Next Wednesday night, Cortez Allen will walk the red carpet at the ESPYs Awards Show at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. The ESPYs are ESPN’s annual glitzy get-together for the best and brightest in sports, complete with Oscars-style pre-show interviews and post-show parties.
Citadel in the NFL
Drafted: 4th round, 2011
At The Citadel: 2006-10
Last year: 55 tackles, 2 INTs in 15 games
Position: Wide receiver
Drafted: 3rd round, 2010
At The Citadel: 2006-09
Last year: 64 catches, 759 yards, 5 TDs
Allen will share the red carpet with ESPYs host Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” fame and a gaggle of sports’ one-namers — LeBron, Serena, Peyton, et al.
But Citadel fans who remember Allen from his days as a Bulldog need not worry — there’s little chance that fame will change the humble kid from Ocala, Fla., who still says “Yes, sir” on the phone.
“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity,” said Allen, who is preparing for his third season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I’m just Cortez, the same person I was at The Citadel, before The Citadel, before the NFL.
“That’s very important to me, to never change for anything, for fame or money or whatever. Regardless of the setting, I just try to be my best self in every environment.”
That attitude is precisely the reason Allen has succeeded in the harsh environment of the NFL after a solid, but not spectacular, career at The Citadel. Allen, 6-1 and 196 pounds, was twice a second-team All-Southern Conference pick before the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round in 2011.
Allen is set to start at cornerback this season for the Steelers, who allowed former starter Keenan Lewis to sign with New Orleans in the offseason as a free agent.
The reason: Allen’s emergence last season. He picked off two passes, forced three fumbles and recovered a fumble in the final two games of 2012 while starting for the injured Ike Taylor.
“I’m excited about it,” Allen said. “It will be the first time I’ve played the whole game at corner since I was at The Citadel.
“But I feel the same way about it as I did last year. If you always prepare as if you are the starter and push as hard as you can, then you have a shot to do it.”
Allen said he’s learned a lot from all his Steelers coaches and teammates, including All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu. But it’s Ike Taylor, an 11-year veteran who also went to a smaller school (Louisiana-Lafayette) who’s been his chief mentor.
Allen rents a townhouse in Pittsburgh during the season, and in the summer lives in Orlando and trains with Taylor, who like Allen was a fourth-round pick (2003).
“He’s taught me how to be a professional, what it takes to be the best and stay ready,” Allen said. “I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does. His whole mentality, his commitment to the game, it’s something I want to model and develop as I continue my career.”
Taylor predicts big things for his protege.
“He’s going to be trouble for a lot of people,” Taylor told reporters this summer. “He pretty much has everything you are looking for as far as a cornerback, being a shutdown guy.”
Allen said a lot of his teammates are not familiar with The Citadel, despite the presence of two former Bulldogs in the NFL (receiver Andre Roberts is heading into his fourth season with the Cardinals). An exception is center Maurkice Pouncey, who played for Florida when the Gators clubbed Allen and the Bulldogs, 70-19, in 2008.
“He’s always joking with me about that game,” Allen said. “He says he played one series in that game, that’s how good they were. A lot of the guys joke with me and ask, ‘Isn’t that an all-boys school?’ ”
But Allen remains proud of his alma mater and the lessons learned there.
“Coming from The Citadel, you learn to pay attention to detail,” he said. “It’s the small things that make up the big things, and a lot of people overlook that.”