Being an all-around back is great, but the bottom line, a runner is a runner. And if you're going to be compared to Jim Brown, Walter Payton, whoever, you're going to have to get some yards.
Marcus' situation, he was never going to get that. He was going to be compared to Timmy Brown, not Jimmy Brown. --O.J. SIMPSON
Be careful what you wish for, because it's incoming on burly linebackers' feet. It's late on a Sunday afternoon when Marcus Allen, having improvised one last zigzag to glory or maybe just back to the line of scrimmage, leaves himself open for a final helmet in his sore shoulder and limps off.
The mighty Raiders are suddenly reduced to a group of boys with their hearts in their mouths. One bruise too deep and the troops might be home for Christmas, after all.
Without Marcus, they'd have . . .
"Basically nothing," says linebacker Matt Millen.
"He limps off the field quite a bit," says linebacker Rod Martin. "But he's a tough individual. A couple days ago I told him it looked like he'd lost a little weight the last couple weeks.
"He said he feels like a thoroughbred. That was what I wanted to hear."
Allen's longest absence all season was three plays. He made a full-time blocker out of fullback Frank Hawkins, a bench warmer out of backup Kenny King, a division champion out of the Raiders and a headliner out of himself.
He needs 84 yards tonight to overhaul the NFL leader, Atlanta's Gerald Riggs, at 1,719, and become the Raiders first rushing champion. Also at stake is Allen's string of eight 100-yard games, one short of Walter Payton's two-week-old record.
He'll have to do it in the backyard of the two-time defending champion, Eric Dickerson, against Dickerson's Ram teammates, who are fourth in the NFL against the rush. Fate might as well have made it formal. The two have been bound together since the day Dickerson arrived from Sealy, Tex.
That was three seasons ago. Dickerson reigned for the first two. Meanwhile, Allen consoled himself with a Super Bowl victory and began to put away his own dream of something more than 15 carries a game and 1,000 yards a season.
That's what his friends say he was dreaming, anyway.
"Every back would like to get so many yards, catch so many passes," says Allen, sitting in a deserted film room at the Raider headquarters in El Segundo. "Certainly I'm one of those."
"My goals are going to be pretty general, as far as this interview is concerned."
Once guarded with writers and often angry at them, Allen has softened. Now he's just guarded.
If he's on top, it isn't because he talked his way there. If he's in the spotlight, it's because he earned it.
A mystery wrapped in an enigmatic smile. A local darling for half a decade, identifiable anywhere by his first name, who worries constantly about his image.
At 25, he has fortune and fame. He's also been written off a few times, or low-rated, which is pretty much the same to him. Behind his little smile, Allen burns with a righteous fire to be the best, to be recognized as such, paid as such, believed in.
"Marcus' No. 1 attribute is his attitude," O.J. Simpson said. "People mistake it as cockiness. But when he walks on the field, he thinks he's the best athlete on the field. And when he gets in a fight, he probably thinks he's the best fighter on the field. I used to feel that way.
"You know the story of how we met. He came up to me in New York. I was there with 50 kids for that Hertz award I give out. He was coming to SC, but they wanted him to play defensive back. Here was a guy who the school didn't see as a tailback, but he'd made up his mind he was going to be a tailback and win the Heisman Trophy."
Allen overcame USC, which made him into a 195-pound fullback before moving him to tailback. He overcame the NFL scouts' rap--not fast enough--that marked him down to the third back taken in the '82 draft, behind two guys from his own Pacific 10 conference, Darrin Nelson of Stanford and Riggs of Arizona State.
And then he passed his greatest test, one he couldn't really confront, since it had more to do with his expectations of himself than reality.
It was the scourge from the Southwest, Dickerson, possessed of everything Allen lacked: great size, great speed, opportunity.
Who else cared? The Raiders were overjoyed with what they had, a runner-receiver-blocker. In Allen's four seasons, they have been 8-1, 12-4, 11-5 and 11-4, with a Super Bowl victory, a loss in the AFC championship, one other brief playoff appearance and No. 4 coming up.
Of course, Allen hasn't ever said much about Dickerson.
Are we sure he was really paying any attention?
