubling turn within his immediate sphere.
“I moved to Abbeville for other reasons, to get out of town,” he said. “It was starting to go downhill. I really didn’t like the environment. I loved my family, but I wanted to try something new. I wanted to push myself in another environment. And I did.”
Allen said he wanted to get away from an atmosphere in which he had friends who stopped going to school.
“I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said.
Josh Allen will enter the NFL as an edge rusher, but he was a first-team All-State wide receiver as a junior in Abbeville, Ala. (Photo courtesy of Suzanne Bush / Abbeville High School)
The textile plant in Abbeville was in operation for more than 50 years. At its peak in the 1990s, Abbeville had more than 3,100 residents, and the town’s WestPoint Pepperell headquarters employed approximately 1,300 until its closure in 2008.
Years later, as the population dropped by more than 400 residents, the town’s middle school closed. Abbeville High was converted to educate six grade levels, seventh through 12th. That meant a lot of desks, furniture and supplies had to be moved across town.
Josh was volunteered to participate in some of the heavy lifting before the start of the new school year. That is where he first met one of the men who introduced him to his eventual livelihood.
“He wasn’t big, but he was tall,” said then-Abbeville High football coach Alphus Shipman. “The summer before his ninth-grade year, Miss Barber made him work with us. I was with a group of boys, moving furniture from one school to the other. He outworked everybody.
“I begged him to play football. He said, ‘Coach, I’ll play football if I can play receiver.’ I said, ‘You can you play receiver, all right, but here you have to play both ways.’ ”
The new kid in school went out for football and immediately began getting roughed up — to the point that he nearly quit the team on at least one occasion. Each year he remained on the team, he got a little bigger, a little stronger, a little more well-rounded and knowledgeable as a player.
Allen came from a basketball family. His uncle, Gregory Hines, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Golden State Warriors in 1983 after a Hall of Fame college career at Hampton University. Hines played professionally for more than a decade in the U.S. and abroad.
Josh has three older sisters who played college basketball, including Myisha Hines-Allen, a star forward at Louisville who now plays for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA.
The Abbeville High football team had no problems finding ways to deploy Allen’s basketball size -- 6-foot-4, 198 pounds -- and the family skills of boxing out under the boards to get the ball.
“Anytime we got into the red zone, the first play from maybe 25 [yards] and in was, ‘Jump ball to Josh,’ ” Shipman said. “He probably came down with it 85 to 90 percent of the time. Playing basketball for so long, going up for rebounds, he could high-point the ball with the best of them.”
As a junior, Allen was named a first-team All-State 3A wide receiver. He also played defensive end. He was a great athlete, and he was popular among students and faculty. The kid from the North fit in like he never had before.
But shortly before the start of Allen’s senior year, those in Abbeville found out he would return to New Jersey to complete high school.
Said Allen: “Everyone in my family graduated from Montclair High, and I didn’t want to break tradition.”
The sudden news caught a lot of people in Abbeville by surprise, and it remains a difficult topic for some there to discuss.
“It was horrible. It was horrible,” said Abbeville assistant coach Joshua Blalock, who works with Buck at the elementary school. “It was gut-wrenching to watch him leave -- not just because he was a good athlete but just because we’d been around him all the time.
“Even when we weren’t at the football field, he was right here at the school with us because Miss Barber is his aunt. He was here all the time. We saw him every day. So when he decided to go back to New Jersey with his mom, it sucked.”
In retrospect, it might have been the best thing for Allen to finish his high-school career at the biggest level of public schools in New Jersey.
“I didn’t want him to leave, because I knew he was a great athlete and a great kid,” said Buck, his defensive line coach. “But him going back home, do I think he would’ve gotten to Kentucky being here? I have a feeling he probably would not have.
“It’s hard for small towns like Abbeville to get kids on that level.”
Even with six grades at Abbeville High, the enrollment was approximately 375. With his move back to Montclair, he entered a four-year high school with more than 2,000 students.
Allen had not spent much time in New Jersey over the previous three years, but his sisters were well-known athletes in the area. Montclair’s football coach, John Fiore, felt secure enough to do a little boasting to those in the coaching fraternity before Allen even stepped on the field as a senior.
"Wait ‘til you see this kid who just moved in," Fiore told Jim Matsakis, the head coach of nearby West Orange High School.
Matsakis responded, “Whatever. You say that every year."
Throughout the season, Matsakis had seen Allen on film. And when the rivals met later in the season, Matsakis received harsh confirmation that Fiore’s preseason words were not hyperbole.
“The kid lined up at wide receiver -- and we were pretty good -- and the first play he scores an 80-yard TD and outruns everybody,” Matsakis said. “Then, he turns around, and the first 12 plays, he probably had three sacks on defense as a defensive end.”
