When Cortez Allen was drafted in the fourth round in 2011, he seemed almost an afterthought. The third-round pick, Curtis Brown, was the player with the powerhouse football school creds. But while Brown has been a standout on special teams, Allen was one who played himself into Keenan Lewis's vacated position.
Fortunately the "two dogs, one bone" situation has not spoiled the relationship between the two players. As Will Graves of the Associated Press notes in a recent article:
He [Allen is] not concerned about becoming a star as he is about winning. It's not a coincidence his best friend on the team is fellow cornerback Curtis Brown, taken one round ahead of Allen in the 2011 draft. Instead of competing against each other, they joined forces, even if Allen has surpassed Brown on the depth chart.
It never comes up. At the end of organized team activities on Tuesday, Allen and Brown spent an extra five minutes on the field refining technique, doing for each other what the veterans did for them when they arrived two years ago.
"Since Day 1, the oldest guys have taken us under the wing and shown us the ropes," Allen said. "It's not about individual advancement, it's about team."
So let's look at what sort of young man Allen is and how he got that way. As I noted in the original article in this series, I believe the Steelers may be deliberately moving in a direction in which they give an even higher than usual weight to the team-centric nature and fundamental character of the players they draft, retain, and (re)sign.
This isn't to say that players they allowed to walk, like Lewis or Mike Wallace, necessarily had character issues. But they were a somewhat different breed than the players the Steelers have taken or extended this off-season. A comment by Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette is instructive:
It became tradition after the first week of spring drills for the Steelers' new starting cornerback to make bold predictions about himself, to forecast a Pro Bowl and great feats right away.
Keenan Lewis began that practice one year ago. Cortez Allen ended it today.
"I'm not that type to make predictions or boast about myself," Allen said as the Steelers resumed practices today with their fourth of the spring. "I'm a very humble guy. I just come to work every day and try to get better and better so I can help my team the best I can."
He plays a better game than he talks. That means he won't have to try to back up the kind of bravado his predecessor issued precisely at the same time a year ago, after just three spring practices as the Steelers' new starting cornerback paired with Ike Taylor.
I have to admit being a bit startled at someone declaring themselves to be humble. It tends to remind me of the crusty old Anglican priest I worked for many years ago who used to joke that he was writing his autobiography, to be titled "Humility and How I Got It." But a little more digging reveals that Allen uses the term as a reminder to himself rather than a, well, boast.
For one thing, there is the evidence of how he treats other people. There are several articles in various types of publications about Allen recently, ranging from local press to national sites. Comments such as those from this article are typical:
Next Wednesday night, Cortez Allen will walk the red carpet at the ESPYs Awards Show at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. The ESPYs are ESPN’s annual glitzy get-together for the best and brightest in sports, complete with Oscars-style pre-show interviews and post-show parties.
Allen will share the red carpet with ESPYs host Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" fame and a gaggle of sports’ one-namers — LeBron, Serena, Peyton, et al.
But Citadel fans who remember Allen from his days as a Bulldog need not worry — there’s little chance that fame will change the humble kid from Ocala, Fla., who still says "Yes, sir" on the phone.
"I don’t think of myself as a celebrity," said Allen, who is preparing for his third season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I’m just Cortez, the same person I was at The Citadel, before The Citadel, before the NFL.
"That’s very important to me, to never change for anything, for fame or money or whatever. Regardless of the setting, I just try to be my best self in every environment."
Small things such as saying "Yes, sir," (a frequently-mentioned item) might seem to be nothing more than an artifact of attending a military school. But one can look deeper than that. What attracted Allen to The Citadel in the first place? It's not a program which comes to mind when considering a direct path to the NFL. And make no mistake about it, Allen has long aspired to play in the NFL. As Will Graves noted in the above-quoted AP article:
The Citadel is hardly a football factory, having produced around a dozen professional football players in its program history. Allen was determined to join the list. During his first fall on campus, a coach asked Allen and the rest of the freshmen to write about what they wanted to get out of their football careers.
Allen jotted down making it to the NFL, long as the odds seemed at the time.
"I figured that if I work hard, somebody will notice me, whether it's in the league or in Arena or wherever," he said.
Elsewhere in the article Graves says "Allen was drawn to the military school because of its high standards both in the classroom and in life." While life at The Citadel undoubtedly reinforced his early training, it's clear he already had the good sense to value what the school offered. In another article he was quoted thus:
Coming from The Citadel, you learn to pay attention to detail. It’s the small things that make up the big things, and a lot of people overlook that.
As reported at steelersblogs, Allen said "never take for granted the gift and the blessings that were given to you to play this sport."
He went on to say that if he could speak to student athletes he would tell them never to settle, to go 100% because this opportunity can be taken from you.
Allen credits Ike Taylor with being his mentor, and works out with Taylor at Tom Shaw in Florida during the off-season. Allen said of Taylor:
He’s taught me how to be a professional, what it takes to be the best and stay ready. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does. His whole mentality, his commitment to the game, it’s something I want to model and develop as I continue my career.
In return, Ike is clearly impressed with his charge, as reported by Jeff Hartsell of the Post and Courier:
Taylor predicts big things for his protege.
"He’s going to be trouble for a lot of people. He pretty much has everything you are looking for as far as a cornerback, being a shutdown guy."
In closing, let's hear more about Allen from the expert on the subject—himself. Recently Steelers.com gave fans the opportunity to submit questions for players, and here are some of the questions, and Allen's responses:
Q: In what way did the disciplined lifestyle you encountered at The Citadel prepare you for the NFL?
A: I think I am a lot more mentally tough than some guys. I can handle different things. What I learned there I couldn’t learn at any other school.
Q: How tough was it to first learn Dick LeBeau’s defense? Is it as tough as is seems?
A: We were under a lot different circumstances that year coming off the lockout. Everything was fast in a sense. I took the time and got in extra film time and talked to the veterans and it became easier every game. It’s tough to learn. There is a lot going on. But if you put the time in you can learn it.
Q: What do you do during the offseason to get away from football?
A: Is there such a thing?
And finally, the source of his humility:
Q: What is the best advice you ever received and who gave it to you?
A: Put God first in everything I do. Give him the glory in everything I do. That came from my mom. Whether it’s good or bad I give God praise because there is something to learn from everything you go through. Without God I could do nothing.
There’s lots more great questions and answers on Steelers.com, including lots about footbally stuff, so be sure to check it out. In closing I’ll quote one more writer, Chris Burke of SI.com, in his "Audibles" article, "Breakout Player to Watch: Cortez Allen":
[Keenan] Lewis delivered a very steady and impressive performance for the Steelers last season, in his one and only year as a starter. They’re confident that Allen can elevate his game, as Lewis did in 2012, when dropped into the regular starting lineup.
It’s a small sample size, but what we’ve seen from Allen thus far indicates that he might be able to pull that off, too.
If he does, I fully expect him to do it quietly and without fanfare—the Steeler way.
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