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January 11, 2010
The Thrill Of It All
What rocks pass rusher Jared Allen's world? Old school football—especially the kind that's played in January
In Jared Allen's world there's a versatile, every-down word, and the word is badass. Allen usually pronounces it BAD-ass, which is how most people say it. Clint Eastwood is still a BAD-ass. But sometimes, when Allen is trying to make a point, he will say bad-ASS, as in Guys in the 1980s who wore mullets were bad-ASS. Every now and then Allen will emphasize both syllables, as if it were two words. Extra gravy is always BAD ASS. ¶ A football player can be a badass, of course. The old Los Angeles Rams star Jack Youngblood was a badass. "He played a whole game with a broken leg," Allen, like Youngblood, a defensive end, shouts. "I mean, think about that. How much of a badass was Jack Youngblood? I'll tell you: He was a serious badass." Serious badass, of course, trumps regular badass.
Many of the old-timers—Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, Brent Jones—are badasses in Allen's world. Those are the players who made him want to play football, who made him think it would be fun to hit people. Those are the players who inspired an eight-year-old Jared to tell his father, Ron, a tough old rancher, that he was going to be an NFL star.
Ron's advice: "Well, you better bring it, or you're going to get your ass kicked."
But it's important to note that a person does not have to be physically tough to be a badass in Allen's world. A waiter in a Mexican restaurant who brings Allen extra food is definitely a badass. A couple who shows up during his radio show decked out in Vikings outfits are badasses. The neighbors who shovel their driveways in -10° cold: Yeah, they're badasses. "Winter sucks, man," Allen says. Overcoming anything that sucks equals, yes, badass.
There are people who you might think would be badasses but are not—like left tackles all around the NFL who need double teams to block Allen. "These guys are supposed to be such badasses," he says, "and they're getting help?" He rolls his eyes. Allen never rolls his eyes at real badasses.
Sometimes Allen will use a less flattering meaning of badass, as in I've done a lot of stupid stuff. Hell, I got my badass thrown in jail. He has lived a purposefully wild life. He got thrown out of his high school. He got thrown out of bars. He got thrown out of a college game. He got traded from the team that drafted him after picking up two DUIs in five months—that's what got his badass thrown in jail in 2007.
And there's something else that's badass, something Jared Allen never saw coming. He's getting married in a few months. He has moved into a new five-bedroom house in the suburbs. He goes to Bible study on Thursdays. He has a big contract, he has respect, he has people showing up at the Baja Sol restaurant in Eden Prairie, Minn., six or seven hours before his radio show to get a seat, just so they can catch a glimpse of him. He is playing the best football of his career and is one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL today. His team finished the season 12--4 and is the second seed in the NFC playoffs. Life, he says, feels a bit more ordered.
"I'm growing up, you know," he says.
Who would have thought maturity could be badass?
Jail was not badass. Jared Allen sat in his best friend's car—it's been almost three years now—and he looked out the window, and it was dark, man, really dark, in part because it was February but also because, hell, he was almost 25 years old and he was an NFL star and his friend was driving him to jail. He had to serve two days after that second DUI. Two days of jail time may not seem like much for a badass, but it's enough to make a man reevaluate.
"What are you going to do about it?" his grandfather Ray had asked him just a few days before. O.K., seriously, you want to talk about a badass? Ray Allen, yes, he defines the word. He was a Marine for 26 years—they called him Scarface. Jared has said he's the sort of guy you thank for not killing you with one hand. And as Jared sat in that car, his grandfather's disappointed voice echoing in his head, the blackness of the moment searing through him, he asked himself that hard question: Am I a bad person?
He didn't think so. Yes, he did bad things. He liked to get in fights. He liked the sensation of hitting people—that's why he played football in the first place. He had a knack for getting in trouble. At Live Oak High in Morgan, Calif., Allen was one of the hottest defensive end prospects on the West Coast. Colorado wanted him, Michigan State, Washington, even Stanford called to ask him to take the SAT again. He told Stanford no—hell, he didn't want to take the SAT the first time—but the point was that he was in demand. Then he got thrown out of Live Oak as a junior for a prank that involved stolen yearbooks. To hear Allen tell it years later, he was not responsible. Either way, he got tossed, and the college offers went away. "You realize," he remembers telling the Live Oak principal, "you are f------ up my life."
Allen finished school at Los Gatos (Calif.) High and ended up going to Idaho State, a place he could not have hated more. It was small-time, and Allen knew he was big-time. He remembers getting into fights just about every weekend. He picked up a DUI there. He was arrested for battery and twice charged with resisting arrest. He was thrown out of a game after punching an opponent in the face. He was also one hell of a football player—he won the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defensive player in Division I-AA.