But something else about the talented young man impressed the coach on the opposite sideline.
“There was never a chance that he was arrogant or cocky,” Matsakis said. “He was always respectful. You can’t find one kid on my team when we played them that would come off and say, ‘That kid’s a scumbag. That kid runs his mouth.’
“He just played, and he kept his mouth shut. He does everything you wish all your kids would do, and he just does it a lot faster.”
That was a part of Abbeville that Allen packed along with his belongings and brought back with him to Montclair, a township of nearly 40,000 residents located approximately 10 miles from Times Square. Allen said the way he acted upon returning to New Jersey stood out to some people with whom he came in contact.
“That was a big change because in Jersey, you don’t get taught manners, ‘Yes, sir; no, ma’am,’ ” Allen said. “When I went back, it was, ‘You have great manners.’ I learned that from Abbeville. I learned how to calm my emotions and be a better person.”
Despite being closer to the bright lights of the big city, Allen somehow managed to slide under the radar of major-college recruiters. He still played wide receiver at Montclair, catching 23 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns. And he emerged as the state leader with 20 sacks.
Allen was the best player on the New Jersey state champion, yet he was tabbed a two-star recruit. He appeared destined for a small-college program before he received some unexpected help from the coach at Montclair’s rival.
Matakis asked Fiore at an end-of-season meeting where Allen would be going to college. There was little interest, Fiore answered. Matsakis was dumbfounded.
Matsakis coached small-college football at Emporia State and Wagner. He has three brothers coaching in the college ranks, so he had plenty of connections. He decided to make some calls on Allen’s behalf.
He spoke to a friend, Darrin Hicks, the offensive coordinator at Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh. Hicks liked Allen as a wide receiver but told Matsakis the school’s defensive staff was not high on him.
“I reached out to Mike Leach at Washington State and Oklahoma,” Matsakis said. “Most schools were apprehensive just because it was like nobody else was on him but Monmouth.”
Allen verbally committed to attend nearby Monmouth University. But two days before signing day in 2015, and after a string of decommitments, Kentucky followed up on Matsakis’ recommendation.
Matsakis’ brother, Louie, was on the Kentucky staff. The high school coach also was close with then-defensive coordinator D.J. Elliott, whom Matsakis asked to watch film of Allen.
“He loved him,” Matsakis said of Elliott.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops got on board, and it did not take much convincing for Allen to accept the Wildcats’ offer to continue his football career in the SEC.
Fatherhood and the future
When Allen enrolled at Kentucky and began workouts, he weighed just 205 pounds, but he continued to improve as a player upon concentrating full time on defense. He worked to put on weight, fine-tuned his technique and began unlocking his vast potential.
“He was a two-star recruit coming in,” Kentucky teammate Josh Paschal said. “He came in about 200 pounds soaking wet and put on all this weight and he kept his speed. He worked as hard as he can. He just focused on the right things.”
“Josh is a self-made man. A ton of people are going to take credit,” said Matsakis, the man responsible for getting Kentucky to look at Allen. “But that kid, he’s transformed his whole body.”
After back-to-back seasons with seven sacks in his sophomore and junior seasons at Kentucky, Allen faced a difficult decision about his future. He could have declared for the NFL draft or returned to college for his senior season. Moreover, he received news before the school year that he was not ready to hear. He was going to be a father — long before he had anticipated.
The birth of his son, Wesley DeVon Allen, on Jan. 3, 2018, meant his decision took on much greater significance. Allen strongly considered leaving school in order to begin accumulating the means to support his son.
“Coach Stoops said, ‘Do you want to make money — good money? Or do you want to make life money — generational money?’ That always stuck with me,” Allen said. “I went home and thought about it. I looked at my son and said, ‘Yeah, I want to make life money.’ I want him to be financially secure for the rest of his life, and for his kids as well.”
So Allen opted to return for his senior year. His work ethic, which never before had been questioned, elevated to an entirely different level. His daily motivation was providing for his family, including fiancée Kaitlyn Morrison.
“I had to be great,” Allen said. “My son was here.”
“At that point, the light bulb definitely changed,” Stoops said. “He’s an extremely determined person, and he makes a lot of sacrifices. When kids are going on spring break, he’s staying here and working out. In the summer, he doesn’t leave. He stays here and works on his craft. He’s really monitoring what he’s eating, and working hard and playing with a purpose. That’s the way he lives his life.”
Josh Allen's life changed with the birth of his son, Wesley, and the pair shared some time together at Kentucky pro day last month (Photo by Matt Maiocco / NBC Sports Bay Area)
When Allen lists the adversity he faced to reach this point in his life, he mentions how he initially viewed his impending fatherhood as the biggest hurdle, yet.
