Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation stories, a project that aims to bring readers insight into the Class of 2017 signees. These stories will run every week in the offseason. Our next story is on Austin Allen, a 3-star tight end from Nebraska.
AURORA, NEB. – Standing at midfield of his high school football field, Austin Allen can still picture those crisp fall evenings and the fans spilling out of the metal bleachers to crowd behind the chain-link fence.
The football stadium directly behind Aurora High School isn’t big. Not many things in this south-central Nebraska town of about 4,500 are.
But on Friday nights, the town converges on this stadium. The field sits in the shadow of the town’s white water tower, which looms over a brick high school and elementary school. Despite the size of the town, the bleachers on each side of the field swell with about 2,000 people every game, Allen says.
“So during some games,” he says, pointing to the chain-link fence surrounding the field, “there would be people lined up all the way around that.”
“Those were good times. Crazy times.”
Allen, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound tight end and Nebraska signee in the 2017 recruiting class, didn’t always picture himself as the football star from Aurora. Or even as a football player. And he definitely did not see himself as someone who would play football anywhere else but on this turf.
He always thought basketball would take him away from this place. Football, for him, had always been something to do to stay busy in the fall.
Until the day, during Allen’s junior year, he got a notification on his phone that Nebraska coach Mike Riley had followed him on Twitter. That’s when things changed, he said.
“It just blew my mind,” Allen said. “I was like, ‘Wow, he must have accidentally done that.’”
But it was no accident. Allen was the No. 1-rated player in Nebraska by the 247Sports recruiting website. And Aurora, 75 miles from Memorial Stadium, is essentially in Nebraska’s backyard.
So of course the Huskers were interested.
The question: was Allen?
Allen grew up about 18 miles west of Aurora High School in Phillips, a town of about 300. Though the family doesn’t harvest crops, Allen lives on a farm with cows, chickens, goats and barn cats. He’s the youngest of the family. The runt, his father says, despite being the tallest.
His father, Andy, is a Nebraska state trooper, and his mom, Renae, is a teacher. They call Austin “Oz,” and aren’t really sure where the spelling came from. But “Oz” was easier to yell from the porch to come inside when it got dark than Austin was, Andy said.
His theory is Austin is the toughest of his kids because he spent most of his childhood getting beat up by his two brothers: Trey, who is five years older, and Colton, three years older.
Just working on the farm or hanging around in Aurora, Trey and Colton were quick to dare their younger brother.
“They’d be like, ‘Oh, well, we’ll be your friend if you do this,’” Austin said. “So, obviously, I have to look good in front of my brothers, so I’d do it.”
Allen’s toughness came out even more during the family’s basketball games. The rules are simple, Andy said: no fouls, first to 21 wins.
“And it can get ugly,” Andy said. “And he looked forward to it. And I think that helped.”
Basketball was always where Allen excelled as a kid. In third grade, he looked like he was in fifth grade, Andy said. And at an early age, Austin seemed attached to the game.
He bugged his parents for a basketball hoop for weeks. Finally, Andy went to a garage sale, found a used backboard and a used rim and mounted them to a building on the farm.
“And he’d stay out there and shoot and shoot and shoot,” Andy said.
Austin was born in Nebraska, so sure, he’s a Huskers football fan. But he also loves Kansas basketball, and the sport in general. His sister, Jessie, who played volleyball at Kansas, even gave her little brother shoes that former KU center Jeff Withey wore, one of the best gifts he’s ever received.
When Austin began high school, Andy just hoped he’d make the football team. He did, but didn’t play much. Which was fine, because come basketball season, Austin was the starting center as a freshman.
“Basketball was where I thought I was best, and being able to play right away, that was cool for me at that age and just kind of reinforced that this is what I want to do,” Austin said.
Early in high school, Allen fielded interest from Nebraska-Omaha, South Dakota along with some NAIA schools for basketball.
Then, his junior season, his basketball talent began to spill over to the football field, Aurora coach Kyle Peterson said.
“The skills he developed for staying open and using your body to get open and finding holes in the zones, and running away from guys in man coverage, and all those things that you don’t naturally do in football, he naturally did because of the natural basketball background that he had,” Peterson said. “And he just blossomed.”
