From Sapelo Island to the NFL: The Journey of Allen Bailey |


Sapelo Island
to the NFL:

The Journey of
Allen Bailey

By BJ Kissel

Chiefs Reporter

All along the one paved road that's barely wide enough for a single car, and which winds its way throughout this tiny island, the Spanish moss blankets the towering oak trees that provide shade to most of the uninhabited land underneath.

It could be considered the quintessential portrait of Southern living.

No matter which direction you look, it's like something right out of a book, but here on Sapelo Island - one of the many barrier islands off the coast of Georgia - the 13-mile-long former slave colony is home to less than 50 permanent residents, many of whom are related to their most famous citizen - Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Allen Bailey.

The history of Sapelo Island is tangled among the very essence of the country as a whole - going back to the days before the Civil War.

For those who grew up here and call it home - all of whom are descendants of slaves who used to work on the island - the land under their feet is more than just a piece of property. It's a reminder of who they are and where they've come from.

At 6 feet 3 inches tall and almost 300 pounds, Allen grew to have the kind of size you might expect from a kid who grew up on Sapelo hunting wild boar, razorbacks and raccoons, while also clamming and fishing in the narrow, winding creek that snakes its way through the island.

This is life today on Sapelo.

The west side of the island is mostly marshland, stocked full of prime fishing holes, and also the second-oldest brick lighthouse in the country, built back in 1820 and then later renovated. The east side has white sand beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see and rarely have more than a few people on it.

Reynolds Mansion

Reynolds Mansion

The most famous building on the island is the Reynolds Mansion, which can be rented out by tourists and is where Allen's mother and sister work as cooks to this day. Some of its most notable occupants throughout history are former United States Presidents Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge, along with the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.

"He talks to us all the time about (his hometown)," fellow Chiefs defensive lineman, Dontari Poe, said of his teammate. "So we know about the whole situation - about how country he is."

Allen is the second youngest of seven children, with three brothers - all of whom are 6 feet 3 or taller, and three sisters, each born a year apart. Together, they grew up running around this giant playground, as they describe their hometown.

Allen is a beast. We call him the 'Incredible Hulk.' When you walk up to him, you may think, 'Man, I'm scared of this guy,' because he's pretty yoked up."

- Derrick Johnson on Allen

Sapelo, or more specifically, Hog Hammock - the small community where most of the permanent residents live - is where Allen was taught the value of hard work by his father, Alfred, who passed away just three years ago this September. It's also where he learned how to be accountable to an entire community.

For some, this is the place Allen developed almost superhuman-like strength.

"Allen is a beast," veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson said of his teammate of five years. "We call him the 'Incredible Hulk.' When you walk up to him, you may think, 'Man, I'm scared of this guy,' because he's pretty yoked up. I mean, he's one of the strongest guys on the team, but he's also one of the nicest.

"He doesn't talk much - he's soft spoken, but when he gets on the field, he makes a lot of noise."

That combination of size and strength developed over time for Allen, and the force he displays on the field has been praised by some of the best in the game.

After the Week 6 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings last year, Adrian Peterson, the All-Pro running back who was held to just 60 yards on 26 carries that day, said, "I'll tell you this, No. 97 (Bailey) grabbed me one time and swung me down.

Allen Bailey

Allen against the Vikings in Week 6 of the 2015 season

"I was able to feel the force that he had - that guy is extremely strong."

Allen was a part of a defensive front that held Peterson to one of the lowest outputs of what could be a Hall of Fame career for the Vikings star running back when it's all said and done. Allen had 8 tackles, 3 of which resulted in a loss on the play, 3 quarterback hits and a sack.

He was dominant that day, but the imposing nature of Allen didn't reveal itself immediately when he first started playing the game.

"Allen was always clumsy," Mary Bailey, Allen's mother, explained of him as a kid. "He would fall down a lot and the kids would laugh at him - his sisters would laugh at him. That was the funniest thing about him growing up being clumsy, because he's playing professional football now."

Mary Bailey, Allen's mother

Mary Bailey, Allen's mother

The nickname he was given at school, obviously, didn't follow him for long either.

"He was called Cupcake in high school because he didn't hit hard enough," Mary explained. "He used to hit too soft, so they called him Cupcake."

