The streets of Opa-Locka, Florida were saturated with drugs. Gunshots were a nightly occurrence. Violent crime was a given.
To a teenage Armando Allen Jr., this was his sense of normal.
“Inside of my home wasn’t the issue,” recalled Allen in a phone interview Tuesday. “I look at my mom like she’s Superwoman. But outside of those doors, you’re talking about a place where you literally want to be inside the house before it gets dark because you never know what’s going to happen outside.”
The former Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back takes great pride in his ability to focus on what’s truly important. Chaos in the neighborhood was noise; finding a greater purpose through football was signal.
The sport has brought the 27-year-old to where he is today - working “the best job in the world” as a running backs coach at Texas Southern University in Houston.
“You’re a football coach. You’re a therapist. You are a counselor. Sometimes you might have to be a preacher,” said Allen of his current work. “I have multiple roles - and it’s not just developing good football players, but developing great men.”
TAG-A-LONG TURNS HEADS
Allen said he didn’t have any intention of participating in the 2005 Nike Training Camp where he first attracted buzz. The rising junior from Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School just wanted to go on a trip to Miami with his quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis. (Lewis would later play for the Duke Blue Devils and is still in the NFL.)
“I ran a ridiculous 40 time, like a 4.31,” said Allen. “I walked away as the offensive MVP. The next day, my head coach was receiving phone calls.”
In the noise of recruitment, one pitch stood out above all others to the 16-year-old.
“I was recruited by Michael Haywood and Bernie Parmalee,” said Allen. “The impressions that those guys left on me, as far as the type of men of character they were, probably left the most impact on me as a young man.”
For Allen, this was the beginning of a budding friendship with Haywood, who is now his boss - and the head football coach - at Texas Southern.
Allen had never traversed the Florida-Georgia border. Now, at 17, he was hopping on an airplane to investigate a Catholic university in the Midwest with a solid football reputation.
“Charlie Weis, who is a phenomenal coach, did a great job of recruiting me and making Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. feel like home to a Florida guy. That’s what really kind of sealed the deal for me, ” said Allen. “And I came in with a pretty good class.”
PLENTY OF PROMISE, BUT LACKING WINS
The Irish signed six Rivals 100 athletes in their 2007 class: quarterback Jimmy Clausen (#1), wide receiver Duval Kamara (#34), Allen (#52), running back Robert Hughes (#77), cornerback Gary Gray (#78) and tight end Mike Ragone (#83).
“We, as freshmen, were getting put into a more complex offense or defense. You’re probably being taught more football than you’d even been taught in your life,” said Allen. “We had a lot of talent. But it really doesn’t matter how talented you are if you can’t get lined up and you’re doing the wrong things on the field. It was definitely a rough time.”
Allen personally was still trying to recover from a broken ankle, which caused him to miss his senior season in 2006.
“When I got to Notre Dame (in January), I was full go. I don’t think I gave myself enough time to properly heal,” said Allen. “But here I am, as a freshman. A year ago I just broke my ankle and into the second game of the season, I’m starting with a leg and a half. That started the trickle down effect. It went from ankles to shoulders. Everything in my body was compensating for my ankle, and it just started to fall apart at that moment.”
Allen got 86 touches for 348 yards in his freshman campaign. Weis also incorporated him into the short passing game, with the running back catching 24 balls for 124 yards.
He was undaunted by the Irish’s disastrous 3-9 effort in 2007, adding: “If you had asked me after 2007, I probably would’ve looked you in the face and said, ‘Before I graduate, we will win a national championship.’”
“That’s how I felt when I looked to my right and I saw Jimmy Clausen and looked to my left and saw Golden Tate and I look catty-corner to my locker and I see Kyle Rudolph,” said Allen. “If you didn’t feel like you were going to win a national championship before we graduated then, we felt like you were in the wrong place.”
FINDING HIS CALLING
While Allen continued to produce on the field, he was thinking more about his long-term prospects.
“I really didn’t know what area I wanted to move towards to help individuals, but I knew that was something I wanted to do,” said Allen. He saw Haywood, Weis and running backs coach Tony Alford, who joined the staff in 2009, as “really father figures for us.”
“I said, ‘This is the best way that I can be a mentor and help, and also keep around the game that I love,’” said Allen. “I always told Coach Haywood that this is what I wanted to do after I’m done playing football, so he kind of started me early just by his approach to how he talked to me about football. It was from both a player standpoint and a coach’s standpoint.”
When Allen’s NFL career ended after three years, he said it was with his “head up high.”
“I knew that I was talented enough and gifted enough and worked hard enough to be on the field with anyone,” he said. “And I understood that what hindered me the most was injuries.”
Allen returned to Miami-Dade County to coach high school running backs. Alford found him there, and helped land him a job at Miami (Ohio) as a graduate assistant before Haywood - newly hired at Texas Southern - reached out in 2015.
“It was a perfect time for Michael Haywood to get back in the game, and it just shows you the loyalty that he has to remember that, ‘Hey, Armando Allen, one of my kids, always said that he wanted to coach. He’s on the right path that I told him to take in order to get in that situation.’ And he didn’t hesitate to give me a call.”
In addition to his coaching responsibilities, Allen hits the road often to meet with recruits. Texas Southern is a Football Championship Subdivision school, which plays in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
“It is a complete joy when I’m able to walk into a recruit’s home and be able to fully explain to not only the recruit, but his parents about the college experience,” said Allen. “The reason I got into this business was to be able to mentor the youth, get my hands on these young men and kind of leave an impact on their life, so they can leave an impact on someone else’s life later on in the future.”
TIGERS TRENDING UP?
Fresh off a 4-7 campaign, Allen said the Texas Southern coaching staff feels good about its prospects for the upcoming season.
“Once you get these kids to understand our schemes and be able to freely go out there and play the game, I think we’ll be ten times better than we were last year,” said Allen.
The running backs coach also says he feels trusted by his student-athletes.
“They know that, at the end of the day, I’m here for their best interests. That trust level is built, not just on the football field and in meeting rooms, but off the football field, being able to converse with these guys and kind of tell them the dos and don’ts to the college life, so they won’t get distracted,” he said.
Most of Allen’s time is spent on the football program, but the remainder goes to his family: his fiancée, Chaniya Bell, and their 3-year-old twin sons, Armando III and Amad. The couple is considering a summer wedding next year.
Although Allen doesn’t have as much time to follow the trials and tribulations of his former team, Notre Dame is still close to his heart.
“I still bleed blue and gold and I’ll be a Domer for life,” he said. “I made that decision 10 years ago. If you look at me and what I’m doing now, I’m still a representative of the university. I might be coaching teenagers. But what the university has contributed to my life, I’m able to pass down now. Notre Dame has been a great place to me and developed me as a human being. I am forever grateful for that.”