Javorius Allen immediately could tell that this call from the Madison Correctional Institution would be different from the others. The tone of Devon Brown's voice just sounded different.
"It almost sounded like he was crying," Allen said. "He was just like, 'I'm so happy for you, to know that my little brother is out there living his dream and accomplishing things he thought he wouldn't accomplish.' He said that it gave him hope, gave him a reason to stay alive, gave him a reason to fight every day. That touched me."
Allen and Devon Brown were separated by about two years and little else. Allen followed him everywhere, considered him the father figure neither of them had. But in 2007, Brown began serving a 20-year sentence in a Florida prison on an attempted murder conviction.
Allen, 15 years old at the time, charted a far different course. Emboldened by purpose and gifted with a combination of size, speed and humility, Allen made it out of an impoverished town in rural Florida and into the NFL.
The start of his NFL career as a Ravens running back has mirrored his early years at the University of Southern California; signs of promise evident, yet consistent playing time elusive. But it isn't hard for Allen to stay patient and positive. He has 24 years of life lessons to fall back on.
"Honestly, I just think about the opportunity I have to play the game that I love and I think about those who weren't able to make it, or those who got in trouble," said Allen, who has 37 carries for 163 yards as Justin Forsett's primary backup. "Mainly, I just think about back home and I think about if I quit, I'm not just quitting on my teammates, I'm not just quitting on myself. I'm quitting on my family and all of those people that helped me get to this point."
His grandmother, Rosa Brown, took him in as a 2-year-old when his mother struggled to provide proper care, and instilled in him discipline and perspective. Mickey and Alice Cullen later invited him into their Tallahassee, Fla., home, took him to football practices and cared for him like he was their own son. Davis Houck, a Florida State professor who met Allen while volunteering at the Carrie Wilson Boys & Girls Club in Miccosukee, Fla., has been a longtime mentor.
"He's always attracted good people to him," Houck said. "Good people just don't flock to somebody. There's reciprocity there. That's a relationship. That's not just a one-way thing."
Allen's journey started where so many dreams fizzled. Miccosukee was a small country town about 20 miles northeast of Tallahassee. It contained one stoplight and one store, and countless signs of despair.
"Where I grew up," Allen says, "you don't have no words to describe it."
Allen and his brothers, Devon and Deonshaye, lived with their grandmother in a dated trailer. Electricity was fleeting and the family had to work to keep bugs, snakes and the rain out. But Brown never complained and neither did her boys. She made sure that they had something to eat and somewhere to sleep. She also fueled her grandson's growing passion, buying Allen his first football. Up until that point, he'd use pinecones as a ball, rubbing off the thorny parts to make them easier to catch.
"He'd throw the ball up to himself and then run and catch it," Brown said. "He kept himself going."
The Carrie Wilson Boys & Girls Club in Miccosukee became a safe haven for Allen, an outlet for his energy and frustration. He wasn't a troublemaker, but he wasn't a follower either. Yet, he listened, and that set him apart.
"The initial impression of him was, 'Why does this kid want to be alone or by himself all the time?,'" said Mickey Cullen, the director of the club. "If we were doing homework, he wanted to shoot pool. If we were outside, he wanted to do something else. It took me a couple of days to understand that."
Cullen gave Allen special chores. He attended field day at his school and cheered him on. As their bond grew, Cullen invited Allen over to his Tallahassee home and his wife, Alice, made Allen dinner. Some nights he stayed over and attended church with the family the next day.
Allen had no way to get to football practice, so Cullen regularly drove him, a roundtrip that took nearly 90 minutes.
"If Mickey doesn't take him to practice, all bets are off because suddenly, you don't have football," Houck said. "Who steps forward? Fortunately, that's a question that nobody had to ask. When Javorius got on the football field, he became a fully-formed person and you could just see him blossom through that experience. People wanted to be around him, wanted to know his name, and for the right reasons."
With his grandmother's blessing, Allen moved in with the Cullens, whose two kids were older and out of the house. He had his own room and access to a cell phone and a computer. He was also given a set of rules and responsibilities and there were consequences if he didn't abide by them.
"That was the first time I really had somebody put their foot down and say 'no.' That was something I was blessed to experience," Allen said. "I have so much love for them. I moved in with them and got to see the other side of the spectrum. Living with my grandma and all that, I thought it was normal. People lived like that. But to go from there and to live with the Cullen family for a year or two was amazing."
Allen later admitted to Mickey that some people he knew taunted him for "leaving Miccosukee behind [and] living with the white people in the big house."
"For people to see a black kid with a white woman, you already know the stereotype, but I just never cared," Allen said. "She did a lot of things for me that I know if my grandmother was capable of doing, she would have done; if my mom was capable of doing, she would have done."
Alice taught him to drive, took him food and clothes shopping, and made sure that he had gifts for his family members. During one trip to the mall, they ran into several of Allen's friends. He introduced her to them as "my Godmother Alice." Alice, who had never heard him refer to her like that, waited until they were into the car before she burst into tears.
"I don't think she treated him any different than our two" kids, Mickey said.
Hope, then heartbreak
Before leaving for USC, Allen said goodbye to the Cullens and Houcks at a small gathering. Ten minutes after he left, he returned in tears to thank both families for their help.
"That was really the only time he let his guard down," Houck said. "We tried to reassure him that things were going to work, but nobody knew. Mickey turned to me and said, 'How do you think it's going to go?' My exact words were, 'If we don't see him in three weeks, he'll do great.' Javorius is a survivor."
Allen redshirted in 2011 and played sparingly the following year, failing to impress Trojans coach Lane Kiffin. Not until Kiffin was fired in 2013 did Allen finally get a chance. He flourished under interim coach Ed Orgeron, scoring 15 touchdowns and being named the team MVP.
"He's a great example for kids," said Yusuf Shakir, Allen's coach at Lincoln High in Tallahassee. "If one thing doesn't go right, a lot of them just want to jump ship and transfer. But he kept working."
He had also had to deal with more personal loss. Alice Cullen died in June 2013 from ovarian cancer. Allen flew in from California to spend three days visiting her. She passed away a couple of days after he left.
"I know she was waiting on me pretty much before she let go," Allen said. "I leaned down and she just touched my face and [said], 'I'm proud of you. I love you. You're pretty much one of my kids.' It was so hard to leave."
Allen now writes "Alice" on his wrist tape before every game. After every touchdown that he scored at USC, he pointed to the sky.
Here and now
Less than two weeks after he was selected by the Ravens in the fourth round of the NFL draft, Allen stood in front of fellow graduating USC athletes and said, "If you'd have told me four years ago that I'd be up here speaking, I'd have said you were crazy."
When Cullen met a 12-year-old Allen, he was two grades behind. Seeing the shy and intensely private young man in a cap and gown and addressing his peers was a shocking yet proud moment. He also knew it was only the beginning.
With the Ravens, Allen has come close to breaking through, but the running back knows his time will come and he feels too blessed to fret.
His mother, Melissa, has turned her life around and is a constant presence in his life. His grandmother remains a huge influence. His younger brother, Deonshaye, is hoping to go to community college. Devon, who isn't due to be released from prison until 2024, still calls or writes Allen regularly.
Allen has said that he'd like to use part of his rookie contract to hire a lawyer for his brother, who was with three others during the shooting for which he was charged.
"I wanted to be like my brother, do everything he was doing," Allen said. "To see him go down like that, a piece of me went with him. I knew that I'd never let my little brother feel the way I felt."