January 13, 2012 during the NCAA Convention in Indianapolis
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By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
When Will Allen was a lanky seventh-grader in rural Maryland, his lack of coordination and meager basketball skills didn’t deter his middle school basketball coach.
The coach saw only a six-foot four-inch 13-year-old who had a passion for a game he learned on his family’s farm, aiming for a peach basket attached to an old oak tree. Allen fell in love with the game, which he saw as a more exciting alternative to playing the outfield for his middle school baseball team.
That passion led Allen to the University of Miami (Florida) as the school’s first African-American men’s basketball player, a professional hoops career in Europe and eventually his life’s work as an urban farmer and creator of the nonprofit Growing Power.
Allen will be honored with the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, the Association’s highest honor, at the 2012 NCAA Convention in Indianapolis. Allen, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” and grants from both the Kellogg and Ford foundations, said the NCAA honor will be particularly special to him.
“I really value this award, because it shows that student-athletes can aspire to be more than just entertainment symbols for people,” said Allen, who will be formally recognized at the Honors Celebration on Jan. 13. “You can do something positive with your life to impact other people’s lives in a different way than just having them watch you play a sport. I hope other student-athletes will realize earlier that there’s more to life than just playing (their sport). You need to start envisioning the day when you’re not playing sports.”
Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, whose concern for the conduct of intercollegiate athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906, the award is given annually to an individual “for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being thereafter have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement.” Dwight Eisenhower was the first recipient of the “Teddy” in 1967.
Allen was the first African-American basketball player at Miami (Florida).
Allen’s career almost never got started. By his own admission, he was a terrible basketball player when he started, gifted with height but little else. His own work ethic – and a summer job at a swimming pool next door to the armory where the American University men’s basketball team practiced – developed his skills. From the time he was a rising eighth-grader, Allen spent his summers scrimmaging against college players, eventually holding his own. By the time he graduated from high school, he had more than 100 scholarship offers. He left his family’s farm and swore he’d never return to that life.
He chose Miami for a variety of reasons, including the climate, the diversity of the city and his sense of ease with his future teammates. The fact that he would be the first African-American to play for the school had little influence over his decision. He was comfortable at Miami, and that was it. His first year, he fell in with the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and met a senior named Cynthia who would become his wife before he finished his sophomore year. He credits both the Zetas and his wife for helping him adjust to college life far from home and family.
He played basketball at Miami from 1967 to 1971 and studied physical education and sociology, with the thought of one day becoming a coach. After graduation, he caught on with a few professional American teams in the NBA and the ABA, but he spent most of his career in Europe. While he was in Belgium, Allen worked on the family farms of several of his teammates.
“When I left the (family) farm at 18, I said, ‘Never again do I want to do this work.’ I think most farm kids are like that. Then I went out with my teammates (in Belgium) and helped them plant potatoes. They farmed the way that we did – without a lot of mechanized equipment. They did everything by hand,” he said. “I realized I had a hidden passion and wanted to farm again.”
Allen began urban farming in 1995, eventually creating the nonprofit Growing Power.
When he got back to the States, he worked in sales and marketing for Proctor and Gamble. But he also started growing produce on some land outside of his wife’s native Milwaukee. Eventually, he was growing food on more than 100 acres of land outside the city and purchased the last remaining farm within the city limits to sell his produce in the middle of a food desert.
That presence in the city led to his work with a youth group that wanted to grow an organic garden. Allen helped the kids plan and grow their garden and let them use space on his inner-city farm. It was the summer of 1995 – hot and dry, and the groundhogs kept raiding the plot.
“Every time I thought ‘These kids are going to quit,’ they’d show up in their vans. They wound up growing some really nice crops,” he said. A reporter from the local paper featured Allen and the youth group on the front page, and he began speaking to more and more groups around town, volunteering his time and expertise. Friends talked him into starting Growing Power.
Allen (center) with First Lady Michelle Obama.
“There is a lot of life-skill-building that happens when kids do a project like this, when they really have to take care of something and nurture something. That struck a chord with people,” Allen said.
Today, Growing Power allows Allen to innovate in the agricultural field, experimenting with composting, vermicomposting and aquaponics. His life’s goal is to broaden access to healthy food.
“I’m proud to say that I’m making a contribution to change people’s lives, especially young people, around the thing that is most important to us: Our food,” Allen said. “I am proud to be able to impact lives and hopefully save lives by influencing people around the world to eat healthier food and be able to grow food in a sustainable way.”