“Just having him while still in college, going into my junior year when she told me,” he said. “I was still focused on school. I wasn’t focused on having a child at the time, but now it’s one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had.”
His mother, Kim, says Josh is influenced by the positive men — his father, Robert Allen Jr., along with his grandfather and uncles — around whom he has been surrounded on both sides of the family.
Wesley is the center of Allen’s universe. Allen lights up when talking about him. He is a doting father, and wants to be around his son every waking hour. He even sleeps with him.
“I could just see the focus after that,” Paschal said of his teammate.
Allen sees the big picture. He is a passionate dad and a devoted friend.
“He always said, ‘I’m doing this for somebody else now.’ It’s not just him,” Paschal said. “He’d say, ‘I’m doing it for my son.’ You can see the focus. He was being relentless and doing what he needed to do.”
Paschal, a defensive lineman, knows Allen’s compassion firsthand. Paschal was diagnosed with malignant melanoma on the bottom of his foot in August, and Allen was instrumental in helping keep his teammate’s spirits up through his journey to return to football last season.
No senior-itis ... just hard work
Once Allen decided to return to Kentucky for his senior year, he wanted to know how he could get better.
Brad White, who spent the previous six years as an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, joined the Kentucky staff a year ago as defensive coordinator. White went through every one of Allen’s plays from the previous season and provided a breakdown of how he would be evaluated through the prism of NFL coaches and executives.
Not only did Allen have a list of his goals for his senior season, but he had a plan of attack on how to get there. Maybe he had to do extra footwork drills three days per week, or spend additional time working his hands twice per week, or devote extra time for stretching to increase his flexibility.
“I pulled out his goal sheet I set for him and you go down and he tick-marked every single goal that we’d set, coming out of spring and into summer and the fall,” White said. “We had a game plan for him. The results speak for themselves.”
Former Seattle Seahawks scout Jim Nagy, now the executive director of the Senior Bowl, called Allen the most-improved player in college football in 2018. Allen sent his draft stock soaring from a likely third-round draft pick to an expected top-five selection. The 49ers own the No. 2 choice and the Raiders sit at No. 4. Allen’s decision to remain in school is likely to amount to a financial gain of approximately $20 million on his first NFL contract.
With his renewed focus, Allen led the nation with 17 sacks and swept the nation’s list of defensive player of the year honors during his senior season. He was SEC Defensive Player of the Year, along with winning the Bronko Nagurski Award, Chuck Bednarik Award, the Jack Lambert Award, and the Ronnie Lott IMPACT Trophy, which combines on-field performance and leadership with off-field excellence.
Allen played no small role in Kentucky’s remapping of its football image. UK football takes a backseat — always has — to the university’s storied, eight-time national championship basketball program. And Kentucky generally has been an afterthought in the loaded SEC football landscape.
But the Wildcats broke out last season, winning 10 games for the first time since 1977. Allen could have sat out the bowl game to protect his well-earned status as a high draft pick, as some top players now do. Instead, he went out in style. He registered three sacks in a 27-24 Citrus Bowl win over Penn State on New Year’s Day.
Josh Allen's Citrus Bowl domination of the Penn State offensive line sealed his status as a top-five NFL draft prospect (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)
“Whoever takes that shot and wants to invest in him with a high pick, I believe, they’re going to get a fantastic football player and a great person that represents their organization the right way,” Stoops said. “Because if you like what you see on the football field, you’re going to absolutely love him in the locker room and in your community.”
White has gotten to know Allen well while working so closely to help him fine-tune his game over the past year. White recognizes Allen's the motivation to be great is multi-layered and is not self-centered. Allen came to realize he has a platform to affect change and help others after going through adversity in his life.
“He never brings that up or talks about the struggles he had, and the stuttering,” White said. “He’s just let that fuel him. The only time it comes up when we’re talking, he beams when he talks about, ‘Hey, Coach, a family reached out and said my story helped them.' "
Allen said he is prescribed Adderall to manage his ADHD. He has no discernible traces of the stutter that plagued him earlier in life, though he always is quick to reveal he still struggles with speech. But he certainly does not shy away from engagements, such as one last spring at a Lexington elementary school, during which he was a guest speaker in a special needs awareness program.
“I like to tell my story and how I did it, so I can help others,” Allen said. “When others hear that story and how I progressed and how I am in life, it’s wonderful to think that somebody out there is looking up on me and saying, ‘Well, Josh did it, so I can do it.’
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. It makes me feel good. That’s the wonderful thing about sports. You can touch lives off the field. That’s one of the best parts about playing this sport.”
Catch up on the other three stories in "The Choice"
Nick Bosa I Rashan Gary I Quinnen Williams