When linebacker Russell Allen wrestled down Terrell Owens on a pass over the middle in the Jacksonville Jaguars' victory over the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 22, the rookie picked himself up, dusted himself off and experienced an epiphany.
"Here was a guy I had read about all these years,'' the former undrafted free agent recalled, "and it just kind of hit me: 'That was T.O. Man, I'm really playing in the NFL!' I felt the same thing starting against Indianapolis and Peyton Manning [on Dec. 17]. It was like a dream had been [accomplished]. It was almost too good to be true."
The same assessment, too good to be true, might be made about Allen as well. The undrafted defender from San Diego State overcame the usual long odds associated with a college free agent earning a roster spot, appearing in all 16 games with five starts. He finished the 2009 campaign with 46 tackles, believed to be the most for a rookie free agent in at least 10 years.
More than 300 rookie free agents will report to NFL training camps within the next two weeks, and most of them won't enjoy the type of season Allen experienced in his first go-round with the Jaguars. Only 30 rookie free agents made opening-day rosters in 2009, roughly the leaguewide average for the past five seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only two such youngsters, Indianapolis cornerback Jacob Lacey (nine) and Allen, started at least five games as rookies in 2009.
Both defenders, even if they don't play another down in the NFL (unlikely), are incredible success stories. The subject of an ESPN.com column last fall, Lacey helped contribute to the Colts' run to Super Bowl XLIV. He was one of eight players who entered the league as undrafted free agents to start in the title game. But his story is only slightly more compelling than the Cinderella tale that Allen spun.
"He is a first-class individual in every way," Jacksonville linebackers coach Mark Duffner recently told the club's website.
Whether the soft-spoken Allen becomes a first-teamer, at least for the early stages of his sophomore season in the league, remains to be seen. Just a year after starting at every position in the 4-3, and one game in the 3-4 scheme the Jaguars used for a while, Allen, who played a number of linebacker positions at San Diego State, figures to contend with three-year veteran Justin Durant for the starting weakside spot.
Even if he doesn't win the No. 1 job, Allen -– who is admired by virtually every coach and management official in the Jacksonville organization -- should be on the field for plenty of snaps. If Allen doesn't beat out Durant (a former second-round pick), he and his work ethic should still be good examples for those hundreds of undrafted free agents preparing for camps at the end of the month.
"You've got to get over the disappointment of not being [drafted] and just get ready to play ball," said Allen, who recently received words of praise and encouragement by phone from one high-ranking franchise official. "When you're coming off your final [college] season, you're getting ready for the combine, your pro day, whatever. It's kind of like preparing for a track meet. But after that, it's all about football, and you need to get focused on that. You have to bring it."
Allen, 24, definitely brought it as a rookie. Despite being largely anonymous even to knowledgeable fans -- he wasn't included on any of those "best players not drafted" lists published by various media outlets -- Allen averaged six tackles per start. Among rookies with at least five starts, that was behind only Brian Cushing of Houston (8.3), the besmirched defensive rookie of the year; St. Louis' James Laurinaitis (7.5); Detroit's Deandre Levy (6.8); and Gerald McRath of Tennessee (6.8).
Cushing was chosen in the first round. Laurinaitis was a second-rounder. Levy and McRath were third- and fourth-rounders, respectively.
As good as Allen was on the field, he might have been even more sterling off it.
Joining forces with pastor John Scott of Celebration Church, whom he met during a Jaguars rookie orientation and mentoring session, Allen became a regular visitor to a pair of juvenile detention centers, Daniel Memorial and Seamark Ranch.
Along with his then-fiancee, Ali, (the two were married in March), Allen spent considerable time, sometimes weekly, talking with the residents. He recruited several teammates. This spring, he brought along veteran defensive end Aaron Kampman, the club's most visible free-agent addition. Continuing a mission he began in college, Allen became a role model for many of the thousands of residents, most of them foster children who have little or no male presence in their lives.
While he was tackling superstars on the field, Allen was doing his part to confront some of the more glaring social deficiencies off it. In a community with more than 2,000 foster children, Allen decided to make a difference in the everyday lives of people beyond those who cheer on the Jaguars on Sunday.
"He's built a relationship with kids a lot of people forgot about or gave up on," Scott said. "Kids listen to his message, that you can still make something of yourself; he's made an impact. One of the most meaningful things anyone can do for a community is to steer their influence in a positive way and he's done that."
During the offseason, when he was working toward his second season and a possible starting job and preparing for a wedding, Allen carved out time to visit the centers. For every second-year player, things come easier. But his bond with the at-risk kids of Jacksonville is something Allen clearly doesn't take for granted.
"I know we're going to be a better team," he said. "And I'm working hard to be a better player. But I also want to be the best person I can be."
Allen has set the bar high for the Class of 2010 undrafted free agents who will follow him into the league.
Off the field, he's set it even higher.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.