THE MOST IMPORTANT detail of the day that Josh Allen knew — he just knew — he was going to be an NFL superstar is the location of the field where it happened.
Allen was 17 years old at the time, getting ready for his senior year at Firebaugh High by attending a camp at his hometown college, Fresno State. Josh, now in his fifth season as the Buffalo Bills quarterback, famously had zero interest from FBS schools during his high school career. Not “very little” interest. Zero interest, even from Fresno State. He hoped this camp would change that.
That didn’t happen. On Day 1 of the two-day camp, Allen was electric as he led tiny Firebaugh on a surprising romp to the championship game of a 7-on-7 tournament. The team won its first two games, then ran into Bakersfield Christian, alma mater of then-Fresno State QB Derek Carr. Carr was there that day, and Firebaugh coach Bill Magnusson asked him to swing by their team tent, set up by Allen’s dad, Joel, to keep the players out of a horrific heat that had some parents’ sandals melting to the turf.
Carr was a California A-lister at that time. His brother, David, had been the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NFL draft, and now Derek was a star at Fresno, a year from getting drafted himself. He posed for pictures with the unknown Firebaugh squad, and when he got introduced to Allen, the school’s starting quarterback, Carr said, “Take it easy on my old school out there, OK?”
Allen smiled, then went out and single-handedly tore up Bakersfield Christian. Carr saw him on the sideline afterward and said, “Hey, I thought I told you to take it easy on my guys?”
Allen didn’t even blink. “I did take it easy,” he said, and he and Carr both got a good chuckle out of that.
Firebaugh eventually lost in the championship game, but Allen had created some momentum for himself heading into Day 2 of the camp for skill position players. Or so he thought.
When the 25 or so prep quarterbacks showed up the next day, they gathered between Fresno’s main practice field and a smaller side field. The Fresno State coaches ran through the list of which quarterbacks would go where. When they got to the end of the list for the primary field, all of the best quarterbacks had been picked — and Allen wasn’t one of them.
“Everybody else, head over there,” one coach barked, pointing to the small field. The Firebaugh crew couldn’t believe it: Allen was on the “everybody else” list.
The blue-chip kids went over to the big field and started throwing long balls to receivers in front of most of the coaching staff. A bewildered Allen wandered over with the second-tier kids to their small patch of turf, which was only big enough to throw swing passes and 10-yard routes.
“I’m better than these guys,” Allen said to Magnusson, who nodded and walked over to the coach who had read off the list.
“Can you talk to somebody and get my kid up with the other guys?” Magnusson said. “That’s where he belongs.”
Without even looking up, the coach said, “He’s fine right there,” and Allen spent the next two hours throwing dump-offs in front of no one who mattered. That is when he knew that someday he would play on the biggest sports fields possible, and he’d be fine right there.
“I was extremely mad,” Allen said in 2017. “I really wanted to be on that field with the guys that they thought were the better guys. I couldn’t even focus on playing football in that moment.”
Allen’s remarkable rise — from the farm country of Firebaugh, California, with no FBS offers in 2014, to potential NFL MVP eight years later — is one of the biggest, most surprising stories in modern football history. But that story exists only because of lots and lots of small stories. ESPN interviewed over a dozen of Allen’s friends, family members and coaches to get 16 vignettes about the making of Josh Allen.
THE ALLEN BROTHERS, Josh and Jason, were often the two best athletes at every sport they took on — baseball, basketball, football, swimming. They were one year apart and battled each other all day every day. Jason was one year younger but usually was bigger, and he pushed Josh hard. Sometimes literally.
Their skirmishes became legendary. Firebaugh basketball players would head to the locker room after practice sometimes, and then someone would come in and say, “Josh and Jason are going at it again.” Then everybody would head back to the court and watch them duke it out.
In one epic scuffle during a basketball practice, push turned to shove, which turned to punch. The two brothers got progressively more physical with each other, and eventually Josh threw the ball at Jason, who charged at him and took a swing. The punch connected with Josh, resulting in a black eye, and teammates hustled Josh off the court before it escalated.
Josh was so irritated that he left the court, hopped in his car and left his brother behind to find his own way home. A coach called Joel to let him know what happened, and when Jason got home after catching a ride from a teammate, their dad called them to the kitchen table.