If his mother hadn't have said it herself, there would be no reason to believe this could be true, and as Peterson can attest, it's fair to assume nobody is still calling him this today.

''We police ourselves''

There was nothing soft about the way Allen and his siblings grew up.

Everything was kind of free range. A raccoon, you either go hunt them, or you set a trap for them. Wild hogs, you set a trap too."

- Allen on growing up

While some cows, chickens and a few other animals are bred on the island, most of the other meats they eat are hunted.

"Everything was kind of free range," Allen explained. "A raccoon, you either go hunt them, or you set a trap for them. Wild hogs, you set a trap too."

Whether it was possum, squirrel or rabbit, the Bailey family and everyone who lives on Sapelo Island learned to fend for themselves.

"He knows how to get his hands muddy and how to take care of himself," Cornelia Bailey, Allen's great aunt and the island's historian, explained. "They say, 'Give a man a fish and he'll feed himself for a day, but teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime.'

"That's the kind of atmosphere he was brought up in."

Allen explained how there was always a spotter and a shooter whenever they'd go hunting, and the best time to hunt was at night with the spotter holding a flashlight.

They'd see the reflection of eyes in the darkness and that's how they'd find their prey.

"My sister can't shoot for nothing, but she can find a raccoon," Allen added with a laugh.

The family knows how to take care of itself. Its members do not depend on the luxuries and comforts of the mainland, as they only rely on one another.

Allen's home on Sapelo Island

Allen's home on Sapelo Island

"We grow our own garden, do our own fishing, clamming, and we all taught them all how to do that," Mary explained of raising seven children on Sapelo. "After that we didn't have to go to town so much and buy food. They'd help each other and they'd watch out for each other."

This garden, which is just out of the reach of shade provided by the grapefruit tree that sits outside of Mary's house, died this year because of the excessive heat.

Temperatures can get up into the upper 90s and even the 100s on the island, and they can get as low as the 20s during the winter. While it never snows there, it's common to find frost on the grass during the cold winter mornings.

[Allen] told me not to eat the raccoons or the possums here (in Kansas City) - the ones I see coming to work, because they eat garbage. The ones he's eating aren't doing that. He says they taste better."

- Coach Reid on some advice from Allen

The lessons learned from this island way of life are passed along.

"I've seen a show on it, on the history channel," head coach Andy Reid explained of Allen's hometown. "[Allen] told me not to eat the raccoons or the possums here (in Kansas City) - the ones I see coming to work, because they eat garbage.

"The ones he's eating aren't doing that. He says they taste better."

The only way to visit the island is by ferry, which leaves the mainland dock that's located in Darien, Georgia, each morning around 8:30 a.m., and then returns at 5:00 p.m., and runs through any kind of weather.

All visitors to the island must either come over on an official tour, or they must be approved by a resident of the island.

The one school on the island closed back in 1978, so kids take the ferry to the mainland each morning, and when they arrive at the dock, there's a bus waiting to take them to school.

The whole trip - through the calm, steady water of the marshland that separates the two pieces of land - takes more than an hour altogether by the time the kids arrive at school.

Allen lost count trying to figure out how many times he's made that trek across the water in his life to go to school, but recalled there were about 20 other kids who made that trip with him every day when he was younger.

School days begin early in the morning for kids on Sapelo, baths were taken the night before and there was no such thing as running late for school. The ferry did not wait.

Allen's father, Alfred, worked the ferry for 33 years before retiring in 2010.

"He was always working hard towards something," Allen explained of what he learned from his father. "Good and bad, just take it and roll with it and make the most of everything. Be respectful to everybody you meet.

"He just taught me the drive, the work ethic."

This way of life is one that many couldn't comprehend unless they experience it for themselves.

There are no grocery stores, hospitals or police stations.

We police ourselves - ain't none of that necessary. Everybody has known each other since they were little."

- Allen on living on the island

In case of an emergency, a helicopter can be called, but for the most part - they all just rely on each other, even for problems that may arise.

"We police ourselves - ain't none of that necessary," Allen explained. "Everybody has known each other since they were little."

There's no cell service but for a couple of spotty areas on the Western side of the island that faces the mainland.

There are cars on the island that are brought over via a barge that comes just a few times per month, and gas can be purchased from the island's station, which is unmanned and works by credit card only.

