Willie Allen towered over each and every one of the students who congratulated him in the halls of John Curtis Christian School on Thursday.
Freshly dressed in a light blue shirt and bow tie, he looked like a grown man, standing at least a foot taller than most of his peers.
“Congrats, Willie,” one said.
“Go Tigers,” said another.
Allen dipped into a nearby classroom and somehow squeezed his massive frame into a desk.
Perhaps he should’ve been uncomfortable in the desk, obviously made for a normal high school student — not a 6-foot-7, 300-pounder considered one of the best offensive tackles in the country.
For Allen, a member of The Advocate’s 2016 Super Dozen as one of the state’s top 12 recruits, there was no place he’d rather be.
He was pretty much alone, with just one reporter, away from the TV cameras that had just left the River Ridge school to hear him announce that he was verbally committing to LSU. He turned his cell phone off moments after making the announcement, choosing LSU over the likes of TCU, Auburn and Georgia.
“I don’t like all the hype,” Allen said. “I’m laid-back. That’s why I didn’t wait until signing day. I knew even more cameras would be here. I wanted to get it out of the way, and I knew this is something God wanted me to do.”
Allen’s more than ready for the next stage of his life.
“Sixty-four more days,” he said Thursday.
He’s counting them down, eagerly anticipating the next chapter of a journey that he admits hasn’t always been easy.
He boasts when he talks about his father, Willie Earl Wheeler, who died of a heart attack when Allen was 6.
“He worked in construction and helped build the Superdome,” Allen said.
Willie Allen got his height from his father. His drive comes from his mother, Robin Allen. Willie is the sixth of Robin Allen’s nine kids.
She’s a strict disciplinarian, and Willie credited her for making sure he never got lured into the streets.
“She’d beat the hell out of us if we ever tried to do anything wrong,” Allen said, appreciating his mom’s tough love.
He knows there was plenty of hell in the Calliope Projects, one of the roughest neighborhoods in New Orleans.
“Where I was brought up, the only thing you knew was the streets,” he said. “Growing up in New Orleans, I never dreamed this big. It’s a blessing.”
Allen started attending Curtis as an eighth-grader, dreaming of someday being a big-time basketball player.
Getting to the NBA would be tough. Heck, just getting to Curtis proved to be tough by the time his sophomore year rolled around.
He walked “about a mile” from his Uptown home to catch the trolley. He rode the trolley until it reached the end of the line on Carrollton, then caught a public transit bus.
He’d often be late.
That’s when Jerry Godfrey, Curtis’ offensive line coach, offered Allen a place to live.
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Godfrey said. “He was doing whatever it took to get to school, and it shows his level of commitment. He would have done it for four years.”
When Godfrey offered, Allen jumped at the chance.
“I didn’t hesitate,” he said. “This is my opportunity to make something of my life.”
He’s heard “The Blind Side” references, comparing his story to the well-known book and movie about NFL offensive lineman Michael Oher.
It wasn’t the first time the Godfreys had a live-in guest.
“It’s always an adjustment when you bring someone in that you don’t know,” said Lindsi Godfrey, Jerry’s wife. “It’s different.”
Especially when that guest blossoms to become one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. When the Godfreys welcomed Allen into their home, it also meant they were welcoming in college coaches from across the country.
The Godfreys admit that part was stressful. They, like Willie, are glad to see the recruiting process end.
It helps that they will be able to save on the grocery bill once Allen heads to Baton Rouge.
“We will be able to save $500 on a month once he leaves,” Jerry Godfrey said with a laugh. “But we’d sure like to have him another year.”
While college coaches craved Allen because of his prowess on the field, it’s his demeanor off the field that those close to him rave about.
“Willie has always been a young man who had his goals and priorities in the right direction,” Patriots head coach J.T. Curtis said. “That’s a compliment to his family and his mom. And that’s a compliment to Jerry and his wife.”
Allen’s a gentle giant. Godfrey called him “the kindest, most mild-mannered person” he has met.
“His mom and all of his siblings are the same way,” Godfrey said.
Allen said he does it all for his family: his eight sisters and brothers, plus the two Godfrey children, whom he considers siblings as well.
And the Godfreys. And his mother, Robin. And his John Curtis family.
“When I came to Curtis, I knew I needed to get to work, hit the books hard and get to college so I could help have a better life for my sisters and brothers,” Allen said.
“It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.”