A.J. Allen had a lot of emotions on the day of last week’s CFL Draft.
“Just nervous. Anxious. I didn’t know what to do. It was crazy,” he said.
But when the 35th pick came around and the Saskatchewan Roughriders selected him, he was able to breathe a sigh of relief, which was followed up by a phone call from Roughriders general manager Jeremy O’Day.
“He told me there’s no red shirts in the CFL so you better be ready to play,” said Allen, a University of Guelph product. “He told me he’s excited to have me and of course I told him I was excited to be there and be part of the organization.”
Moments after he was picked, Allen was also on the phone with a teammate from the Guelph Gryphons, receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker, who was selected by the Riders, just five picks prior.
“It was amazing because me and Kian over the four years, we have gotten so close and have gotten such a good friendship,” said Allen. “To be drafted to an area you don’t really know, but to go there with your friend is going to be a surreal experience.”
Allen has spent the past four seasons playing a number of defensive positions for Guelph, including all three linebacking spots, defensive end, and halfback. He also has experience playing on the offensive side of the ball.
“I’m an elite running back, I don’t care what anybody says,” Allen said with a laugh. “In high school, I (also) played quarterback, but I couldn’t afford contacts back then so I couldn’t see that far.
“I’m not going to lie to you, all the colours looked the same.”
What is clear, is Allen’s ability on the defensive side of the ball, where he’s been able to make his impact in the university ranks. And as he transitions to the professional ranks, he’s also going to be playing a lot of special teams, which is a big reason why the Riders drafted him.
“We like his athletic ability,” said O’Day. “We like the fact that he plays different positions. He does have some pass rush ability that we like, but more importantly, we feel like he’s a guy that can come in and compete right away on special teams.”
Allen eventually wants to earn a starting spot on the defense, but for the time being, he has no problem being a special teamer, like most other Canadian rookies when they enter the league.
“Luckily for me, I’ve been doing it for four years straight at a high level and it’s something I love doing,” said Allen.
“I think I’m pretty good at it and I’m going just going to get the opportunity to do it against higher competition, that’s all.”
While football is important for the 22-year-old, education is as well. At Guelph, Allen has been working on a double major in political science along with criminal justice and public policy, with the hope of practicing law in the future.
“I think I have two Plan A’s,” said Allen. “I tried to make it so that I can do both (football and law), maybe not at the same time, but at the same level.”
He’s motivated to make himself happy and his family proud.
“I’m always smiling so why not do a thing that I’m always smiling in,” said Allen. “Whether it be anything, I just want to be happy. That’s my number one priority and football makes me happy.
“I have always wanted to be a pro football player,” continued Allen. “My whole career started in Grade 4. My mom put me in football because I was playing too much video games. I just so happened to be good at it.”
The motivation doesn’t stop there. A tattoo on Allen’s forearm symbolizes something that has also kept him going on the football field and something he knows will continue to drive him in the future.
“I lost my roommate back in first year (of university). He committed suicide,” said Allen. “When I talked to his friends after he passed, he was always bragging about how he knew a guy on the football team. And I wanted to give him, wherever he is, that opportunity to say my roommate is now a CFL draft pick.
“When I was playing, whenever I was tired or something like that, I looked down and said ‘I’ve got a reason to keep going.’”