“I had to sit them both down and do my fatherly duties,” Joel says. “Within a few days of that incident, they were chummy again. But iron sharpens iron, right? That helped Josh become the competitor that he is today.”
WHEN HIS SONS were in elementary school, Joel would drive them to pee wee football games a half hour away. One day, Joel introduced a strange concept: He would pretend a game had just concluded and conduct an interview of Josh. Josh didn’t understand the point at first, but Joel explained to him that he was going to be a great quarterback someday and have to do lots of interviews. Josh was 7 years old, but Joel saw a future No. 7 draft pick sitting in the back seat.
So he started asking Josh questions on the way to and from games. He even spoke into a pretend microphone as he drove the car. It was goofy at first, but Josh rolled with it for a while.
“Josh, heck of a game today. What do you have to say about your coaches? Any thoughts on the game today?” Joel would ask. Then he’d hand the fake mic into the back seat.
Josh would take it from his dad and say, “First of all, I want to thank my line for doing a great job today,” and Joel would nod in approval as Josh talked about “the team effort” and “good playcalling.”
They did this on every drive for a long time, until finally one day Josh stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and handed the imaginary microphone back to the front seat. “That’s enough, Dad,” he said. “I know how to do interviews now.”
THE ALLEN FARM was basically Firebaugh’s Six Flags. Allen’s parents, Joel and Lavonne, ran a 2,000-acre farm that grew cotton, wheat and cantaloupes to make a living, and they did make a good living. Then they poured whatever money they could into creating a house that was any kid’s dream: batting cages, two mini golf holes, basketball hoops, a trampoline, swimming pool, hot tub and plenty of room to run.
That made it a perfect place for sleepovers, parties, campouts — and pranks. So many pranks. Joel loves a good joke, and his affinity has been handed down to Josh. One time, when Josh’s entire Little League team was camping out at the farm, Joel told the boys there’d been rumors of a body spotted somewhere on the land. The boys immediately grabbed flashlights and began to scour the property. Joel had had a friend strategically lie in an irrigation ditch and sure enough, the boys stumbled upon the body … which stood up and began chasing the kids. They screamed and ran, and nobody outran Josh that day.
But Josh and his dad both share a severe allergy to being pranked. So by the time they pulled their family masterpiece a year or two later, Josh had insisted that he no longer be on the wrong side of a prank. He wanted to be a co-conspirator, and Joel welcomed him with open arms.
And so one summer day about 15 years ago, when Josh was 11 or 12, the Allens had a party where 100 parents and kids came to the house. As guests arrived, Joel had begun planting seeds that he’d heard a gorilla had escaped from the circus that was in town 30 miles away. It was the kind of story that bloomed better back then, pre-iPhone, and as the day progressed, Joel dropped one or two gentle updates, concern sprawled across his face.
“I’m hearing he was spotted about 10 miles away,” he’d say under his breath to the adults to avoid scaring the kids.
Josh had that part of the party already taken care of, anyway. Gorilla buzz had seeped into the younger crowd, and Josh kept salting the mines to a few of the chattier kids. He mentioned a few times that he was trying to figure out what he’d do if the gorilla somehow showed up at the Allen farm. “How would you fight off a gorilla?” he asked, and all the boys shook their heads. Each of the kids seemed to start trying to come up with their own game plan.
As dusk settled in, the crowd was hanging outside when everybody suddenly heard a racket and … there was the gorilla, roaring through the party. Kids ran. Parents ran faster. Even Josh and Joel ran, barely able to stifle their laughs.
But they stayed committed to the bit. Eventually they were laughing so hard they could hardly breathe, and by then, everybody had slowed down to a walk as one of Joel’s nephews took off his gorilla head 50 feet away.
“That wasn’t cool, man,” one dad snarled at Joel.
But Mad Dad wasn’t as committed to his bit, and pretty soon everybody was laughing with the Allens.
JOSH LOVES HIS sleep. He never slept through anything, mind you. But if basketball practice started at 8 a.m., Josh was rolling in at 7:59 because he wanted every possible second of shut-eye.
