Don’t let self doubt get the better of you.
That was the message Hall of Fame quarterback Damon Allen had for the players who attended the Guelph Gryphons elite skills camp on the Easter weekend.
“That’s important,” he said as he watched the players leave the Alumni Stadium field.
“It’s highly important to believe in yourself and not doubt yourself. Fulfill the dreams that you had and the desire to be the best football player regardless what anybody may say. It’s your journey and you have to fulfill your journey.”
Allen played 23 seasons in the Canadian Football League and suited up for six teams, starting with the Edmonton Eskimos in 1985 and finishing with the Toronto Argonauts in 2007. In between were stops in Ottawa, Hamilton, Memphis and British Columbia.
He was the starting quarterback in 304 games in the CFL, completed 9,138 passes for 72,381 yards and 394 touchdowns. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in passing yards.
However, due to self-doubt, it was a career that almost never happened. He had played Pop Warner football from the age of seven, but thought he was too small for high school football.
“When I was in high school, I dealt with self doubt -- not necessarily my skill set, but my size,” he told the players in a speech during the camp’s lunch break. “When I got to the 10 th grade, I didn’t play my first year of football. The funny thing is I used to sit down and watch those guys practice every single day. There was a coach who said ‘I’ve seen you in Pop Warner during the times you were playing Pop Warner and you can play high school football.’ At that time I was not believing in my own size because when I first saw those guys in high school, I thought ‘Man, these guys are big.’
“There’s a lesson about self doubt. The very thing I was very passionate about and loved and enjoyed playing was the very thing I talked myself out of participating in. If it wasn’t for this coach that said ‘Damon, you can do it,’ I probably wouldn’t be standing right in front of you guys today.”
That coach eventually talked Allen into giving high school football a shot. “I’m watching the varsity team practice and he comes over to me and says ‘You know what? We need a quarterback on the JV team.’ I’m in the 10 th grade and we’ve got five games left. ‘Why don’t you come out and play those five games?’”
Allen did and threw 20 touchdown passes in those five games. The next year he was the San Diego’s Lincoln High School varsity team’s starting quarterback and he helped guide the team to two consecutive championships. Lincoln High lost a total of two games those two years.
“Before you know it, I’m on my way to college on a scholarship,” Allen said. “Did I still have a little bit of self doubt? Yes, because now it’s another level of football and I’m not the biggest guy.”
But he played four years of college football where he learned the lesson to give it your best each and every day and each and every practice and game.
“You never know who’s watching,” he said. “I’m at Cal State-Fullerton and I’m a sophomore at college and there used to be this elderly gentleman at our practice every day. My head coach would never tell me who the person was until my senior year and he said ‘Oh, that gentleman over there at practice every day, he’s with the Edmonton Eskimos.’ At this time, my junior-senior year, I’m watching Warren Moon play (for the Eskimos) and I’m watching the Eskimos winning Grey Cups.”
Allen signed with the Eskimos as a free agent in 1985 and started as a back-up to Matt Dunigan. He played in the 1987 Grey Cup as a replacement for an injured Dunigan and led the Eskimos to a two-point win over Toronto for his first Grey Cup victory. He would win the CFL title three more times in his career, was the CFL MVP with the Argos in 2005 at the age of 42 and was named to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
And all of that came in a career that was almost derailed by self doubt.
“My first year in the CFL, I weighed 160. Just imagine how much I weighed in college and how much I weighed in high school,” Allen said. “So to say that you can’t make it and believe that you can’t make it with self doubt, you talk yourself out of the very thing you’re passionate about.”
At the elite skills camp, Allen looked to be having as much fun as the players. He worked with the six quarterbacks at the camp throughout its duration.
“It’s always nice to come back, see the game, see the direction and the many different changes the game has continued to evolve in and to see the next generation of quarterbacks coming up and their desire to be better,” he said. “My hope is that I can give them a little bit of information to push them forward.”
When Allen was in high school, there weren’t many camps for football players.
“When I grew up, we learned differently,” he said. “We learned playing in the street, (playing) touch (football) in the street and tackle football in those days and watching television and reading about it. It’s a little bit different now because now you’re in a position where you can get private lessons.”
The sport also changed a little from when he first started playing professionally.
“The biggest change in the game in the CFL is really the first level of defence -- the linebacker play,” he said. “Now you’re dealing with all DBs pretty much. There’s no linebacker being played now. The biggest linebacker is 220.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that you have to work hard and believe in yourself to be able to succeed.
“You can talk yourself out of working and getting better every single day,” he said. “Will you have naysayers? Absolutely. But it’s different. It’s your business. Everybody’s on a different journey on how to get there. You have your own journey. Embrace that journey.”