Magic with the ball


POSTED: Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hard to believe, but the greatest running back in the history of the University of Hawaii got off to a late start in the backfield.

“;He started out as a wide receiver,”; Dick Tomey, the UH head coach from 1977 to 1986, said of Gary Allen. “;He wasn't even a tailback when he started.”;

During a bye-week scrimmage between redshirts and backups in 1978, Tomey and his staff found themselves short at running back. So, they inserted Allen, a freshman recruited as a wide receiver coming out of Baldwin Park (Calif.) High School.

“;We put him back there, and the first time we gave him the ball, he ran for a touchdown,”; Tomey recalled. “;We said, 'Let's do that again', and he ran for a touchdown (again). And pretty soon we decided, we have to start him at running back.”;

Allen rushed for 92 yards against Pacific and went on to set what was then a freshman rushing mark of 521 yards in half a season. Running out of the I-formation, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound tailback was a scintillating combination of speed, quickness and agility who teamed with tough fullback David Toloumu to form the most productive and popular backfield duo in program history.

“;He had a unique ability to start and stop and make people miss,”; Tomey said of Allen. “;He was just magic with the ball.”;

UH athletic director Jim Donovan was a junior guard during Allen's senior year in 1981.

“;He was a very smooth runner, but he also had the strength to go for the first down when he needed to. He was definitely the strongest running back. If I remember correctly, he was bench pressing 350 to 375 pounds.”;

Allen was small but handled a heavy workload and absorbed punishment from defenses primed to stop him. Tomey and his staff also took advantage of his great hands and open-field elusiveness, throwing to him often and at times deploying him as a punt returner.

IT SEEMED Allen could break a long run every time he touched the ball. Hawaii fans scooted to the edge of their seats in anticipation as he took another toss sweep and niftily cut back and burst into the secondary.

As a sophomore in 1979, Allen racked up six 100-yard games en route to 1,040, averaging more than 6 per carry. His highlight reel included a six-carry, 112-yard cameo in a blowout of Prairie View, a 202-yard rampage in a win at Texas-El Paso, and a three-touchdown, 141-yard performance in a tough loss to Temple.

The Temple game capped a four-game streak during which he rushed for 100-plus yards, but Allen still admits to feeling the sting of that defeat. He understates his heroics to keep the 'Bows in the game—including scoring runs of 77 and 55 yards and a 32-yard TD reception—and instead takes the blame for the loss.

“;I was having a good game until the fourth quarter,”; Allen said. “;I fumbled, they recovered and eventually went on to win by three (points).”;

Allen came back to rush for 155 yards in a season-ending win over Arizona State.

“;They could not tackle him,”; recalled Tomey, still sounding a bit awestruck almost 30 years after the 29-17 upset of the Sun Devils, who had left the WAC three years earlier for the Pac-10. “;That was an amazing game. (Arizona State was) just loaded with outstanding players, and (Allen) was clearly the best player on the field.”;

After toughing it out despite a nagging turf toe injury that bothered him his entire junior year, Allen returned to top form in 1981, rushing for 1,006 yards. The 'Bows climbed as high as 16th in the UPI national coaches' poll and finished with a 9-2 record.

“;He was part of a group of guys that was a special, special group of players who gave us a chance to compete at a very high level,”; Tomey said. “;That group of guys had great pride, great spirit and outstanding capabilities.”;

Allen played three seasons in the NFL and three more in Canada. In 1984 with the Dallas Cowboys he ranked fourth in the league in combined kickoff and punt return yards. For Allen, the highlight of his time in Dallas was reuniting with Mark Tuinei, his former UH teammate. “;We were friends in Hawaii, but when I got to Dallas, we became inseparable,”; Allen said. “;(Mark) picked me up when I got to Dallas. The team had him bring me back and forth to practice (and) we stayed in the same apartment complex.”;

Playing for Calgary, Allen lead the CFL in rushing in 1986.

ALMOST 28 YEARS since he last took the field for UH, Allen still is the all-time career leader in most significant rushing categories. He is proud that no one's broken his marks, though he knows the pass-first attack of recent years helped. “;Thank goodness that June Jones ran his offense,”; deadpanned Allen. “;It kept good running backs from coming there.”;

After his pro career, Allen returned home to Baldwin Park. He's worked for the (San Gabriel) Valley County Water District for 20 years. Last fall, Allen returned to his high school alma mater as an assistant, coaching the wide receivers and running backs. But he makes it clear that he has no head coaching aspirations. “;I don't need that many headaches,”; he said.

Allen, 49, has a stepdaughter, Adrian, and son, Jaden, with his wife, Hilda. Allen says 8-year-old Jaden is an “;awesome football player.”;

“;I could hear the parents talking about my son, saying things like, 'All we have to do is give the ball to Jaden,'”; Allen said. “;That was a rush for me.”;

“;I tell my mom it's just awesome to sit in the stands and watch my son play, and she says, 'Well, that's the same thing we (Allen's parents) felt.'”;

He visited Hawaii in 1998 for his induction into the UH Circle of Honor and the UH-Arizona game, where he reunited with Tomey. In 1999, the circumstances were somber, as he returned for Tuinei's funeral.

Allen hopes to be on hand when the Warriors travel to play UNLV and San Jose State this year. He's already planning another trip back to Honolulu next fall when Hawaii hosts USC in the 2010 season opener.

Oftentimes, he'll wear his old green-and-white No. 26 Rainbow jersey to the games and occasionally receives compliments from unwitting Warrior fans who think he is just another spectator with a cool throwback jersey.

Unless asked, the unassuming Allen won't come out and tell them he played for UH. He certainly won't boast that he's the most prolific rusher in the history of the program.

But “;a few people put two and two together, come up and talk to me and ask for autographs,”; Allen said.


Chance Gusukuma is a columnist for Island Scene magazine and writes occasionally for the Star-Bulletin.