The Bigger Meaning of Dallas Cowboys Great Larry Allen’s NFL Career

In Harrison Smith’s excellent Washington Post obituary for Dallas Cowboys great Larry Allen, he noted that when Allen was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor, his acceptance speech “lasted all of 13 seconds.” The 11-time Pro Bowler and 6-time All-Pro whom Troy Aikman speculated “might be the best player in the NFL,” wasn’t much of a talker. Smith quotes Hall of Fame (Allen was a first ballot inductee in 2013) president Jim Porter as saying that off the field, Allen ”was a quiet, gentle giant.”

The main thing for the purposes of this write-up is that Allen’s greatness in the highly cerebral game of football has meaning well beyond what was seen on the field. Allen’s success in the NFL speaks to the genius of merit in any walk of life, along with the happy fact that merit-based endeavors make it most likely that those with talent will be found.

To see why, consider where Allen came from. He grew up very poor in southern California, was stabbed twelve times when he was nine, only for his mother to eventually take him to northern California to escape the dangers of Compton. Allen went to four different high schools, but never even graduated. He then went to Butte College (a JC in Oroville, CA) after getting his GED, and while there was recruited to play football not at USC, or Cal or Stanford, but at Division II Sonoma State. Which requires a question: Sonoma State?


To be clear about Sonoma State, when Larry Allen matriculated there it could claim precisely zero former players who made it to the NFL. Which is a stat that readers could have likely guessed. When you think of where NFL greats played collegiately, Sonoma State is never the answer.

Yet Allen made it the answer. At least once. In 1994, he was drafted in the second round by the Cowboys, 46th overall. Which is something to think about. Before Allen, and since Allen, no Sonoma State player had ever been drafted into the NFL, but in Allen’s junior year there, scouts came to watch him play and told him he had the talent to make it in the NFL.

Readers already know the biggest facts about Allen’s NFL career, but what a story that he made it to the NFL in the first place. And it speaks to the genius of merit. In the NFL, it doesn’t matter where you come from so long as you can play. While it’s certainly true that scouts spend more time at Alabama, Texas and USC games, a merit-based system means they don’t discriminate. Nor can they discriminate. Allen reminds us that they’ll even go to Sonoma State games, or watch the team’s film, if there’s someone at this football non-entity who might improve their team. This isn’t nothing.


In truth, it’s a big thing for it signaling that merit-based industry sectors and leagues make discrimination very costly, and for making it costly, make it much less common. Teams can’t turn up their noses to players who didn’t play for the right school. It’s as simple as that, and something to remember the next time some sportswriter at the same newspaper that employs Harrison Smith claims that the NFL’s owners practice racism in their hiring of coaches. Please. In a League where it’s incredibly costly to ignore talent that doesn’t come from the “best schools,” readers can rest assured that the perceived best coaches aren’t ignored based on skin color.

This is also something to remember when economics types on the Post’s editorial page bemoan the alleged impact of the Fed “hiking” interest rates. Please yet again. If you have a good business idea, capital will find you. Always. As with football, investors compete and are in fact paid to find the hidden gems. The Dallas Cowboys found Larry Allen because they had to, and precisely because discrimination can’t happen in professions where the best teams win.

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