Marcus Allen, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and a class guy, called Kansas City home from 1993 to 1997.
He lived on The Plaza, he scored touchdowns – when he retired, he had rushed for more career touchdowns than anyone in the history of the NFL – and he made friends – oh, did he make friends.
And Saturday night at the 96th annual Independence Chamber of Commerce Banquet, he made about 450 new friends as he held an overflow crowd at the Stoney Creek Hotel in the palm of his hand for nearly an hour.
He reminisced about his Heisman Trophy days at USC, how Oakland Raiders owner and football guru Al Davis (although the classy Mr. Allen never mentioned Chiefs fans’ public enemy No. 1 by name) gave up on him when he was still in his prime and how former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer offered him a chance to be the man in the Kansas City backfield.
He stressed hard work, dedication and never giving up on yourself or your dreams. It was the vocal equivalent of watching him shred and opposing defense on the goal line.
I never really got to know Allen personally when he played here because his star shone so brightly the media was kept at bay. I understood that, and he was always gracious after games and answered every question as though he was hearing it for the first time – instead of the 1,000th.
During his first season with the Chiefs, my then 8-year-old son Zach came into my office and asked, “Dad, can I meet Marcus Allen?”
I didn’t want to disappoint Zach, but truth be known, it would have been easier for Zach to meet the Pope than Marcus Allen.
But hey, he’s my son and as a dad, you’ll do anything to make your child’s wish come true.
This was back when the Chiefs were my main beat with The Examiner and I was at Arrowhead Stadium every day. So I made a special request of a friend, and young lady who is now the mayor of Independence, Eileen Weir.
Back in 1993, Eileen was the backbone of the Chiefs’ public relations staff, and she was a tough cookie. But when I told her about Zach’s request, she slipped me the Golden Ticket – a locker room pass for my son.
We went to the game and Zach’s hero scored a couple of touchdowns. When it was over, we slipped quietly into the locker room and stayed off to the side, never getting in the way of the hard-working press corps that always gathered around Allen’s locker.
After he had answered all the questions – some, two or three times – I approached him as he was about to leave, and introduced Zach.
Allen smiled, and extended his hand.
And awestruck Zach shook Allen’s hand, and was speechless.
Grinning, Allen then initiated the conversation. He asked him his name, his age, where he went to school and if he had enjoyed the game.
And all he got from my son was: “Zach, 8, Matthews Elementary School and yes.”
I thanked Marcus for making Zach’s wish come true and he said, “Hey Zach, let’s have your dad take a picture. What do you think?”
I was armed with a $2 disposable camera – remember them? – and snapped a quick shot. I thanked Marcus and again, we turned to leave.
That’s when Marcus said, “Come here Zach, I think I might have something in my locker you’d like.”
He gave Zach his cleats from the game and a pair of his football gloves.
Zach, who had not said more than four or five words to the gracious superstar, suddenly hugged Allen with the joy a child usually reserves for his grandma or grandpa.
I was hoping the Hall of Famer’s back wasn’t sore, because Zach’s grip would only add to the discomfort.
Once again, I thanked Marcus and he simply said, “Anytime, Dad.”
We went to the elevator, and happened to be the only people taking the ride up the street level. That’s when I got my monster hug and a big thank you.
“Dad, this is the greatest day in my life!” Zach said. “I think Marcus wants to be my friend.”
I was honored to introduce Allen Saturday night, and before the gala began, I told him that story and showed him the picture he had taken with Zach in the locker room.
A smile appeared on his face and he asked where Zach was today.
I told him Zach was 31, to which he groaned, “Oh man, that makes me feel old,” and explained he was working at Reeds American Table, a new eatery in Maplewood, Mo., that was recently named the top new restaurant in St. Louis.
Allen asked for the address and phone number of the restaurant and simply said, “You tell Zach I’m going to stop by and see him.”
I only wish I could be there when Zach’s “friend” stops by to say hello.
If it’s anything like their first meeting 24 years ago, Marcus – you better be prepared for another hug, and the best dinner you’ll ever enjoy in the state of Missouri.
Bill Althaus is a sports writer and columnist for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816-350-6333. Follow him on Twitter: @AlthausEJC