One of Keenan Allen's biggest rivals isn't a football player. It's a 13-year-old kid named Josh Paquette.
See, there’s this reaction dot game called the Senaptec Sensory Training System at Proactive Sports Performance in Santa Ana, California, where you tap blinking lights as quickly as they appear. Think Whack-A-Mole, but without the hammer or the holes. Allen trains there with other professional athletes, and the Los Angeles Chargers receiver is the best among his football peers with scores typically in the mid- to high-70s.
But he’s not better than Paquette, who regularly hits the 80s.
And it drives Allen crazy.
They've never met before, but Allen's watched the videos of Paquette tapping the dots with lightning-fast reflexes in both astonishment and amelioration.
“He’s a savage. Oh my God. He’s a savage,” Allen lamented during a Zoom call in March. “It's amazing. He's so precise, it's ridiculous. I'm not that precise, yet. He's just bink, bink, bink, bink, bink, bink, bink. It's crazy."
Is Allen frustrated by this admission? Sure. But he doesn’t agonize over being second-best – at least not publicly. He wants that top spot. Badly. And that’s the same thought process that goes through Allen’s mind every time he tries something new.
“Anybody who has talent, I’m just intrigued by it,” Allen said, smirking. “I just want to know more about it and how I can get it. How can I do what they just did?”
Take the piano, for instance, one of Allen's first loves. The hand movements and harmonious notes of the instrument mesmerized him the first time he saw a former teammate play one summer afternoon in Greensboro, North Carolina. Allen didn’t just want to learn how to play, he needed to learn. Like an itch that needed to be scratched.
“He was playing Beethoven – the "Für Elise" song,” Allen said. “I was just like, what the f—? I need to know how to do that. So he just started teaching me the right hand over the left hand. And then I just started putting it together by myself, and then kept it going.”
Allen has practiced the piano a lot since that day and it remains a favorite among one of his many hobbies. He can actually count on two hands the different activities he loves without even including football. In addition to the piano, Allen also sings, golfs, plays basketball, bowls, plays cards, rollerblades, plays video games, cooks and plays paintball.
Oh yeah, and he raises four kids with his fiancée, Ciandra Monique, all the while dominating the NFL as one of the leagues’ best and most consistent wide receivers.
Allen isn’t just an enthusiast when it comes to those hobbies, either, and he never will be. Like the piano and the reaction dot game, he has to master everything he touches.
But why learn all these new skills when he’s already so good at football?
“I think just understanding myself, knowing what I'm capable of,” Allen says. “And I feel like I'm capable of anything. So I don't set boundaries. I don't set limits. I don't think anything's impossible.”
Keenan Allen won't settle for second: 'Bring your ass back over here'
A few weeks after Justin Herbert was drafted by the Chargers at No. 6 overall, the young quarterback met Allen for the first time at Proactive. He watched Allen workout to get a sense of how his new top receiving target trains in the offseason. Herbert couldn’t keep up. Allen just moved effortlessly from machine to machine, exercise to exercise. Herbert even tried the reaction dot game and failed miserably.
“He just flew around and you could tell that he's a crazy athlete,” Herbert recalled. “And even lifting, he wanted to be faster and he wanted to be stronger. He just went through it so quickly that you kind of had to find a way to keep up with him.”
That mentality extended even further once the two hit the practice field. Herbert remembers Allen didn’t need to be taught any of the new route concepts the Chargers put in place once Herbert arrived. He just lined up, found the angles and the right leverage points and exploded out of the breaks. Allen started teaching the other receivers how to run the routes, too.
Where Herbert noticed Allen really thriving was during one-on-one drills. He’d line up against a defensive back, talk some trash and slice him up for six. It didn’t matter who it was.
Allen started facing Chargers safety Derwin James a few times as well after drills ended. Safeties and receivers rarely face each other in practice, but the two jawed and joked about going against each other for years and finally decided to duke it out one afternoon.
James won the first bout, Allen admitted, but the next day when James jogged over to where the linebackers and tight ends were practicing – where he’d normally go at this point in practice – Allen called him back over.
“Oh no, D.J. Don’t run. Bring your ass back over here,” Allen confidently shouted to James, “I ain’t scared of no competition.”
On the first play, Allen sped past James on a deep route to even the score.
“Keenan's the type of guy, if you tell him something, he's gonna master that and then add to it,” James said. “So you gotta be careful what you teach him. He doesn't beat me on everything. But he’s great though. He’s definitely different. He’s a dog, for sure. He stands out.”
From inactive his first game to perennial Pro Bowler
Between Allen’s mom Dorie and her four sisters, there were 11 young kids running around in Allen's generation. Their top game – and likely the one that spurred Allen’s competitive spirit and ability to break tackles so effortlessly – was “pick-up-and-go.”
All the participants would stand in a circle and one person would throw the football in the air. Whoever caught it would have to run it back to the designated "end zone" while the rest of the group tried to tackle them.
Those games taught Allen toughness from an early age, and it was a lesson he didn’t forget. Years later during Allen’s senior year at Cal, he got so sick on the sideline against Southern Utah that he threw up into a trash can before running out onto the field to return a punt.
Allen muffed the punt, but then picked it back up, evaded multiple tacklers and ran the ball back for the score.
"I hate disappointment," Allen said, looking back. "Having to see somebody's face after you f— up is the worst s— ever. So I never want to be on that side of the line."
Allen thought about giving up on something once, though. The Chargers didn’t activate Allen for Week 1 of his rookie year after picking him in the third round of the 2013 draft. An infuriated Allen called his mom after the game and told her was going back to school to study music.
“I'm like, I'm not about to watch," he remembers thinking. "That's not going to happen.”
But his mom told him to stick it out, hang in there and see what happens the rest of the year.
The very next game, Malcolm Floyd left with a neck injury and the Chargers sent Allen in as his replacement. On one of the first plays of Allen’s NFL career, he caught an 18-yard pass in the middle of the field on third-and-8 with Eagles cornerback Cary Williams draped all over him. His introduction to the league was classic Allen – fighting for every leverage, every yard and hauling in the seemingly uncatchable.
He wasn’t watching from the sidelines anymore. That catch set up a touchdown-scoring drive to extend the Chargers’ lead. He made another third-down reception in the middle of the field early in the fourth quarter, too. Allen finished the game with only those two receptions, but the Chargers left Philadelphia with the win and Allen left with a starting role on the offense for the next seven years. He finished his rookie season with 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns – which rank 18th and tied for 12th all-time, respectively.
His accolades since then speak for themselves: four Pro Bowls, 2017 Comeback Player of the Year, four 1,000-yard receiving seasons and four consecutive seasons with at least 95 receptions.
Allen’s mastery of football isn’t complete just yet, but he’s already looking at his next hobby to conquer. He wants to add to his instrumental arsenal by learning how to play the guitar. It’s not as simple as Allen hoped it would be, though.
“Music just makes me feel good. I'm in love with music. It's good for the spirit, good for the soul,” Allen says. “But that s—’s tough. That s—’s tough.”