It got to the point that he drafted a wakeup buddy. During football season, he’d play a game Friday night and have to be at the school by 9 a.m. the next day to watch film with the coaches. So he started enlisting one of his best friends, receiver Jordan Martinez, to stay over on Friday nights to hang out, play video games — and rough him up the next morning.
Martinez would start at 8 a.m. by saying, “Josh, let’s go, time to get up.”
Then at 8:10, he’d double the decibel level to, “Hey, get up, we gotta go!” He would usually get only a grumble out of Josh.
At 8:15, he would start shaking Josh. “I’m up,” Josh would say, before immediately falling asleep again.
By 8:20 or so, Martinez went to his second-to-last resort, right before pouring water on Josh: He’d start hitting Josh with pillows. He always began with some gentle body shots, but as the clock crept toward 8:30, he’d start teeing off on Josh’s head.
Josh always sat up around that time and said, “OK, OK, stop, I’m up.” Then they’d make a mad dash to eat something, get dressed and make the 15-minute drive to school. Coaches would shake their heads and look at the clock when it hit 8:59, because they knew their star QB and receiver were screeching to a halt in the parking lot.
IN 1976, JOSH’S grandfather, Buzz, donated land to build what would become Firebaugh High School. Before that, kids from Firebaugh had to attend Dos Palos High, which was a good 15 miles away. Naturally, when the schools split, an intense rivalry was born between the two, with Dos Palos dominating for years.
When Buzz died in 2014, Firebaugh played Dos Palos three months later on what would have been his birthday. The week of the game, Josh pulled his dad aside. “I’m going to give you the greatest gift ever,” he said. “We’re going to beat Dos Palos.”
Joel appreciated the confidence … but come on? Dos Palos? Josh’s Firebaugh team had gotten thumped 42-6 the year before.
But Josh came through. He threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns, and Firebaugh won 52-28. After the game, Joel cried on the field. He tried not to. He tried to rub his eyes and purse his lips and avoid the tears. But he couldn’t stop it.
“I’m a big baby,” Joel says. “And I couldn’t hold it in that day.”
TOWARD THE END of Josh’s senior year, Firebaugh got some new footballs delivered to the high school. The league, West Sierra, gave new balls to schools down the stretch of every season. And at a small rural school like Firebaugh, the new balls were treated like gold bars.
That’s why coaches alerted assistant coach/school security officer Brady Jenkins that one new ball had gone missing. He started poking around to locate the thief and found Josh with a lump under his sweatshirt.
“Josh, do you have one of the new footballs under there?” Jenkins asked.
“No,” Josh said, but then he smiled and lifted up his shirt. He did indeed have one of the balls under there. He’d taken it out of the box and was just walking around with it, spinning it in his hands.
“You stole one of the new balls?” Jenkins asked.
“I didn’t steal it,” Josh said. “I borrowed it.”
Jenkins was still scowling, so Josh explained that he only wanted to get comfortable with the brand-new ball, maybe break it in a little bit. He handed the ball back to Jenkins, who shook his head and went back to his office. He threw the ball in the corner of his office and made a mental note to return it later.
Fast-forward to after the Bills took Josh with the No. 7 pick in the 2018 draft. Jenkins heard the former Firebaugh star was going to stop by the high school to see the coaching staff and say hello to some students. Jenkins was still working as the security officer but had added a second gig — he’d been elected mayor of Firebaugh.
When he heard Josh was coming, Jenkins decided he wanted to try to get an autograph from his former star. And he had the perfect item: that football Josh had under his shirt from four years earlier. Jenkins had forgotten to return it the day he confiscated it. Then a week went by, then a month, then years.
On the day Josh came back to the school, the Firebaugh mayor handed him the ball to sign and told him it was the same one from years earlier.
As Josh signed it, he got that smart-aleck look in his eye, the same one he had the day of the fake gorilla attack and when he ribbed Derek Carr years earlier.
“I didn’t steal it,” Jenkins said, and Josh interrupted him.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You borrowed it.”
DOWN THE STRETCH of his high school career, Josh just couldn’t get any eyeballs or attention from college recruiters. So he went to nearby Reedley Junior College. Early on in his one season there, Josh posted a Hudl highlight for college recruiters. Then he typed up a simple email that he sent to 1,000 college coaches. Yes, 1,000. He hit head coaches, offensive coordinators, QB coaches, anybody he could find.