There's a limited amount of gas that's available, and once the tank is empty, everyone has to wait until the barge returns and the tank can be filled up again to get more.

They have their own way of doing things.

"It's a little quiet," Allen explained. "The town goes a little bit slower over here."

With seven kids sharing rooms in a small home on this tiny island, the majority of time for the Bailey kids growing up was spent outside.

"We'd just run around the island - walk around and make up games," Allen explained. "Anything you could possibly do. Think about it - who wants seven kids in the house at one time?

"You wouldn't have a house no more. They made us go outside."

The entire island was their playground.

Allen and his brothers and sisters could walk to the beach, explore the island for wildlife by going hunting, fishing or clamming, or they could swing by the "gator pond," which always had at least a couple of alligators swimming slowly through the murky water.

The gator pond

The "gator pond"

"They have a certain amount of freedom that kids on the mainland just don't have," Cornelia explained. "So that alone makes them wiser and gives them strength."

If any of the kids did something wrong, they were all punished. It's how they stayed accountable to one another, but that was never an issue for Allen.

''A mild-mannered Clark Kent.''

The player now known as "The Hulk" by his teammates was given another nickname by his great aunt not just because of his inconspicuous mannerisms, but his obvious size and ability as a teenager.

"If there was a Superman on Sapelo, that would have been Allen, a mild-mannered Clark Kent," Cornelia proclaimed. "The rest of the kids got into trouble, but not Allen.

"He was just a nice young man."

I wanted to play football because my brother was playing. He was in 11th grade when I started. I would go to practice and I'd wait for him to get done."

- Allen on getting into football

Allen was always one of the bigger kids around, but he didn't start playing football until the seventh grade.

"He wouldn't do anything," Mary explained of Allen as a kid. "He wouldn't play anything. I talked to him one day and asked him if he wanted to play sports, and he tried out for football and loved it."

Allen recalled what first got him interested in the sport.

"I wanted to play football because my brother was playing," Allen explained. "He was in 11th grade when I started. I would go to practice and I'd wait for him to get done.

"He played defensive end and running back."

Allen eventually developed into a standout football player at McIntosh County Academy, which sits just a few miles from the dock in Darien. He became one of the most sought-after high school football recruits in the country back in 2006, ranking as the No. 20 overall player in the country by

Allen had to find somewhere to stay on the mainland during the week because practices weren't over by that time the ferry would leave each night.

"I started staying (on the mainland) in seventh grade," Allen explained. "I stayed with my auntie (at first). In high school, I was staying with one of my best friends, and I stayed there for three years."

Allen chose to attend the University of Miami on a football scholarship. He wanted to get away from Georgia but not be so far that he couldn't easily come back home, and Miami was the perfect choice. He had liked the school since he was a kid and they were a little less than six hours away.

Bailey at the University of Miami

Allen at the University of Miami

"People ask me all the time if it was a culture shock," Allen explained of moving to Miami. "For me, not so much just because I was back and forth from the mainland (in high school), so I'm used to having people around.

"People are generally nicer [on Sapelo], and just in South Georgia period, but to go to Miami where everybody is kind of in a rush to go here and there, that and there, it was different."

Allen became a two-time All-ACC defensive lineman at Miami, and over a four-year career appeared in 50 games, which ranks as the third-most in school history.

He was selected by the Chiefs in the third round (No. 86 overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft, and it took a while for him to explain to his teammates about his hometown.

Bailey during the 2011 NFL Draft

Allen during the 2011 NFL Combine

"I had to use Google maps to show them exactly what I was talking about because they didn't think Georgia had islands," Allen recalled. "I had to show them more than just tell them."

Allen's breakout season for the Chiefs came in 2014, where after three seasons of working as a situational pass-rushing defensive tackle, Allen had made a concerted effort to become a three-down player, which meant changing his body.

He used the work ethic he learned from his father to do just that, gaining good weight and becoming a more complete player, and he nearly doubled his stats in 2014 compared with first three years of his career.

All the work he put in paid off, and Allen earned a multi-year extension from the Chiefs in November of 2014, just barely a year after his father had passed away.

"If his father were here, he would be proud of him," Mary explained. "I know he misses his father a lot, like I miss him."

