"Every Sunday, I'd hide my shoes to delay going to church," he says. "I wanted to watch O.J. on TV."
Four days into practice his freshman year, Allen was made the backup tailback. He quickly found out he knew very little about running. One of his coaches even nicknamed him the Virgin. "I was against the switch from the start," says John Jackson, then the Trojan backfield coach. Allen had only 31 carries the entire season. And he impressed no one.
As his sophomore year began, he was moved to fullback. During the first day of practice he broke his nose. "I looked down, saw blood on my jersey and said, 'Did somebody get hurt?' " Allen remembers. He despised playing fullback, but Jackson strongly encouraged him to learn the position.
"Every day, Marcus came to me with an excuse not to practice," Jackson says. "He'd say, 'I'm hurt.' And I'd say, 'O.K., now get in there and play.' "
He blocked, albeit grudgingly, for tailback Charles White, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy.
A year later, USC head coach John Robinson switched Allen back to tailback. It wasn't a popular decision. Robinson, now the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, vividly remembers a newspaper headline that appeared midway through Allen's junior season: DOES use FINALLY HAVE AN AVERAGE TAILBACK?
After Allen rushed for 201 yards in a game against Arizona, Jackson actually berated him. "I pulled him aside on the plane home," Jackson says, "and I told him how he had done this wrong, how he had done that wrong. And then I realized he had just gained 201 yards. I thought, 'You're criticizing him as if he's just another guy.' I spent the rest of the season telling him he hadn't failed."
It was too late. Allen finished second in the nation in rushing that year with 1,563 yards, but he believed he was a failure. "It was the worst year of my life," Allen says. "The criticism was hard to ignore. I still don't know why I wasn't good enough. Charlie White put on a show; I guess I just got the job done."
In his senior year, Allen proved the critics wrong by becoming the first running back in NCAA history to crack the 2,000-yard barrier—with 2,342. His eight 200-yard games that season have never been matched. He walked away with the Heisman Trophy, easily beating out Herschel Walker of Georgia.
With credentials like that, Allen should have been a cinch to be the No. 1 pick in the 1982 NFL draft. Not a chance. Some scouts were unhappy with his 4.65 speed in the 40. Others cited his tendency to fumble. There were questions about his ability to break tackles. One of his sharpest critics was Robinson, who predicted that Allen would never lead the NFL in rushing. "I don't see him in the context of a Payton or Campbell, a dominant player," Robinson was quoted as saying prior to the draft.