A bad guy? Well, wait. Jared liked kids, and he liked helping people. A spokesman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, he made a point of personally getting to know the children he worked with. He was intensely loyal to friends and loved making people laugh. The drinking, the carousing, the fighting—he just figured that was all part of being a badass football player. He was unblockable and unafraid. "You're young, single," he would say. "What do you do?"
You party—"with two r's," as Allen says. In 2004 the Chiefs took him in the fourth round, ridiculously late for a 6'6", 265-pound pass rusher with 4.7 speed. But nobody really knew what to make of Allen. After picking him, Kansas City talked about how it might use him as a long snapper. "We'll find out if he can do that at this level," general manager Carl Peterson said. Instead Allen started 10 games at defensive end in his rookie year and led the Chiefs with nine sacks. The next year he led them with 11 sacks. Two years later he led the league with 15½. He was an NFL star.
But there was more to that than he thought, more to the life than he imagined when he was eight. As he sat in the car and rode through the blackness to jail—well, no, it was not the first time he had thought about his life. And it was not the last time. But it felt more urgent in that moment.
Am I a bad person? he remembers thinking. Am I happy?
And it bothered him that no answer came to mind.
Beating a double team is badass. One way you can do it, Allen says, is to flash between the two blockers while they stare at each other with that Three I-thought-you-had-him look. Another way is to spin off one blocker and duck underneath the other in sort of a mixed-martial-arts move. His favorite, though, is to make the blockers collide and fall by one means or another, leaving him a freeway to the quarterback. That's badass. He can do it by knocking their heads together, like he's in a Steven Seagal movie; by shoving one blocker into another; or by creating confusion and mayhem, in which case the blockers knock each other out of the way. "One thing about the double team is that there has to be communication," he says. "And when there's communication, there's miscommunication."
Of course, it's hard to make any of that happen. Most of the time double teams keep him away from the quarterback. Sometimes they bring a running back over to chip him. Sometimes a tight end stays in to work with the left tackle. Sometimes Allen has to wrestle a tackle and a guard. He understands that this goes with being a dominant defensive end. But it still ticks him off. "You've seen that movie The Blind Side," he says. "They pay these left tackles all this money? And they can't block me one-on-one?" To Allen, beating a double team isn't just badass. It's justice.
But on Dec. 6 the Cardinals blunted Allen with double teams on every play—he was coming off a two-sack, one-interception game against the Bears—and the strategy worked. Allen was shut out, Brett Favre threw two interceptions, and Arizona crushed Minnesota. When a scheme is effective in the NFL, other teams copy it. The Bengals double-teamed Allen the next week, and again he did not get a sack (though the Vikings won easily). He did get a sack and force a fumble early in the game against the Panthers the following week, but Carolina's double teams and quarterback rollouts successfully stifled him. The Panthers won with a dominant fourth quarter, and afterward Allen was furious.
"The hardest part of getting double-teamed is the frustration," says former Vikings defensive end Carl Eller, a Hall of Famer. "It's frustrating because you've got two guys hitting you on every play, and it's hard to make plays when two guys are blocking you, believe me. What impresses me so much about Jared is that he plays hard every play. He may feel frustrated, but he never gives up on the play."
Playoff football is badass. Allen could not believe the difference. In 2006 the Chiefs, through a series of final-week flukes, sneaked into the playoffs and faced the Colts. The game was not especially compelling (Kansas City did not pick up a first down until the third quarter, and Indianapolis went on to win the Super Bowl), but Allen loved the white-hot intensity of it all. He would run with the bulls in Pamplona, and he would bungee jump in New Zealand, but playoff football was the thrill, man.
"In the playoffs it's like the business part of football is just gone," he says. "It isn't about how much money you make. Everybody makes the same amount [in the postseason]. It isn't about how good your team is, because every team is good. It's just, O.K., are you going to kick my ass or am I going to kick your ass? It's a lot like the peewee football we used to play. Let's just go see who is better."
After the Colts game ended, Allen went to K.C. coach Herm Edwards and said, "Man, that was such a rush. You have to get us back to the playoffs."
But that would not happen. A few weeks later Allen served his jail time, and then the Chiefs made it clear they weren't interested in signing him long term. "A young man at risk," Peterson called him publicly. Allen was enraged and said he wanted out of Kansas City.
"I'm very big on loyalty," Allen says. In his mind he had played his heart out for the Chiefs. He was a much better player than they had expected. He didn't hold out. He didn't make public demands. His teammate Larry Johnson—who had his own issues off the field—made a lot of noise and held out and got a long-term deal (which the team would come to regret). Allen just wanted to get as far away from the Chiefs as he could. But he was a restricted free agent, and no other team made an offer. He took Kansas City's one-year deal.