The note said:
Hello coach, my name is Josh Allen and I am a quarterback at Reedley JC out of California. I stand at 6’5″ 210 pounds and am a full qualifier, and feel like I would be a great fit in your offensive scheme! Please have a look at my Hudl.
Please get back to me at any convenience!
The number of calls he got back? Exactly zero out of 1,000.
ERNIE RODRIGUEZ FIRST met Josh during the quarterback’s senior year of high school.
Rodriguez told one of Reedley’s defensive coaches, Aaron Wilkins, that he was going to check out someone at Firebaugh.
“Who?” Wilkins asked. Wilkins has known Josh since 2006, when he began dating Josh’s cousin, who is now Wilkins’ wife, and also has coached him in a variety of sports, including during Allen’s sophomore year at Firebaugh High School.
“Josh Allen,” Rodriguez said.
“All right, get in the car. Let’s go,” Wilkins said.
Rodriguez, the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, didn’t realize how close the two are, but after watching him once, Rodriguez and Wilkins made the trip about every week to watch him play.
“But Firebaugh wasn’t a town that athletes really came out of,” said Rodriguez.
After Josh committed to Reedley, he made the 30- to 35-minute drive out to Fresno, California, as he wanted to get a jump on learning the offense. So he and Rodriguez met a couple of times privately, working on footwork and the basics of the offense.
While Josh showed the same goofy, infectious personality during his time at Reedley, “when it was time for business, it was on,” Rodriguez said. “It was [a] crazy switch. To go from this very jovial type of guy that you want to be around to when he said, ‘Hey, let’s strap ’em up,’ it was on.”
Even at Reedley, Josh did not have the opportunity to start right away. He bugged Rodriguez, asking when he’d get his opportunity. Waiting for his chance humbled him some after a high school career as a starter, which Rodriguez thinks matures people a bit better and faster.
“It’s been perfect for him, I know it’s kind of like a harsh thing to say,” Wilkins said, “but it’s been the perfect thing for him that he’s always had to earn everything.”
Josh put in extra time and effort to learn the playbook and stayed after practice to ask questions, in addition to watching extra film.
“I’m like, ‘Be patient, be patient, be patient,'” Rodriguez said. “And when I said it’s yours, that’s when he took full control of the offense, and I mean, like I said, he took full control of the team.”
IT’S BEEN REPORTED over the years that Wyoming got Josh’s email to college recruiters and responded. Not exactly true, according to Joel. He says Wyoming coaches came to town to look at one of Allen’s teammates at Reedley and his juco coaches said, “Make sure you check out our quarterback, too.”
Allen had had an incredible freshman growth spurt, tacking on 2 inches and about 30 pounds to his frame. He had the same rocket arm but was now built more like a running back than a quarterback — and he ran like one, too.
Within a few weeks, Wyoming coach Craig Bohl was at the Allen farm. Josh and his parents were across the table from Bohl when he said to Joel and Lavonne, “Your son is going to be the face of our program for the next four years.”
The Allens all made eye contact. Josh and Lavonne had ear-to-ear smiles, and Joel began to yawn. Except it was a fake yawn. He was just doing everything he could to somehow stifle the water works, but a few seconds later, the tears started rolling. “Like I said, I’m a big baby,” he says.
And his big baby finally had achieved his dream — a scholarship from an FBS school.
ON JAN. 4, 2015, Joel brought Jason and a few other Firebaugh kids to help Allen move out of his Reedley dorm room. The crew arrived and went into the dorm, but Allen wasn’t there. So they put the Cowboys-Lions playoff game on the TV and waited.
A few minutes later, the door swung open and Allen had to duck his head to walk into the room. His friends couldn’t believe this was the same person. Some of them hadn’t seen him in person in six months, only watching Allen on local TV broadcasts of Reedley games.
He stood so much taller, literally and figuratively, after a college diet and work in the weight room.
“I just kept thinking, ‘What the heck happened to Josh?'” says old friend River Bruce. “He was so much bigger, and that was the most confident I’d ever seen him. It’s not like he wasn’t a confident guy before. But something had changed. That version of him knew where he was going and what he was going to do.”