His junior year, Austin caught 41 passes for 507 yards and 8 touchdowns at tight end. And at outside linebacker, he had 38 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions and a fumble recovery.
After that season, Nebraska coaches began calling coach Peterson to ask about Austin.
What kind of kid is he in the classroom?
What kind of kid is he in the community?
“They liked what they had of him on film, and they wanted to just know who he was as a kid,” Peterson said.
So he told him. How Austin is a serious, well-intentioned and polite young man with a goofy side. Someone who answers questions with “yes, sir” and draws on Peterson’s whiteboard in his classroom when Peterson isn’t looking. How Austin’s positive energy is “infectious” and how he had to remind him to stay off the field during games because he was so into yelling positive things at his teammates.
“I think that every team has to find its identity, and a lot of times that identity kind of takes the role or the form of a kid or two, and in a lot of ways Austin helped form the identity of two teams, his junior year and senior year,” Peterson said.
That was enough for Nebraska’s coaches. And a few weeks after the conversations with Peterson, Riley followed Austin on Twitter.
A few weeks after that, while Austin was on the bus headed to a basketball game, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf called him.
“And he just said, ‘How would you feel if you got a scholarship to play football at Nebraska,’ and I just said, ‘That’d be amazing.’ And he just told me, ‘Well, we’re going to offer you that scholarship.’”
Austin was flabbergasted.
He’d never been offered a scholarship of any kind at the Division I level. And he didn’t expect his first to come from Nebraska. Plus, he wasn’t even thinking about playing football beyond high school at this point.
But after the Nebraska offer, UNO, South Dakota and the NAIA schools backed off.
“None of them ended up pulling the trigger with an offer,” Andy said.
The Allens suspect it was because those schools assumed Austin wanted to play football in his home state rather than basketball farther away.
The football recruiting, meanwhile, began to pick up. A few other Division I schools offered a chance to play football, including Iowa State, Iowa and later UCLA.
The pull of college football is hard to ignore. But for Austin, choosing football also meant giving up on basketball, the first sport he loved.
Which, Austin said, was tricky.
“Growing up I always thought basketball was going to be the sport I was going to play because I’m so tall. I thought that was going to be the route,” Austin said. “I just knew growing up I wanted to compete at the next level, I didn’t really care which one it was. But I love playing basketball and I always will.”
That’s what was so hard, Andy said.
“You grow up loving one sport and then someone tells you you’re a lot better at another sport, that’s hard.”
It’s not that Austin dislikes football, Andy said. But Austin is a guy who likes to be doing something all the time. He plays both sides of the ball in football in the fall, plays basketball in the winter, throws discus in the spring. He’s also involved with the National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America.
“Football is where you go hard for 10 seconds and then wait 30 seconds, and he like to continue and go, go, go,” Andy said.
Austin’s reservations about playing football subsided when he visited Memorial Stadium for the spring game last year.
He walked in through the tunnel and onto the turf and stood in awe as he gazed at the 72,000 fans out for a football scrimmage in April.
That’s when things clicked for Austin. And when he decided that football would be his path.
“This could be me,” he remembers thinking. “I have an offer to come to this school, you won’t get that anywhere else.”
He turned down offers from UCLA, Iowa and Iowa State and committed to Nebraska in April 2016.
“I was telling him, you know, come on let’s at least go check out UCLA, let’s go get a trip to California,” Andy said. “And Austin just said, ‘Nope. I’m going to Nebraska. It’s what I know.'”
Austin missed most of his senior football season because of knee surgery in June 2016. During the fall Nebraska offered a chance to enroll early, get healthy with Huskers trainers and work out with the team a semester early.
But Austin didn’t. Instead, he elected to stay home for one more semester, so he could play one final season of basketball.
He led the team to a school-best 25-2 season his junior year. And leaving before giving it another shot? That didn’t seem right.
“I’m playing with guys who I started playing with in second and third grade,” Austin said. “You can’t leave them hanging your senior year.”
So he stayed. He averaged about 10 points and 7 rebounds a game and again helped the team reach a school-best 25-2 season.
They didn’t win a state title like Austin wanted. He’s still disappointed about not being able to bring a state championship back to Aurora.
But he did get one thing before heading off to college. He got one final chance to say goodbye to the sport he grew up loving, before leaving it behind for good.