August 31, 2006
Undiscovered Quarterback Is a Star Up North
By JASON DIAMOS
An athlete left Cal State Fullerton in 1985 with a glowing résumé. As a quarterback, he had set several team records in football. He was a pitcher on the baseball team, which won the 1984 College World Series, and he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers. And he had a strong pedigree — his older brother, Marcus Allen, was an All-Pro running back for the Los Angeles Raiders.
But this versatile athlete, Damon Allen, apparently was not appealing to N.F.L. teams, and he went undrafted and unsigned. At the time, the National Football League was populated with pocket-passing, mostly immobile quarterbacks — and they were almost exclusively white. So Allen instead went to the Canadian Football League, where, 21 years later, he is on the brink of becoming the most prolific quarterback.
If he passes for more than 164 yards for the Toronto Argonauts against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Monday night , the 43-year-old Allen will surpass Warren Moon for the most career passing yards in football history. And perhaps more remarkable than the 70,389 passing yards Allen has accumulated or the four Grey Cups he has won in his 22 C.F.L. seasons are the nearly 12,000 yards rushing he has compiled as a quarterback.
“I guess timing’s everything,? Marcus Allen said in a recent telephone interview. “But at the end of the day, you can mention all the great names — all of them — but you know whose name is going to be on top? And that’s the elephant in the living room that’s going to be impossible to ignore.
“Then you look at all those rushing yards — that’s two elephants in the living room. And the living room’s not very large. Just how do you ignore that??
The timing Marcus Allen was referring to was the beginning of Damon Allen’s professional career. Allen had to look beyond the N.F.L. for a place to prosper, and he found it in the C.F.L., becoming one of the greatest players in league history alongside Moon and Doug Flutie.
But unlike Moon and Flutie, who went on to star in the N.F.L., Allen never attempted to make the jump.
“I’ve always been the type of person that I was never going to go and chase someone to give me an opportunity,? Allen said in a recent interview at the Argonauts’ practice facility in Mississauga, Ontario. “If a team wanted to give me an opportunity, they would have to come and approach me. They would have to come and get me.?
Allen never chased the N.F.L., but now he is on the heels of Moon, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this month after passing for a combined 70,553 yards in the C.F.L. from 1978 to 1983 and the N.F.L. from 1984 to 2000.
“Records are made to be broken,? Moon said during a telephone interview last week. “But he’s getting ready to do something that probably won’t be broken. There are a couple of records that will always be around, and I think this will be one of them.?
Allen, who is listed at 6 feet and 191 pounds, said he was closer to 150 pounds when he finished college. He and Moon were quarterbacks who could pass and run.
“That was what they kind of labeled a lot of African-American quarterbacks as being,? Moon said about the stigmas attached to mobile black quarterbacks. “Those were some of the excuses they used to keep us out of the league. White quarterbacks like Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach used to scramble around all the time, and they were fine with that. It was just part of the excuses that we had to go through as black quarterbacks to get into the league.?
Damon Allen said, “I think a lot of people would say, ‘You were basically before your time.’ ?
“In the 80’s, there weren’t very many athletic quarterbacks,? he added. “My good friend, who is one of my best friends, Randall Cunningham had the opportunity. But he was 6-4, 200-and-something pounds. And he had the opportunity to play quarterback, but he was drafted as a punter. You talk to him and he’ll tell you that I could have played down there.?
Cunningham said Allen would have been a star in the N.F.L.
“He should have been a household name,? said Cunningham, who became friends with Allen when they were in college; Cunningham went to Nevada-Las Vegas, which was in the same conference (Pacific Coast Athletic Association) as Cal State Fullerton.
“He and I are almost exactly the same player,? added Cunningham, who played 16 seasons in the N.F.L. “The only difference is I’m 6-4. And I’m now about 225 pounds. But he could have done a lot of the things that Marcus Allen did — as a quarterback. And he could have done everything I did. Maybe better.?
Growing up, Allen and Cunningham were overshadowed by their older brothers, who achieved fame as running backs at Southern California. Marcus Allen won the Heisman Trophy in 1981. Sam Cunningham was named player of the game in the 1973 Rose Bowl.
Damon Allen and Randall Cunningham eventually worked their way out of their brothers’ shadows. “Just in a different country for Damon,? Cunningham said.
“I never wanted to be the one who said, ‘I played in the National Football League but I never played a down; I held a clipboard for five or six years,’ ? Allen said.
“But I probably do have some regrets. Because if I could do it all over again, I would go down there to get a tryout because I know in my heart that I could play the game of football and play the position of quarterback.?
Allen probably would have surpassed Moon’s record earlier this season, but he broke the middle finger on his throwing hand on the third play of Toronto’s first regular-season game. With Allen back, the Argonauts (5-5) have won three consecutive games.
Most professional athletes are long retired by the time they turn 43, but Allen keeps racking up the yards — and the awards. Last season, he was named the C.F.L.’s Most Outstanding Player and its All-Star quarterback — winning both for the first time in his career.
“When it comes down to it, I’ve played 22 years and I’m still a starter,? Allen said. “I still can move around and I still have the ability to run with the football with the gracefulness of my brother, Marcus, and throw the football with the gracefulness of Dan Marino.?