FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Tired of pompous, entitled athletes who don’t seem to realize how good they have it?
Fed up with all the scandals and cheats and scoundrels mucking things up for the rest of us?
Meet Ricardo Allen.
He’ll give you a reason to cheer.
Allen plays for the Atlanta Falcons, a 26-year-old free safety who will readily admit he’s not the fastest, not the strongest, not the biggest guy in the room.
“I won’t be anybody’s first pick,” said Allen, who at 5-foot-9 comes up 3 inches shy of this aging sports scribe.
He’s so much more than that.
This is a guy who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be told you’re not good enough — on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” no less, for the whole world to see.
This is a guy who remembers what it’s like to spend a year on the practice squad, putting in as much work as the next guy but knowing he won’t get a chance to shine on Sundays.
So, when word came that Allen had agreed to a contract extension with the Falcons, one that should set him up nicely for the rest of his life if he manages his money right, he didn’t exactly celebrate.
That’s not his style.
Instead, he watched that “Hard Knocks” episode all over again, the one where then-Atlanta coach Mike Smith doles out the pink slip .
“You can kind of see I smiled a little bit,” Allen recalled. “I knew that wasn’t going to be my last straw. I’ve been turned down plenty of times in life, man. That wasn’t the first time I’ve been told I wasn’t good enough.”
Allen’s new contract — $19.5 million for three more seasons — pales in comparison to, say, teammate Matt Ryan, who agreed to a massive deal that averages $30 million a year and guarantees the star quarterback at least $100 million.
But Allen is grateful for his $5.5 million signing bonus. He knows that’s a massive amount of money to just about anyone else. He hopes it sends just the right message to anyone scuffling on the fringes of a roster.
“This wasn’t just a deal for myself,” Allen said. “This was a deal for everybody who has to struggle, who has to fight from the bottom. It’s possible to make it to the top.”
Even now, he has a soft spot for all those guys going through the same struggles.
“When I was in college, I used to work out with the walk-ons,” Allen said. “I was always attracted to hard workers. I was always attracted to the bottom feeders.”
After Dan Quinn took over as Atlanta’s coach in 2015, he was impressed by Allen’s tackling skills but felt he was out of place at cornerback, his position at Purdue and what he started out playing with the Falcons.
Allen was moved to safety. Suddenly, he blossomed. One training camp after being waived, he surged to the top row of the depth chart, going on start 14 games as a de facto rookie in 2015.
But he never got comfortable.
Not even now, when he’s so clearly a part of Atlanta’s long-term plans.
“That ain’t in my blood,” Allen said, chuckling at the mere suggestion.
Zealously guarding against those thoughts ever creeping into his head, Allen is always looking for ways to make things harder on himself.
Right down to the smallest details.
If his eggs are too runny, he’s not sending them back. If it gets cold in his room, he’ll turn down the thermostat even more.
“This world is so used to being comfortable all the time,” Allen said. “It’s weird, man, I know. But it’s just something I do so I don’t get complacent, so I never feel like what I’ve done is enough.”
Allen has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, which was never more evident that when I talked with him less than an hour after the Falcons squandered a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl.
While most everyone else did their best to cover up the overwhelming pain, Allen made it clear exactly how he was feeling.
“I’m broken inside,” he said that night in the bowels of Houston’s NRG Stadium . “I’m not a guy that forgets very easy. I’ll probably never forget this. It will always be haunting.”
But, like every setback in Allen’s life, pain served a purpose.
He put together another strong season in 2017, though the Falcons were knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional round. He’s one of the leaders on a young, speedy defense, doling out and advice and mentoring anyone who wants to know how to do things the right way.
When the Falcons announced Allen’s new contract, there wasn’t a hint of jealousy from his teammates.
Quite the opposite.
That day, during a meeting with the entire team, Quinn asked, “If you’ve ever been supported or encouraged by Ricardo Allen, please stand up.”
Everyone rose from their seats, from the biggest stars on the team to those who will likely be cut in a week or two.
“You see the impact that a guy like him has on a team,” Quinn marveled.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Falcons fan.
No. 37 is a guy we can all root for.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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