THE NEW head of Big Brothers Big Sisters Southeastern Pennsylvania knew that his only shot at escaping abject poverty in rural Georgia was to go to college.

But the biggest goal anyone around Marcus Allen had growing up was to graduate from high school and maybe get a factory job. When he'd bring up his dream of continuing his education, relatives and friends would laugh and say, "Boy, you're not going to college. We don't go to college."

It might have ended there, if not for Allen's mentors - a couple of old-school, God-fearing Southern gentlemen willing to step in for the father that Allen never knew.

There was Willie Williams, a well-respected police officer in their hometown of Thomson, Ga., who taught Allen the importance of putting education first. Later, he was mentored by Ron Spry, head basketball coach at Paine College, a small, historically black school in Augusta, Ga.

Spry made Allen wear neckties, go to church regularly and learn public speaking. Spry cried with Allen the night Allen confided that his college girlfriend was pregnant. Spry encouraged him to pursue his dream of playing professional basketball.

Today, Allen, 41, is paying it forward in his new position as chief executive of a nonprofit that's all about mentoring: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The organization, which helped about 3,000 youngsters last year, announced Allen's appointment last month.

The timing couldn't be better, considering how great the need is. The agency has 1,600 youngsters on its waiting list, most of them black males. It's heartbreaking - youngsters in need of role models and not enough men willing to be that special person in their lives. No wonder so many young people wind up following the wrong influences.

"How will we be judged if we sit here and allow what we see going on in our neighborhoods and are not doing anything about it?" Allen said. "My heart goes out to these kids."

His story, their story

Growing up, Allen's family was often homeless. He saw an uncle slain during an argument.

After that, his mother moved him and his younger brother in with their grandparents, sharing a small, wooden house with a tin roof - and no indoor plumbing.

Life was better for him there but still challenging.

Allen used to help his grandfather chop wood to earn pocket change. School was a bright spot. He loved math and science, and since he looked up to pro football player Marcus Allen, he tried out for a community football team. That's when he met Williams, a former college track star.

"He started spending time with me," Allen recalled. "He was the first person that really spoke to me about the importance of college. He made it feel like it was really possible for me to go."

During Allen's later high-school years, he sprouted five inches and began playing on the basketball team. His coach invited the athletic director at Paine College to watch Allen play.

"I saw something in him that I liked, so I ended up signing him," Spry recalled. "Marcus came, and he was an instant success, because he was a leader. And not only was he a leader, but he was real smart academically. And he was well-received by his peers, not only on the basketball team but on the campus. . . . When Marcus played, he had a phenomenal collegiate career, one that most athletes would dream about having."

Allen quit college to try out for the Denver Nuggets. He didn't make the team, but went on to play professional ball in Sweden, Finland, Israel and Argentina.

He and Spry stayed in touch, developing a father-son relationship that continues. Spry counseled him about managing his money so that he wouldn't end up broke, the way many professional athletes do. Spry reminded Allen to go to church - and plan for the future.

"Even now, we get on the telephone and talk for an hour," Spry told me last week.

Allen has stayed close with his son, who lived with his mother until her death three years ago. Since then, Allen has had sole custody of Cameron Lyles, who will start college next year at Memphis State.

Back to college

By 1999, Allen was done with basketball and living in Philadelphia, finishing his undergraduate degree at Temple. He also has a master's in technology management from the University of Phoenix.

He volunteered to help out at VisionQuest, a national social-service agency that works with at-risk kids. The organization snapped him up to be a marketing manager, which he did while finishing his degree. By the time he left in 2009, Allen was running the Philly office.

His next stop was at ACHIEVEability, which works to break the generational poverty cycle in Philadelphia through home ownership and education.

"I admire his passion for service," said Alba Martinez, former president of the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. "He has a great story. I think he's a very charismatic man and has a terrific personality and exudes caring."

Oh, and there's some romance in Allen's story, too. He was at a political party when he spotted Tamica Benton across the room and told someone he was with that he'd seen his future wife. They've been married eight years and have two kids together, plus her daughter from a previous relationship, and Cameron.

Standing tall

At this point, he's been in the job less than a month and is still assessing the agency and its needs. High on his to-do list: becoming a Big Brother himself.

When he told me that, I started picturing what some kid's going to think the day that Allen, who stands nearly 6 feet 7 inches tall, shows up to take him out. Maybe they'll go to a neighborhood court to play hoops.

I could hear Allen telling the kid about the time he tried out for the Denver Nuggets, or how he lived in Helsinki playing for the team there. Some kid's life is about to be changed forever.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong
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