Sitting in the stands just before Michigan kicked off its 2015 season and ushered in the Jim Harbaugh era, Joe Allen was frantically trying to get a hold of his wife.
He was in Utah for the beginning of his son’s redshirt junior season, and he could tell from the way Kenny was warming up that he would be starting for the first time. Joe’s phone had just broken that morning, so there was no way to warn his wife Stacey — who had to stay home in Michigan for work — that it would be the biggest game yet of Kenny’s career.
Allen’s hometown of Fenton, and its 12,000 inhabitants, is just 40 miles north of Ann Arbor. That night, Stacey and about 40 family friends packed a Buffalo Wild Wings there, convincing the restaurant to put the game on every single screen.
It had been a long journey already for the 21-year-old, and if Kenny saw the field, they weren’t going to miss any angle of it.
It had been a long four years since Allen committed to Michigan as a preferred walk-on, and now he was about to take the field to open the game in Salt Lake City. Though she couldn’t read names or numbers on the distant screens, Stacey knew her son when she saw him. As soon as the camera zoomed in enough for everyone else to see “Allen” on the back of his jersey, the Buffalo Wild Wings exploded in cheers.
At the very least, Kenny would be doing kickoffs. It may not seem like a lot, even to the most serious of college football fans, but that night in Fenton, he was the hometown hero.
When he lined up to kick a 29-yard field goal in the second quarter, his mom and grandma started crying.
It was the culmination of years of hard work, from practicing on snow-covered fields to traveling to camps to work on his craft, all the while receiving an endless supply of family support.
“If you told me five years ago I was going to be kicking field goals at U of M, I would’ve thought you were crazy,” Kenny said.
In order to be successful as a kicker, everything else needed to fall into place perfectly. The kicker role is unlike any other in football, the most visible pass-or-fail position by far. In order to climb from youth club soccer to high school varsity football to walking on to a Division I team and earning a scholarship, Kenny Allen had to put the pieces together.
Over a year later, Stacey and Joe are preparing for their fourth straight home game of the season. It’s 10 a.m. on a 60-degree fall day, and they’re set up with the other Michigan moms and dads, each one bringing the full spread of sandwiches and chips and wings that define a tailgate. It’s an idyllic day, perfectly designed for football, and the parents of the players are the happiest people outside of Michigan Stadium. They’re the lucky ones in a crowd of 110,000 who can actually point out their kid on the sidelines.
Most of the parents bring a crew of family and friends with them, and the Allens are no different. Kenny’s older brother, Jimmy, will join them shortly, and before the game starts, so will his 80-year-old grandparents.
This is the family’s fifth year of tailgating, but this season has been a little different. It could be Kenny’s last year of football, and he’s started each game this season. So far, he’s carried the load of all three kicking duties: field goals, punts and kickoffs.
As a freshman, Kenny was a preferred walk-on who specialized in punting. Despite being both the placekicker and the punter in high school, punting is what he excelled at, earning a scholarship to Oregon State. At 6-foot-4, he had the long and lean build for it.
Despite the allure of a scholarship, when Michigan came knocking with promises of suiting up in maize and blue, it was hard to consider anywhere else, especially since Stacey earned two degrees from the University. After seeing the Big House in action for the first time during the Wolverines’ 2011 “Under the Lights” matchup with Notre Dame during his senior year visit, it was a done deal.
With the proximity of Fenton to Ann Arbor, Allen always has a big crowd of family at games, regardless of his starting status. That’s the advantage of being a local kid at a Big Ten school. Faced with the option to move out to Oregon on scholarship, Allen decided that his family outweighed free tuition.
“They’re very supportive,” Allen said. “My parents, my grandparents, my brother and sister, they’re at every game, always here, tailgating. … It’s meant everything because, you know, if there’s a bad day, I know they believe in me, even if I sometimes don’t believe in myself. There’s always someone I can fall back on, someone I can talk to, knowing that they’re always there.