"Oh yeah, I think so," Rod Martin said. "Marcus had been in this city a lot longer than Dickerson had. To accomplish what he did in college and to be the forgotten man, as far as the two tailbacks, of course he was upset."
Simpson said: "Let me tell you something about backs. Most great backs are the most respected players on their teams. The guys in the trenches know they're getting hit. So backs tend to appreciate one another.
"Dickerson was in an enviable position. He was in a John Robinson offense, which is the best offense for a running back. The last two guys who ran for 2,000 yards both played for Robby. (Two of the three actually; Nebraska's Mike Rozier did it in 1982.) They might say it's boring, but what it comes down to is the most ideal situation for a running back. Without a doubt, if Marcus was playing for the Rams, he'd get 2,000 yards.
"And Marcus was in the least ideal situation."
The rookie Dickerson knocked off 1,800 yards.
Suddenly Southern California was Tailback City, the '80s equivalent to New York in the '50s, when baseball fans argued the merits of Willie, Mickey and the Duke.
And a few miles up the Santa Ana Freeway, the other tailback found himself in a slump.
"I thought I fell off a little," Allen said. "Personally, my second year I felt I really struggled.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself. I expect more of myself than anyone. I was impatient. I didn't allow a lot of blocking to develop. I was just in a hurry.
"Greg Pruitt (then his backup) and I talked quite a bit. I slowed down. I relied more on my instincts. Instead of trying to create, I just allowed it to happen."
"To be honest with you, that's in the back of your mind. But you always realize, there are great backs in this league. You can't outdo everybody. That's something I can handle. I can handle that. I did handle it.
"I think, once again, it's blown out of proportion. There's always comparisons. Is there a rivalry between a certain person and I? I think it's just propaganda.
"I think, basically, most of the backs in this league are fans of one another. I think they all look at one another and appreciate each other for the individual way they express themselves on the field."
Allen's '83 season ended in the Super Bowl, in which he ran for 191 yards and was named most valuable player. There were several lessons there. He might accomplish a lot, but it was going to be the Raider way.
He began reconciling himself to that.
Meanwhile, back at the Big A, Dickerson roared for 2,105 in his sophomore season, the record.
And Allen's contract talks were proceeding slowly.
Speculation about various frustrations made the papers, to Allen's distress. Last summer, he told Sport Magazine's J. David Miller that he had been "literally tortured with pens and pencils."
Allen: "To clear this matter up, I didn't particularly like one or two writers. I think that was misinterpreted as not wanting to talk to anybody.
"I don't think I'm a controversial person. Some people make me out to be. I do think certain subjects that are personal shouldn't be in the paper. That's my right. One is contract."
Said Simpson: "He's spent so much time developing his athletic skills that emotionally, he had to develop. I'm not saying he was immature. But where I could take some criticism in the press, it might have hurt him a little more.
"The things that happened two, three years ago, I think he'd be more able to shrug them off today. If one or two writers were unduly critical, now he'd be able to confront them and not take them as indigenous of the whole species. How about that one?
"The point I'm making, Marcus at 22 or 23 was a lot younger than Al Cowlings (Simpson's teammate at USC and Buffalo) or I was at 22 or 23. Maybe Marcus was a true 22. He grew up in a home with his mother and father there. Marcus didn't exactly grow up as a ghetto child."
Mid-summer came to Ventura County's gold coast. So did Allen, despite rumors that he was going to stay out of camp until his new contract was done.
Dickerson's holdout had already been announced.
Al Davis was back in Los Angeles, meeting with Allen's agent, Ed Hoosktratten.
The reporting deadline came and went.
And a couple of hours later, Allen arrived.
"I only said something about his contract when he asked me," Simpson said. "My only stand was, 'You can't miss training camp.'
"Marcus has always been a good team player. I felt he had a certain leadership situation. And he'd been going to such lengths to keep the press out of it. If he stayed out, the press was going to be in it.
"And I have to say it, I knew as long as he produced, Al Davis would work it out with him."
About 10 days later, agreement was reached. Even if one isn't realizing all his dreams, there is nothing like a $1-million salary as a reminder that things could be worse.
