Fifteen months ago I sat with Zach Allen inside the office belonging to Lou Marinelli, his former coach at New Canaan High School.
Allen was home for holiday break, recovering from surgery. I was writing a story about Allen’s focus for his senior season at Boston College, which he hoped would be a stepping stone to being a high pick in the NFL Draft.
I remember Allen being soft-spoken, as he has been every time I have interviewed him. Allen has always been as equally adept deflecting praise as sacking quarterbacks.
And I remember, after we were done, telling Allen how he had not changed, that he probably used the same words, in the same measured tone, in the same office, talking about getting ready for his senior season with the Rams.
That conversation came back to me Friday night, after Allen was selected by the Cardinals with the 65th pick, the first in the third round. Watch the video below of Allen getting the call from Arizona. He could be on hold making an appointment with the dentist for a six-month checkup.
Allen is bigger. Allen is more skilled. But Allen is the same person he was at New Canaan, and that will never change. Not at the end of his NFL career. Not at the end of his post-NFL career. Never.
And that was why there were so many draft parties throughout New Canaan Friday night, Zach Watches if you will. Allen and his family decided to wait to hear his name called together in Boston.
All of New Canaan was anticipating Allen’s selection, which the pundits figured was going to happen in the second or third rounds. They were rooting for Allen as much for who he is as what he can do. This went beyond hometown pride. Here was an athlete who had a childhood dream, was physically gifted and worked exhaustingly to reach his ultimate goal.
If there is one consistent pattern to Allen’s football career, it is that he got better each year. He never has coasted. He has never taken a play off, let alone a game or season. The trajectory to the NFL had to stay upward.
If you read the dozens of mock drafts over the past few months and the analyses over the past few days, Allen’s motor is the constant. There was this one from CBS:
You put on the tape of this kid and every single play he plays hard, plays tough, plays physical. He plays the run hard. Might not ever go to a Pro Bowl, but you stick him in there and he’s going to play for seven, eight or nine years.
We have learned never to put ceilings on Allen, but the rest is spot-on.
On a different level, those of us who cover high school sports take satisfaction in seeing the athletes we cover reach the penthouse because we do this to recognize their accomplishments.
I’ve been fortunate to see a few players I’ve written about make it to the NFL.
I was with Vlad Ducasse 10 years ago, first in his hotel when he was not picked in the first round, then the following day at Morton’s Steakhouse with his draft party when the former Stamford High player was selected in the second round by the Jets.
Four years later it was at the home of another Black Knight, Khairi Fortt, who went to the Saints in the fourth round. Ironically, also in the room was Tyler Matakevich, who would make the leap from St. Joseph to the Steelers, a seventh-round selection. Ducasse and Matakevich are still thriving in the NFL.
Friday night I watched from my home office, hoping the wait would not be long for Allen — or getting a story posted. There was a celebration among the New Canaan coaches, who were watching together, when the Cardinals chose Allen, and a flood on social media by his former New Canaan teammates and current Rams.
Allen is the perfect poster child. He is the product of tireless extra hours. He is the kind of player coaches love, the kind of person others should emulate.
Allen considered declaring for the draft after his junior year but decided to return to Boston College for a variety of reasons. Yes, he would be more marketable with another year of college play, but Allen also wanted the final year of the college experience and to get his degree. Anyone who didn’t believe that didn’t know Allen — or his parents, Mike and Irene.
I could close this on my own, but instead I am going to rely on Allen’s coach at Boston College, Steve Addazio, who gave me this quote for the story that I was talking to Allen about that day in Marinelli’s office 15 months ago. First-year Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury in due time will be expressing similar sentiments.
Said Addazio: “I love Zach for a lot of reasons. Number one, Zach is an unbelievably great kid. He’s a great representative of Connecticut high school football, New Canaan and Boston College. I love being around him every day. He’s a great role model and has a great work ethic. I love him.”