Tucked between a fitness center and a Kentucky Fried Chicken is a football field of dreams for Allen University players.
Quarterback Ashton “Ace” Duncan is using it to try to spring toward a professional career. Quarterback Gary Tyner is out here to try to quiet his doubters. Jay Holman is a defensive back out here, but aspires to be a dentist someday. And defensive tackle Tyquan Thomas? He took a 13-hour bus ride to get here for, as he put it, a “chance to be great.”
The field, off Harden Street in downtown Columbia, is only 65 yards long and lacks goalposts, but it’s wide enough and green enough to confirm a vision head football coach Teddy Keaton pitched to recruits.
“I came on my visit in March and none of this was here,” said Holman, a California native. “It was just dirt. But I believed in coach Keaton. He showed me pictures and stuff, like his plans and contracts. He made me believe in him.”
Keaton is the coach of Allen’s first football team in more than a decade. The Yellow Jackets are all freshmen with a variety of backstories. They’ve been pieced together, from towns small and big, at this historically black college to get the first crack at re-energizing a program that hasn’t existed since 2005.
So who are these individuals? Why did they come here? What do they want to get out of this experience?
“Everybody’s liking the uniqueness, and everyone sees it as a come-up,” said Thomas, a New York native. “This is First Chance U.”
From the West Coast to the Midlands
Holman hasn’t done it yet, but thanks to MapQuest he knows how long it would take.
“Driving? Two days,” he said. “I’ve looked it up.”
Holman attended Hoover High School in Glendale, California. By car, that’s a 35-hour hike — spanning 2,391 miles — to Allen. The thought of it makes his five-hour flight to Columbia seem not so bad.
Holman recorded 82 tackles and forced six fumbles as a junior at Hoover. A year later, he was committing to a school clear across the country. On a roster full of South Carolinians and Georgians, Holman is easily the most traveled Yellow Jacket.
Distance, though, couldn’t stop Keaton’s initial method in recruiting Holman.
“I believe it was a Twitter DM (direct message) at first,” Holman said. “And after that, we exchanged numbers. He talked to my father first and then me.”
Keaton worked traditionally and unconventionally to get the word spread about Allen. He had three phones for calls — personal cell, work cell, office landline — and a few social media apps for messaging.
“I’m emailing all night, trying to keep the lines open,” Keaton said. “Sometimes email took everywhere from two to three just to respond to everybody. If you don’t respond back to them, you gotta think about Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. They’re going to hit you up any way they can find you.”
Connecting to the West Coast with Holman meant emphasizing things beyond the field. Holman had interest from schools closer to him — University of Central Oklahoma, Wyoming — but none of them spoke to Holman like Keaton did about Allen.
“He understood what I came here for,” Holman said. “I came to get an education first. And the schools over there, they weren’t really focused on that. They were more focused on football and stuff. They wouldn’t let me come visit the campus. And I’m not committing anywhere if I’m not visiting the campus and actually have a talk with the coach.
“Coach Keaton, he got out here. He drove to get me from the airport. He showed me a lot of love. I was always taught to go somewhere where the coach wants you.”
Holman, who has family in Charlotte, said he’ll eventually return to California — for dental school. The biology major has a career goal of being a dentist.
“I use football, really, to get a free education,” Holman said. “My plan was never to play in the NFL. If I get a chance, then OK, I’ll take it. But that’s not my priority.”
Finding a triggerman
Keaton’s first goal as Allen’s head coach/recruiting coordinator was to find a quarterback.
“I feel like at any level, if you don’t have a triggerman, you can’t win,” he said.
Keaton has at least two receiving snaps in year 1. Tyner is a 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from Riverdale, Georgia. Duncan is a 5-foot-9, 170-pounder from Talladega, Alabama.
Tyner, who stands out at practice with his gold high-top cleats, went under the radar on the recruiting trail.
“He wasn’t getting the looks that he thought he should get,” Keaton said. “He had a couple Division II teams on him, but the fact that he could come in and compete early with the possibilities of playing, it was easy.”
