April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How Firebaugh cultivated Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen’s rise

The earth is dead-level flat here, as unwavering as a Johnny Unitas haircut, an endless quilt of farmland that produces cotton, wheat, grapes, melons and pistachios. In normal times, on a given fall night, you can stand in one tiny town and see the glow of the football field in the next, from Kerman to Tranquility to Mendota; Firebaugh to Dos Palos to Los Banos.

Ribbons of two-lane roads and generations of bitter rivalries separate the farming communities of the San Joaquin Valley, where local sports border on religion and high school heroics harden into lore. Yet these days, these elbowing towns feel as one, with everyone pulling in the same direction, the Hatfields proudly linking arms with the McCoys.

Because this is Josh Allen country.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen looks to pass during a AFC wild-card win over of the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 9.

(Brett Carlsen / Associated Press)

Allen, the third-year quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, has his team one victory from the Super Bowl, and two from hoisting the Lombardi trophy for the first time. Standing in the way are the Kansas City Chiefs, defending Super Bowl champions, who play host to the Bills on Sunday in the AFC championship game.

“People say Josh is a special kid,” said Bill Magnusson, his coach at Firebaugh High. “You could say that a million times and it wouldn’t be enough.”

Even onetime adversaries are puffing their chests.

“I’m embracing this run he’s on,” said Beto Mejiha, coach of the archrival Mendota Aztecs, who handed Firebaugh its only two losses during Allen’s senior season. “I get to sit back and tell myself, ‘Man, I coached against that kid.’ … And if I take some excitement and pride from it, I can just imagine his coaches from Firebaugh, how excited they are.”

Three of the NFL’s four remaining quarterbacks are from California — Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, and Allen — with the outlier being Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who grew up in Texas.

In Firebaugh, the excitement is palpable among locals who watched Allen go from a wiry kid — generously listed at 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds — to a 6-5, 237-pound bruiser reminiscent of John Elway with ability to do damage with his arm and legs. At 24, Allen has made a compelling case for most valuable player, shattering Buffalo passing records along the way.

VIDEO | 00:59

Josh Allen is only player to have number retired by Firebaugh High School

Alex Gutierrez, Josh Allen’s baseball coach and quarterbacks coach at Firebaugh High School, talks about his number being retired by the school.

Alternating red and blue “Allen 17” banners will festoon O Street through the middle of Firebaugh this weekend. Allen’s extended family owns about 5,000 acres of farmland in the region, not counting the land his late grandfather donated for construction of the high school.

“Our community, it’s a pretty special place,” said Allen’s father, Joel. “We kind of take care of each other.”

Joel and LaVonne Allen, who have two sons and two daughters, seldom miss one of Josh’s games. They fly all over the country every fall weekend to see him play. But Joel won’t be at Sunday’s game because he’s recovering from the coronavirus and a bout with pneumonia that landed him in the hospital this month.

VIDEO | 01:10

How Josh Allen merged wrestling techniques with football in high school

Alex Gutierrez, Josh Allen’s baseball coach and quarterbacks coach at Firebaugh High School, talks about how football players utilized wrestling techniques to improve their game.

LaVonne is making the trip, along with a contingent of family and friends from Firebaugh that includes Josh’s uncle, Todd Allen, among his most devoted fans.

“No one works harder at his craft than Josh does,” Todd said, sitting in the office of the family farm, wearing a Bills T-shirt and displaying a bobblehead of his nephew on his desk. “I don’t care what it is — baseball, basketball, football, and he was a swimmer in the summers too. I just can’t say enough about him.”

Allen set Bills records for completions, passing yards, and touchdowns, leading the team to a 13-3 record and its first AFC East title since 1995, the year before he was born. Buffalo has won eight games in a row and has a chance Sunday to avenge a 26-17 home loss to Kansas City in Week 6.

Todd Allen, uncle of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, looks at photos of his nephew.

Todd Allen, uncle of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, looks at photos of his nephew at the family ranch in Firebaugh, Calif.

(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

“They showed a couple of different things on defense, stuff we probably weren’t expecting,” Allen said this week of the Chiefs. “I think we’ve gotten a lot better since that game.”

Under the guidance of Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and transformational tutelage of offseason quarterback coach Jordan Palmer, Allen has made remarkable strides during his three seasons. His completion rate jumped from 52.8% as a rookie to 69.2% this season. That’s the greatest two-year improvement in NFL history.

That’s just a continuation of the astounding trajectory of a player who was snubbed by Fresno State, once his dream school, and took a more circuitous route to the pros via Reedley Community College and then the University of Wyoming.

When the Bills made Allen the No. 7 pick in the 2018 draft, a lot of people thought he was too raw and too inaccurate to get a foothold in the NFL and lead that franchise back to prominence.

VIDEO | 01:23

A look at the farm Bills quarterback Josh Allen grew up on

Josh Allen’s uncle, Todd Allen, talks about what Josh used to do on the family ranch in Firebaugh, Calif.

But Allen has the grit and determination forged on the farm, where he and his younger brother, Jason, would hack away weeds, dig ditches, move irrigation pipes, and even pick massive cotton fields behind the wheel of $800,000 tractors. Whereas his family was at one end of the economic spectrum, Allen had plenty of friends and teammates on the other.

“Every summer, you’ve got half the football team that’s working out in the fields, and they do that to buy their school clothes and stuff,” said Alex Gutierrez, who was Allen’s quarterback and baseball coach at Firebaugh. “A lot of them, their parents work hard, but they need help paying the bills. A lot of times there were passing-league tournaments and his teammates would be working, and Josh would be the one driving around and picking them up. He had the pickup, and his truck was always full. He always had three teammates with him.”

In the years since, Allen has taken the whole region on a different kind of ride, a surreal one.

“There’s a picture from Josh’s rookie year when he was shaking Tom Brady’s hand, he was hugging him after the game when they played each other,” Gutierrez said, standing on the dirt track surrounding the Firebaugh football field, where Allen’s retired No. 15 is painted on the press box. “You see that and it’s like, wow, this is really happening right now.”

VIDEO | 01:56

Former Firebaugh mayor talks about Josh Allen’s impact on the town

Brady Jenkins, the former mayor of Firebaugh, Calif., and Allen’s former coach, talks about the impact Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen had on the town while growing up there.

Todd Allen has too many memories of his nephew to count. One in particular stands out. It happened at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, when a bulked-up Josh was at Reedley and just discovering his ability to run over defenders.

“His team was down like 28-7 at halftime, and Josh made such a ferocious comeback they almost won the game,” Todd recalled. “I just remember him starting to run in that game, and I go, ‘Where’s that coming from?’ He was running down the field, and I was running right along with him along the top of the stadium.”

When people asked what he was doing, Todd told them: “I’m running with Josh.”

Years later, the whole Central Valley can say the same.