“I guess my family, their support and love, was the reason I was able to do everything I was able to do. Being a kicker is not that cool, especially in high school. But they never said that, they just told me to do my best. I think if it wasn’t for them, I definitely wouldn’t have stuck with it.”
One of Allen’s longtime kicking coaches, Chris Sailer, explained it like this: “I remember his father being at every single camp. I remember him asking questions at every camp, as far as both of his boys’ development and what he could do to help them be better kickers, first of all, and then also, get to the next level. It was supportive in the right way; it was never overbearing or over-demanding. … I think having that support behind a young athlete is huge.”
On top of working with his dad, Kenny competes with his brother. Jimmy Allen, who is two years Kenny’s senior, was the first one in the family to start kicking. Kenny grew up with a love for soccer, something that seemed inevitable considering his dad played the sport collegiately at Oakland University.
That love evolved into kicking footballs. Jimmy still kicks, too, playing in the Indoor Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers and holding his own kicking camps. According to Stacey, their relationship is “very loving, but highly competitive” and always has been.
As long as it was a clear day, Kenny and Jimmy would go outside to practice kicking. In the winter, that meant bringing a shovel along with their football equipment in order to clear off a patch on the 30-yard line. Sure, they’d lose a few balls in the snow now and then, but it was worth it to keep up with their obsession.
On the days they couldn’t quite make it outside, they still found a way.
“We had an indoor net in the basement,” Joe said. “I think our ceiling was about eight or nine feet, and every time they kicked, it would hit the ceiling tile. It was like non-stop.”
Part of the football infatuation may have evolved from the lack of things to do in a small Michigan town, too.
“There wasn’t really much to do in Fenton,” Kenny said. “There’s a lot of lakes, a football field and some places to eat. But yeah, there’s not much to do.
“I spent most of my time kicking.”
When his brother graduated in 2010, Kenny took over the starting kicker role and quit soccer for good. Then, the practicing grew even more incessant.
“People used to joke, every time they drove by the high school in Fenton, they would see balls flying through the air,” Stacey said. “He was there every day, non-stop, practicing. He was just so focused and dedicated. For me, maybe (I’m) just being Mom, but all he needed was an opportunity, and he would get what he was looking for.”
Allen finally ended up with his opportunity last season, but it wasn’t the one anyone was expecting. Australian punter Blake O’Neill showed up on campus as a graduate transfer, and if Allen wanted to get on the field that season, he would have to find another way.
“It’s bad enough that someone new came in to punt and he was a male model,” Kenny said. “I’m just like sitting behind this great punter who’s also super good-looking. But Blake is one of my best friends, he’s an awesome guy.
“It kind of sucked, but that’s what they wanted and I’m not going to argue with them.”
Watching from the stands, there wasn’t much that Stacey and Joe could do.
“He expected, you know, Big Ten football, you’re going to wait your turn,” Stacey said. “And he had waited his turn, and then he had to wait a little longer. I mean that’s just part of it. He’s so happy to be a part of this team. I mean, really, for him, it was just a little glitch. Just a glitch. He was so happy just to be here.”
Still, Allen’s competitive fire pushed him. After three years of letting placekicking duties fall to the wayside, he decided that they would have to be his ticket to starting. It took him the first week of fall camp to “knock the rust off,” but he was able to work his way into the competition. With a new coach who places a premium on competition, Allen knew he would have to prove he was good enough to play.
In between the Utah game and the Wolverines’ home opener against Oregon State, Kenny earned a scholarship. Fittingly, the news came just before he was to face the only team that had offered him a full ride out of high school. That Saturday, he went 2-for-2 on field-goal attempts.
Allen is now comfortable in his role for the Wolverines, not allowing much to bother him. Those years of practice in the Fenton snow have solidified that mindset.
Not even his parents, as close as they are to Kenny, talk football with him anymore.
