Faith, family and football: The Allen Fails story
Aug. 05, 2017
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Every Sunday — proudly without exception — for the past six years, Allen Fails has stood tall in front of the congregation at Shady Grove Baptist Church in Hattiesburg as part of the choir.
"I never miss it," he said after last week's service. "Nope. Haven't missed one since I joined. Never."
There, Fails, 21, finds much of the strength, motivation and perspective he has used to go from injured high school star to junior college jack-of-all-trades to hopeful redshirt walk-on to what he is now — a key piece of the Southern Miss defense who was awarded a scholarship last week.
Between hymns, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker dials in on the message being delivered that day by the Rev. Reginald Woullard, occasionally scribbling in a notebook he never lets out of his sight.
One point Woullard made during last week's address that especially struck a chord with Fails was the idea of expecting the unexpected.
"Like my pastor said, 'We line up for a fastball, and life throws us a curve,'" he said. "It's all about adjusting. Every day you've got to adjust and not make excuses."
Fails began making adjustments early. The former North Forrest standout has loved football as long as he can remember. So much so his mother, Tamera Clark, beams when recounting the time she found him exercising some crude engineering skills as a 4-year-old.
"He made his first set of shoulder pads," said Clark, a mother to three girls and Fails. "Made 'em! Out of a cardboard box and some shoestring. Another time, it was raining one morning and I walked outside to find him using the (barbecue) grill as a tackling dummy.
"This boy has had a love of football for forever."
In high school, when the Eagles needed a quarterback, Fails played quarterback. When his talents better suited the offense at receiver, he dutifully played the part of pass catcher. Defensive back? That, too. Even when North Forrest's long snapper went down with an injury, Fails was the first in line to pick up the slack — until a broken collarbone derailed part of his senior season.
That trend continued after he joined the football team at East Central Community College, where he was a receiver in 2014 and a linebacker in 2015.
Fails' faith has provided plenty of guidance throughout his journey, but he admits his mother — maybe unwittingly — laid the foundation.
"You think I have drive? My mom inspires me," he said. "I learned a lot from my mom, just seeing her struggle and the things she went through. My mom didn't graduate high school. But she never stopped. She went back to nursing school with three kids. Now she's a nurse, and she's very successful."
Following a successful two-year stint in junior college, though, Fails was faced with a major life decision. The soft-spoken big man could have continued pursuing his dream as a college football player, accept an offer to play college basketball at Tougaloo or return home to help his family pay the bills.
He chose the latter. But it wasn't enough, so Fails decided to join the Army.
"I got all the way down to the physical, and I was going to sign the papers and everything," he said, noting his grandfather served 31 years in the Army and his mother served four years as a specialist. "That's when I told them I had asthma. I told them I had pretty much outgrown it and I only take medication as needed, but it didn't matter. That disqualified me."
Another curveball Fails knocked out of the park.
"I was at church one Sunday, I'll never forget it," he said. "(Woullard) preached out the verse Psalm 46:10, which says, 'Be still and know that I am God.' A lot of times God will set us still and make us understand, 'I'm in charge.'"
Fails, who grew up a Southern Miss fan, decided then and there he would pursue his dream of playing for the Golden Eagles. For the next month, even though the spring 2016 semester had already started, he was dogged in his pursuit of a shot.
"They turned me down four or five times, but I kept going," said Fails, who also works helping his stepfather who is an electrician and his uncle who remodels houses. "I took classes with no books, no meal plan. I was willing to do anything. And it ended up coming around."
Indeed, it has. After taking a medical redshirt last season due to a torn calf muscle Fails suffered in the season opener at Kentucky, he is on scholarship and is expected to be a valuable commodity in defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro's scheme as a hybrid linebacker/defensive lineman.
Pecoraro said Fails has the exact makeup for the type of player who can thrive in his system.
"He's big, strong, fast and smart — just how I like 'em," he said. "He's got a great work ethic, too. Great character kid. Great drive. Hopefully, it's about to bust for him, and he can reap some of those rewards. He's close."
Senior defensive back Picasso Nelson Jr. has become close to Fails. After finding out that Fails, who is majoring in child and family development, was walking to class from Forrest General Hospital because he could not afford a parking decal, Nelson was his temporary shuttle service to campus.
"Allen's a stand-up guy," Nelson said. "Not only is he amazing physically, but his mind is where a young man's mind should be. I was telling him just the other day that I'm really ready to see him play. I mean, this guy is — he can be big time, for real.
"I assure you, he's going to have a big year."
Besides his positive outlook and easy-going demeanor, players and coaches gravitate toward Fails' grind.
"We work out together, and I see him up in there busting his butt and getting after it," senior running back Ito Smith said. "I respect him. He doesn't get tired. We're out there running sprints, and he's one of those guys that just keeps going. That'll separate a lot of guys."
Senior offensive lineman Devin Farrior has learned to brace himself when he sees Fails barreling toward him in practice.
"He never quits. When you see him coming, you better keep going," Farrior said. "There are some people that practice well and do their job, but he acts like every day may be his last. If he ever had a career-ending injury or something like that, I don't think he'd have any regrets."
For Fails, it's the only way he knows.
"I guess I've always been like that," he said. "Growing up as the only boy, being the man of the house at an early age, my grandfather always told me, 'Never make excuses.'"
Now, as Fails is less than five weeks from suiting up for the Golden Eagles at M.M. Roberts Stadium for the first time, Clark vividly recalls a Southern Miss football game she treated her son and daughters to.
"He wasn't even in middle school," she said. "But after the game was over, I took a picture of him on the 50-yard line with a Southern Miss cap I bought him — which he still has, by the way. And, I remember this well, he said, 'Mama, I'm going to play here one day.'"
Fails also remembers that day. He firmly believes prayer and the example his mother set have been instrumental in the realization of his dream.
"A lot of times we ask for an opportunity, and we think God's supposed to give us everything," he said. "All I asked for was the opportunity to play football at Southern Miss and He gave me that opportunity. That didn't mean He was going to give me a lot of money for books and a parking decal. I had to meet Him halfway.
"Everything else, I was going to make a way. Do everything I can to be successful and not complain."
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com