Former Boilermakers Allen, Russell check in with PALS campers

Stacy Clardie, GoldandBlack.com staff
Gold and Black

Ricardo Allen and Ryan Russell largely were raised in single-parent households, with moms being the driving force behind the families.

So when the former-Purdue-teammates-turned-NFL players stood in front of hundreds of PALS campers Wednesday at the co-rec, it wasn't just a pop-in, social media op. They wanted to share their lives and depart wisdom, at least as much was allowed in such a circumstance and with time allotted.

And each did, making it a successful day for the summertime program that caters toward kids 8-14 years old whose family incomes are at or below federal poverty guidelines.

Allen shared his experience of growing in Daytona Beach, Fla., in not the best situation — but not the worst, he made sure to say — with his mom and brother and sister. His mom worked a lot of hours, he told the campers, so he didn't get to see her very much. But he found a home at the local YMCA, and he grew to appreciate those leaders and volunteers. He said he hoped the kids in PALS (Purdue Athletes Life Success) would do the same.

"This really hits close to the heart," said Allen, a starting safety with the NFC champion Falcons. "When I was younger, this is really what helped me become who I am because there were a couple speakers who came and Vince Carter, who actually was from my town and went to my high school, he was one of the people who always came and talked to us. I always saw, 'If he could do it' — yeah, he was five times bigger than me — 'if he can do it and (beat) the statistic that says it's also impossible, I knew I could for sure do it, too."

Russell's mom is his best friend after it was largely just them as he grew up in Texas, and she worked two jobs and went to school to provide for her son. So it's probably not surprising he stressed to the kids "hard work and integrity" but also reminded them to "care for those who care for you."

"It's important to have support," said Russell, a member of the Bucs. "As a child, your world is so small. People who influence you most are parents and for (Allen and him), we didn't have both parents. So if we would have had players come back or anyone, really, this whole camp is a great idea. Just support, it just helps so much so it was very important to come here.

"It's empowering for us, and, I think, for them because we were in the same spot, in the same situation. Some of them were in worse situations and we were worse than some are, and to see, we can achieve our dreams, whether it's NFL or anything, I just think speaks volumes."

The literal volume was high at points Wednesday, too.

After Allen played a highlight video to kind of introduce kids to who he is, kids got a chance to ask Allen and Russell questions. They ranged from football — What inspired you to play? How much do you like it? What was it like to play in the Super Bowl? Who's your favorite player? Who is your arch nemesis? (Allen: the Patriots) — to video games to favorite food to basketball to relationships, of all things.

Perhaps the loudest cheer for an answer came when Allen said his favorite basketball player was Steph Curry. At another point, Russell was actually asked if he was LeBron James.

Perhaps the most interesting questions revolved around Allen and his wife, Grace, a Purdue grad and former team leader for PALS. They wanted to know how he proposed — she told that story, and then he re-enacted getting on one knee, even having her slip the ring off her finger first — and when she fell in love.

It seemed as though no question was out of bounds, even if Ricardo Allen joked they were too young to be asking about girlfriends.

But Russell and Allen answered almost all of them before time ran out — the only "next question" response was Allen's after a kid asked, "Did you feel bad when you lost to the Patriots" — and that made the experience sincere, real and, according to PALS co-director Bill Harper, well worth it for all involved.

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