“We’re just parents,” Joe said. “Football, he does, and we want to be there as a backup support, but we don’t wanna talk about — I think I did enough when we talk about actual kicking, when we go out kicking together — but we want to leave the football and everything else he does alone. We don’t ask him any questions about who the starters are or anything else. We just let it go.”
The kicking role is just as mental as it is physical. During games, you can watch Allen walk up and down the sidelines by himself, sometimes sitting on the bench far away from the other players. He needs to stay locked in and focused for nearly four hours at a time. While every kicker deals with the pressure differently, it seems Allen deals with it by taking a step back.
“It’s a unique position,” Sailer said. “You’re not the quarterback. You’re not the wide receiver who gets a ton of the glory. You’re someone who’s counted on in certain situations and expected to perform. If you perform, it’s a great deal and you’re the hero for the week. If you don’t perform, unfortunately, you’re really the goat of the week, and they’ll put all of the blame of the loss on you sometimes.”
Kenny doesn’t often feel anxious about his duties as kicker. The only time he said he was worried about kicking a field goal was his very first attempt as a starter at Utah. Last season, his level-headed approach showed on the field when he made 18 of his 22 field goal attempts and completed 100 percent of his extra point attempts.
According to Sailer, kickers need to enjoy being in the spotlight while learning to take credit for the success as well as the defeat. That’s a tall order for most burgeoning players, and it takes a unique personality to want to be in those situations.
Though he’ll admit that football takes up most of his time, he nonchalantly plays off how much time he actually spends at Schembechler Hall. He says that he’ll watch movies and take naps, especially with his border-collie lab, Charlie. Sometimes, he has enough time to take Charlie on two walks a day.
He talks about how his parents met while they were his age, 22, and how that doesn’t give him much hope for the future (“That’s why I have a dog,” he joked.) He’s not afraid to poke fun at himself.
“You don’t become a starting kicker for Michigan and earn a scholarship and have interviews like this one if you don’t have that demeanor,” Sailer said. “You can’t be too high on yourself and be over-boastful and too confident. It’s more about staying humble, understanding it’s continued hard work, but also keeping that confidence up. That personality is very common (in kickers). I think if you talk to the majority of the top college kickers, you talk to NFL players, they’re going to have a very nonchalant yet confident attitude and always expect to be successful.”
He plays off his life like he is ordinary, and that’s what sets him apart. His easygoing approach, coupled with his work ethic, breeds his success. In order to stay unflappable in the face of adversity, Kenny has to be Kenny.
Sometimes, Allen will send his parents pictures of himself with former Wolverines greats such as Tom Brady or Charles Woodson. He didn’t quite get his own photo with basketball legend Michael Jordan, but snuck into the back of one and tweeted it out, calling it the “best photo bomb ever.”
It’s no surprise when they get these kinds of pictures anymore.
“Oh, nice day to be Kenny,” Stacey will laugh.
These opportunities all come with being a Wolverine, and Kenny has wanted to be one since he was a child. Not for the pictures with celebrities or the perks of being a student-athlete, but because his family instilled a love for Michigan at a young age.
“I just admired everything about this place and watching the Michigan-Ohio State games, Michigan-Michigan State games, like that was the craziest thing I had ever seen,” Kenny said. “I wanted to be a part of it, but as a little kid, you have these dreams and aspirations of doing that and then you get to high school and reality kind of hits you in the face. Like, ‘Yeah right, I’m never going to do that.’
“And then, the more I kept working, the closer that became reality and it was almost there. I just kept working, my family kept encouraging me and like telling me these steps to take and going to these coaches, spending my time going to the fields when everyone else was doing God knows what. I just think working hard and never giving up and having the support of my family, that’s why I chose football.”
Back at the tailgate, all of the reasons for his success gathered under the tent. Kenny’s parents gave him the unconditional support, his brother gave him the fire to compete and Michigan gave him a chance. Now, Kenny Allen has put it all together, and the picture looks pretty good.