FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Tired of pompous, entitled athletes who don’t realize how good they have it?
Fed up with all the scandals and cheats and scoundrels mucking up things for the rest of us?
Meet Ricardo Allen, who gives us all a reason to cheer.
Allen plays for the Atlanta Falcons, a 26-year-old free safety entering what should be the prime of his career, carving out a nice little niche for himself on what is expected to be one of the NFL’s top teams.
But 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 down that Allen had agreed to a new contract 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 .
“When they told me I was going to be released, 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 or couldn’t make it.”
Allen’s new contract — a three-year extension worth a maximum of $19.5 million — pales in comparison to, say, quarterback and teammate Matt Ryan, who agreed to a massive deal that averages $30 million a season and guarantees him 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, the position he played at Purdue and started out playing with the Falcons.
Allen moved to safety, and that’s where he blossomed. The practice squad guy suddenly climbed to the top row of the depth chart, starting 14 games as a de facto rookie.
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 thought.
If those thoughts ever try to creep into his head, he’ll intentionally make things harder on himself — on and off the field. If his eggs are too runny, he’ll eat them anyway. If it gets cold in his room, he might 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 not long after the Falcons squandered a 25-point lead in 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 other 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, promising 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.
Just the opposite.
During a team meeting, Quinn asked, “If you’ve ever supported or encouraged by Ricardo Allen, please stand up.”
The entire room rose from their seats.
“You see the impact that a guy like him has on a team,” Quinn said. “He’s a real important part of what we do.”
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 pnewberryap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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