CAMERON COFFMAN TRANSFERRED to Wyoming from Indiana looking for an opportunity to start. After sitting out a year, 2015 was his year to be the Cowboys’ starting quarterback for his final collegiate season.
Around Christmas time, Allen joined the team from Reedley. Coffman was getting a group together to throw passes and invited Allen to join.
“After seeing him throw for about five or 10 minutes, I just remember how impressed I was, just about his physical talent,” Coffman said.
One of his first thoughts?
“Oh shoot, I’m here to start my senior year and this guy is going to come in and beat me out.”
IN 2015, FORMER Wyoming strength and conditioning coach Andrew Strop had the team’s quarterbacks over to his house, and they were watching the Masters.
While they were sitting around eating, Allen and Coffman started trash-talking about their golf games. Allen said he could beat everyone there at golf.
“No, no way,” the group responded.
Strop suggested they arrange that week to play and see who the best golfer of the group was. But that wasn’t soon enough.
“No, let’s go right now,” Allen said.
So they went out and played golf. Did Allen end up winning?
“No, of course he didn’t win,” Strop said. “I think he developed faster as a football player than he did as a golfer.”
VIDEO GAMES WERE a constant presence for the Wyoming football team, with Allen the most competitive of the group. As one former teammate said of Allen’s gaming, “It’s just [as] important to him as anything else in life.”
Allen would be quick to fight over video games, and he’d sit up in his chair and — similar to when he’s on the football field — lock in at crunch time.
Allen’s skill set on the gaming consoles is up for debate, depending on whom you ask. Some say he excelled at certain games, while former Wyoming wide receiver James Price said, “He would kind of get his anger out on the field because he took a lot of L’s on the video games.”
His college teammates knew it, too.
On Sept. 3, 2016, Wyoming beat Northern Illinois 40-34 in three overtimes. Josh won the game on a 7-yard touchdown scramble, eluding multiple defenders.
After the game, at around 4 a.m., Josh and some of his teammates and roommates were sitting on the couch in their apartment watching ESPN. The highlights of the game they had won were on the screen.
“Dude, you should think about entering [the NFL] this year, and then maybe you can be an undrafted free agent to one of these teams,” one of his teammates said.
The idea of Allen being a top NFL prospect wasn’t a thing yet.
“Can we finagle a way that you can be Tom Brady’s backup?” a teammate said. “Like, how sick would that be?”
ONE DAY DURING a fall camp practice at Wyoming in 2016, the specialists were standing to the side when an incomplete pass landed near them.
Typically in that situation, a player would hand the ball over to an equipment manager, who would return it to the offense.
Josh, however, had another idea.
“Throw it to me! Throw it to me, Cooper,” Josh shouted to kicker Cooper Rothe. “Here! Here!”
Rothe, a freshman, thought, “Well, if the quarterback wants the ball, I’m going to give him the ball.” So he threw the ball to Josh with what Rothe refers to as “probably the best pass of my whole life.”
But instead of catching the ball, Josh turned away and let it hit him in the back of the helmet. In mock frustration, Josh turned around and threw his hands up.
“Cooper, what the heck are you doing!” Josh shouted.
All the coaches started screaming at the kicker, telling him to take a lap.
BEFORE PLAYING IN the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Wyoming and Central Michigan faced off in a bowling alley. The starting offenses and defenses for both teams would bowl, and then they would see who had the highest combined scores at the end.
Josh had missed the final two regular-season games with a sprained right shoulder and was the last person to bowl. Wyoming needed a strike or it would lose the game. Things had gotten chippy between the two teams throughout the game, so the tension was rising.
Josh stood up, took the ball, threw it and didn’t even watch to see how many pins he hit. Instead, he turned around and walked off, of course hitting a perfect strike.
His teammates went wild celebrating. He brought a level of confidence, swagger back to the team.
The coaches picked up on it the next day at practice, noticing the team looked completely different.
The Cowboys went on to win 37-14, with Josh throwing three touchdown passes and being named MVP.
Up on the stage after the game, accepting his MVP trophy, Josh was asked, “What’s next for you?”
His teammates yelled, “Do it! Do it!”
After a pause and with a smile, Josh said, “I will be declaring for the 2018 NFL draft.”