Duncan, who as a senior QB’d the Talladega High Tigers to the state playoffs for the first time in 23 years, was seen as a corner, a safety or maybe a slot receiver in college. Keaton knew of him from his days as an assistant at Miles College, an hour drive from Talladega.
“Coach Keaton told me I was overlooked because of my height,” Duncan said. “And I’ll always remember what he told me: ‘Heart over height. If you know what you’re capable of doing, you can do it. Never let anybody tell you wrong.’
“Once I learned about Allen and everything — it was a new school, a new foundation for the school and new team and everything – I knew it would be a chance for me to live out my dream of playing quarterback at the next level. CFL, NFL, whatever, I want to get there. Whatever’s in God’s plans for me, it’ll happen.”
Leaving the Big Apple for a bigger opportunity
Thomas, speaking to a reporter with his back facing Harden during rush hour on a Wednesday evening, appreciates the quiet.
“In New York, there’s a bunch of cars,” he said. “People don’t even say hi because it’s like, ‘If I don’t know you, don’t talk to me.’
“But here, everybody greets you. Everybody says hi even if they never saw you ever in their life. They say hi to you, they make you feel welcome. It’s Southern welcoming, I guess.”
Thomas’s accent — more commonly heard on Wall Street than Harden Street — reflects his journey to Allen. A bus station in Manhattan is his first step. The last is an Uber ride after a bus drops him off at 115 Afton Court in Columbia.
“Takes about 13 hours with some pit stops,” he said.
Like Holman, Thomas has traveled far for this opportunity. His other options also included great lengths — “I did have offers from places like Bethel College in Kansas, Kansas Wesleyan,” he said — but only one came with a coach he could look up on Wikipedia.
“One of my (high school) coaches had tagged my name under coach Keaton’s tweet about a football program,” Thomas said. “So I looked it and saw his accolades. I saw he was a well-rounded coach.”
Thomas, joined by his father, visited Allen on May 17. The 295-pounder was taking DT reps in the Carolina heat three months later.
“Allen gave me the most affordable option, school-wise,” he said. “And then coach Keaton made me feel real comfortable. He’s a hard coach, but he’s a good-hearted guy. He made me comfortable in coming here to make me feel like I’ll be all right.
“He talked to my dad and everything and let me know that he’ll take care of me. I just got to put in the work. It’s going to be hard because it’s college, but I got to put in the work.”
Jeremiah Bozeman, a defensive end from Fairbanks, Georgia, went to the same high school as D’Andre Walker and Montavious Atkinson. Walker (linebacker at Georgia) and Atkinson (LB at Auburn) are well into their careers at well-established SEC programs.
Neither of them likely had to help put together a blocking sled in their first training camp.
Bozeman has not only done this at Allen, he’s overly excited to show you.
“It’s over there,” he said as he pointed to six blue padded dummies sitting neatly on a black sled. “I did it with the equipment manager!”
Taking pride in the little things is important for Allen at this stage. Ask players for realistic expectations in 2018 and the answers range from “expect to win every game” to “the goal is to get to know each other more.”
Allen is giving both Tyner and Duncan a chance to play quarterback in college. Allen is keeping together the running back-defensive back duo of Jordan Pettigrew and Myles White from West Ashley High School in Charleston. Allen is bringing Holman from the West Coast and Thomas from the Northeast.
Allen isn’t Division I, but it might as well be for Bozeman.
“I would love to go DI,” he said, “but it’s not how things work. Coming into my senior year, I had no offers. I had a broken hand and I broke my thumb my first rival game of the season. I was just winging it, making sure I could get the job done.
“And then I got this opportunity from coach Keaton. He gave me this great opportunity, I feel great every day I come out.”
He looked down at the ground.
“This was just a field of dirt,” he said. “And watching the grass being grown over here, it’s just all coming together. And that makes you feel good.
“Watching the plant grow, that makes you feel good. I’m not a gardener, but I know watching something grow makes you feel good. And I like that.”