Former running back made right move

James Allen's decision to give up the NFL for a rap career should be met with compassion -- not disdain.

Updated: August 20, 2003, 5:52 PM ET
By Alan Grant | ESPN The Magazine

Your dream isn't his dream.

His dream and your dream may have been the same at one time. Like you, he pursued it -- that's what you do with dreams.

But funny thing: when you, the dreamer, become part of a landscape once thought of as fantasy, things inevitably change. When it happens, you adjust.

James Allen
Allen

That's what happened to former Houston Texans running back James Allen. When his dream morphed into reality, when fantasy took on a job description, he walked away from the NFL in search of another wish.

Said he wanted to be a rapper, not a baller.

"I lost a little bit of that fire," he said. Because he didn't want to take up a roster spot of some other dreamer who really wanted to be there, Allen did the noble thing and stepped aside.

Was he wrong for doing so? Are you offended when a man's dream changes? Or are you inspired by someone who has the stones to try something new?

I'm in that latter group. I'm inspired because Allen represents more than just an athlete. He represents a generation of people who, unlike previous generations, won't stay on the job for 20, 30 years -- just because they're supposed to. I'm inspired by anyone who bucks conventional wisdom, who opens himself up to ridicule and pursues a goal thought to be outrageous by others.

Allen's decision begs the question: Do you scorn a man because he walked away from his dream, or because he walked away from yours?

A long time ago my father told me, "set goals for yourself. Don't set goals just to impress other people. Do what you want to do." In essence he told me that it was a waste of time to ever try to be anyone else.

I still feel that way. In fact I think most driven people feel that way. I don't understand those people who determine their goals, self-worth, and measure success only after getting the approval of others. Is that any reason to do anything in life -- because other people want to do it?

I certainly don't think so.

Allen played five years in the league, amassing nearly 2,500 yards and seven touchdowns in the process. Was that good enough for fans who think any running back should base his entire existence on whether or not he breaks Emmit Smith's all time rushing record? Doesn't matter. Allen's dream wasn't Smith's dream.

I repeat: Do you scorn a man for walking away from your dream?

It's a question recently asked of past Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch. Was the former Nebraska quarterback wrong for walking away from the Green Bay Packers training camp and thus from football? Folks around Green Bay and Omaha sure as hell told Crouch what they thought. They called him a quitter, but those folks don't know the whole story.

Crouch wasn't going to make the team. He was going to be released at the end of camp and placed on the practice squad. Until then, he could go to practice each day, sit through meetings and wait to be released. That may sound like a dream to many, but it wasn't for him.

Trust me, I know. Once you've been through even one week of professional ball, you're armed with the knowledge that the whole preseason process is a pain in the ass. It ain't fantasy camp.

Crouch knew football on Sunday wasn't going to be like it had been on Saturdays. In addition to winning that famous stiff arming trophy, Crouch was one of just three players in NCAA history to rush for more than 3,000 yards and pass for more than 4,000 in his career. He also set an NCAA record for quarterbacks by scoring 59 career touchdowns. But he said he just couldn't get "excited or passionate" about the NFL.

Crouch knew who he was -- and what he wasn't. He wasn't a kick returner. He wasn't a receiver or running back. Crouch was an option quarterback, but knew option quarterbacks have no place in the NFL.

Crouch wasn't supposed to make the team in Green Bay. Nothing's guaranteed in life (actually Crouch's roster spot in St. Louis was guaranteed -- any cat chosen in the third round and given $1.2 million isn't chosen that high and given that much loot unless there are plans to keep him around for at least a year or two). But his fans expected him to at least try to make it.

And that's the problem.

I don't know if Scott Frost will become a starting safety in the league, or if he'll even make the Niners opening day roster. And I don't know if James Allen has the skills to drop the kind of verse that will create a place for him in the hip-hop community. But I'm inspired by the fact that both are living their dreams.

Too often, people are considered unsuccessful unless they live up to some standard of achievement. But whose expectations? And what happens when an athlete removes himself from your expectation and replaces it with his own? Simple. He stops working and punching a clock, and starts living again.

Scott Frost doesn't look like a dreamer. He looks like a safety. Oh, he still resembles the ex-Nebraska quarterback who led the Huskers to a share of the national title in '98. But the arms are bigger and the chest is full.

He looks like an NFL safety. When asked about Eric Crouch, shakes his head, shrugs and says: "I don't know what's up with that." Of course he doesn't. Why should he? Eric Crouch's dream isn't Scott Frost's dream. Crouch wanted to play quarterback in the NFL and Frost wanted to play, well, he just wanted to play football in the NFL.

Like Crouch, Frost was also taken in the third round. In April of '98 then-Jets coach Bill Parcells selected Frost because he "knew how to win." Frost spent three years in New York before being waived in '01. He spent the next season in Cleveland with the Browns before signing this spring as a free agent with the Niners.

I spoke to Frost a couple of weeks ago at the Niners training camp in Santa Clara. Entering his fifth summer ordeal, he knows that training camp is a time for reflection. As evidenced by James Allen and Eric Crouch, it's a time when decisions are made.

"Everyone feels like quitting at camp," says Frost.

But for Frost, the decision-making occurred long before camp. "Right after my senior year in college people started talking about me switching positions. Some said running back, but the majority said safety."

After three teams, 37 tackles, a sack, and a pick, Frost is still adjusting his dream.

"A lot of these guys who have changed positions did it right after high school," he said. "It's harder doing it now. So yeah, every once in a while I still get frustrated. But I love the game."

I don't know if Frost will become a starting safety in the league, or if he'll even make the Niners opening day roster. And I don't know if Allen has the skills to drop the kind of verse that will create a place for him in the hip-hop community.

But I'm inspired by the fact that both are living their dreams.

Alan Grant writes for ESPN The Magazine.

Alan Grant is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.

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