Mary won't ever leave Sapelo, and she wouldn't accept leaving her house when Allen offered to get her a new one, so he remodeled her current home instead.

It's not a fast or easy process when making renovations to a house on Sapelo Island. All of the wood and materials must come over via a barge, which can take a few weeks, as they only come a few times per month.

Allen's home on Sapelo Island

Allen's home on Sapelo Island

"I added like two rooms to the end of the house and I made everything look bigger - a little more spacious for when everybody comes home for holidays and stuff," Allen explained. "We've got more room to move around and be comfortable now."

Allen's other splurge after signing that deal was the purchase of two Polaris off-road vehicles, which he and his family can be seen driving anywhere and everywhere around Sapelo.

"They're perfectly made for over here," he laughed.

Other than that, there's hardly any proof of Bailey's professional success in the way he carries himself around the island.

''We've always been Saltwater Geechees.''

There's a certain level of pride that Allen carries with him from being a child of Sapelo Island, but much like anything else in life, things are changing for those living on the island today.

"It's changing because a lot of people who weren't born here are buying property and building houses," Cornelia explained.

Cornelia Bailey, Allen's great aunt

Cornelia Bailey, Allen's great aunt

While land that has beach access and a remote feel to it definitely piques the interest of outsiders looking to make a buck - renting for vacation purposes - there's a depth to the people of this land that stretches back more than two centuries, to before the Civil War.

They are called "Saltwater Geechees," which is the name derived from slaves brought over in the late 1700s and early 1800s from West Africa, specifically the Sierra Leone and Liberia areas.

That's the lineage of the Bailey family.

It's who they are. It's the cultural heritage that Allen's aunt, Cornelia, has dedicated her life to preserving. She grew up on Sapelo Island and literally wrote the book, "God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man," on its history.

"I can directly trace my great-great-great grandfather, Bilali Muhammed (to Sapelo)," she explained. "So it's like, the beginning of written knowledge of us being here."

Remains of the houses made of tabby

Remains of the houses made of tabby

The family has been on this island and in this small community, ever since.

The old chocolate, cotton and sugarcane plantations on the west side of the island, which still include the houses made of tabby - crushed oyster shells, sand, ash and water - is where the slaves once lived and are still partially intact to this day.

I think he loves to come back home and relax. He enjoys himself when he comes home. He goes riding his little sand dune things or whatever. He doesn't like to be disturbed by people. He'll just stay around the house."

- Mary on when Allen comes home

"You need something to hold on to that is yours," Cornelia explained. "This is it. America is a country that used to be - grandmamma was right around the corner - now grandma is 3,000 miles away.

"So here on Sapelo, we have this sense of family."

There's a pride emanating from the people of this island about what it means to them.

"Even if [Allen] doesn't realize it at his young age now, it's really going to sink in on him what it really meant to him to carry the weight of Sapelo on his back," Cornelia explained. "I think it's going to mean a lot to him."

For now, Allen enjoys the laidback atmosphere of the island.

"This is a place you can listen to the birds and bees and not worry about a whole lot," Cornelia added.

"I think he loves to come back home and relax," Mary explained. "He enjoys himself when he comes home. He goes riding his little sand dune things or whatever. He doesn't like to be disturbed by people. He'll just stay around the house."

One of the most prized possessions at Mary's house is a gift Allen got her after he graduated from Miami.

When a friend of Allen's, who was an artist, asked him what he might want to be painted, Allen chose to have the picture of him and his parents at his graduation ceremony.

The painting means everything to his mom, who has it hanging above the couch in her living room.

"She cried more at my college graduation than she did when I got drafted," Allen explained. "It has always been school for them. Any time I would come home from break when I was in college - that was the main thing.

The painting of Allen's graduation ceremony

The painting of Allen's graduation ceremony

"My mother wasn't really worried about football."

Allen thinks about his father - the one who instilled that drive and work ethic that's brought him all the way to the NFL - often.

On game day, Allen has a ritual he goes through to honor and remember his father.

"As soon as the national anthem starts, that's when I have a little talk with him before every game," he explained.

"It will be three years in September," Mary noted of the anniversary. "If you're sticking together like family, you'll make it through. You'll be strong.

"If you've got a family bond, you're okay."

That's how it's always been, and how it will continue to be, for those on Sapelo Island.