Allen appeared at the first Raider media breakfast, a signal that he wanted to normalize relations. The two sides didn't exactly fall into each others' arms, but among Allen's comments were, "Maybe I'm too sensitive."
And so the season started.
Jim Plunkett got hurt.
The offensive line was having trouble pass-protecting, run-blocking, you name it.
The Raiders were blown out twice in the first three games.
Marc Wilson got hurt.
The Raider coaches began calling the plays, for the first time in their history, and running Allen from the I-formation, just like at USC.
In the fifth game of the season, against the Chiefs, he went over 100 yards for the first time.
In the sixth, against the Saints, he had all 28 Raider rushes until the reserves took over with two minutes left.
In the seventh, at Cleveland, the Browns held him to 81 yards in 20 carries, the last time anyone kept him under 100.
In the 11th, he went for 173 against the Broncos in the Coliseum, and had a 61-yard touchdown run after reversing his field and getting a key block from the umpire, who wiped out the fast-closing Karl Mecklenburg.
"Those guys are good for something," said Allen later, smiling.
Then he added, "That's a joke."
The Raiders had been trailing, 7-0. If you're looking for their biggest play of the season, that would be a nominee.
The Raiders won that game in overtime. To that point, Denver had an 8-1-1 franchise record in overtime games and someone asked Bronco owner Pat Bowlen what had happened.
"Two words," Bowlen said. "Marcus Allen."
Before that game, Allen might have reversed his field once or twice all season, but now he was doing it one or twice a game. If every runner has one attribute by which he'll be remembered, Allen's is imagination.
And now his mind was working overtime.
He hit the Falcons for 156 yards, taking the rushing lead from Riggs in their showdown, and the Broncos for 135 in the second overtime victory, at Denver.
Afterward Bronco linebacker Tom Jackson, a noted Raider-hater but an Allen admirer, walked up to Allen in the Raider dressing room and told him so.
"I just wanted you to know," Jackson told Allen.
Earlier that week, Jackson had been asked what he saw when he looked in Allen's eyes.
"Courage," Jackson said.
OK, now for the life-style part.
What's his life like, away from football?
"I'm basically people-oriented. I like to be around people. Maybe it's because I came from a big family. I like being around my friends. But at the same time, I like to stay home, watch television, listen to music."
According to Simpson, Allen is also very religious, a more serious person than people would guess, were they to see him out and around.
It's open house at O.J.'s place in Brentwood. Ahmad Rashad might be there, or Bob Chandler, or Al Cowlings, or Allen.
They might be playing tennis, or basketball, or watching whatever fight is on TV, and kidding each other for all they're worth.
This is a tough crowd. When Rashad, the former Bobby Moore, began coming around, he still had a reputation for having a chip on his shoulder, especially about his Muslim name. So they started to pronounce it every wrong way they could think of, until Ahmad got the message.
Allen's condo is a few blocks away. Simpson was going to buy it as an investment, until Allen showed an interest. O.J.'s wife decorated it.
Allen will stop by O.J.'s a couple of times a week in season. He also has other places to go.
"Marcus puts the B in bachelor," says Simpson, laughing. "That boy is a bachelor in the truest sense of the word. It's different than it was 10-15 years ago. He leads a very active life. He's got a couple Ferraris, a beautiful condominium.
"We've got a little nickname for him. We call him Mr. Vanity. Marcus can't pass up a mirror. You know how they say Dracula can't see himself in a mirror? Well, Marcus sees himself in every mirror. You try to hide a mirror around Marcus, and that boy will find it.
"Oh, is he going to get me for this."
All in all, it's not a bad life, even with its various scourges. Sometimes it just takes a while to put everything together.
"I'd be a blatant liar if I said I didn't like being famous," Allen is saying. "It's great.
"But once again, you realize, you're hot for a while and you're cold for a long time. So you kind of appreciate it. This is a hero-oriented society and there's always a stronger, faster, better ball-carrier coming along each year.
"You try to keep everything in perspective. It's tough sometimes. There's always people telling you how great you are. Sometimes you get carried away with yourself.
"But for the most part, I can handle that."