Still, his determination to move on helped him refocus his life. He changed his diet. He stopped drinking. He began a mixed-martial-arts regimen. And he played with a hunger that raged on every play. Gunther Cunningham, the Chiefs' defensive coordinator at the time, often spoke of how good Allen could be if he would play hard every down. In 2007 he did that. Allen led the league in sacks despite being suspended by the NFL for the first two games as a consequence of the DUIs. The Chiefs were dreadful—they lost their last nine games of the season—but Allen refused to allow the losing or the double teams or the bad feeling surrounding him to get in the way. He had his purpose. He wanted out.
"I loved my time in Kansas City," he says. "I loved the coaches—Herm and Gunther and everyone. I loved my teammates. But it was definitely a negative atmosphere. The losing kind of infected everything and everyone. It wasn't a lot of fun to go to work."
Allen was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the '07 season and made it clear again to Peterson that he had no interest in returning to Kansas City. For a while the G.M. tried to avoid the inevitable—he slapped the franchise tag on Allen—but three days before the 2008 draft the Chiefs traded Allen to the Vikings for a first-round pick and two third-round picks. The following fall the Chiefs had a total of 10 sacks, an NFL record for futility. Allen had 14½ for Minnesota, went back to the Pro Bowl and was a big factor in the Vikings' reaching the playoffs, for only the second time since 2001. This season he again had 14½ sacks. He made his third straight Pro Bowl and is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"It's a lot more fun here," Allen says. "I don't know if it's more fun because we're winning or we're winning because it's more fun. And you know what? It doesn't matter."
Old Vikings are badass. Take Jim Marshall. The guy played in 270 straight games for Minnesota, the other defensive end with Eller on the famed Purple People Eaters defense. And as Allen will tell you, Marshall played in the days when the money was lousy, the rules were secondary and the only point was to win games.
Allen readily admits he does not live that kind of football life. In April 2008 he signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the Vikings, the largest ever for a defensive end. In addition to his popular radio show, Jared Allen Live, on KFAN in Minneapolis, and a weekly television spot on Fox Sports North, Allen appears on a syndicated hunting program. He has an interactive website (jaredallen69inc.com) with READY FOR A BAD ASS YEAR? leading off his journal. He has been gearing up for a career in the media after he's done playing.
But when Allen is on the field, he wants to play football like those old Vikings did. "What I like about Jared," Eller says, "is he does not have all those twirly moves you see from other defensive ends. That might help you get to the quarterback, but it doesn't make you an every-down player. Jared doesn't do that. He is old school. He takes on the blockers head-on. He works leverage. He tries to push the blocker back. He's an every-down player, and I love seeing that. You don't see that much anymore."
Teammates and fans feed off Allen's energy. "He's the perfect Minnesota guy," says Mike Mussman, Allen's cohost on Jared Allen Live. "Everybody relates to him. Sure, he's an outdoors guy, and he loves country music, and he's wild and funny. But I think what really makes people love him is that he plays so hard."
Allen has had many talks with Marshall about what it takes to go all-out on every play. He remembers one time when Marshall pointed up at the banners in the Vikings practice facility—four for conference championships but none for a Super Bowl victory—and said, "That's what should keep you going right there."
"Jared really understood what I was saying," Marshall says. "You can play football for money, and you can play football for glory—you can play football for a lot of reasons. But there's only one reason that will keep you going when you're exhausted and you're beat up and nothing is going right. And that is the guys playing next to you and the guys playing behind you."
Talking football is not badass. Even before their radio show debuted in September, Allen told Mussman that he wanted to talk football as little as possible. He happily would cover anything else at length—country music, cars, male thongs, rap, mullets, Sarah Palin, whatever—but he did not want to dwell on football. "I remember one segment we talked a lot of football," Mussman says. "I mean, hey, the guy's a football player and people care about the Vikings. When we broke for commercial he turned to me and said, 'Man, that was a lot of football. Let's move on.'"
At 27 Allen doesn't love football quite like he did growing up. He still loves game days, for sure, but the business is vicious and the weeks are brutal. "Every day," he says, "is like getting in a slow-speed collision."
There are other things in his life now that make him happy. He enjoys quiet evenings with his fiancée, Amy Johnson. Last April he traveled to Kuwait and Iraq on the NFL's USO tour. He's still funny and a little crazy, but it's under control. "The thing people don't appreciate about Jared is that he is smart—really smart," Mussman says. "Sometimes on the show the producers will worry that Jared's going to say something that goes over the line. I keep telling them, 'Jared knows exactly where the line is.'"
Allen does not like talking about his past, or his transformation. He made mistakes. He did bad things. He also did good things. He worked hard to become a great player. But football does not define him. "People think they know me," he says. "It's kind of funny. They don't know me."
It's a Sunday, postgame, and in the locker room he's wearing a cowboy hat and an Old West jacket—he calls it his Wyatt Earp look. "You going to rob a bank?" a teammate yells across the room.
"Are you kidding?" Allen says. "This look is badass."
Pretty good Jared Allen article IMO.
"Right now Von Miller is the best pass rusher in the world. He looks exactly like Derrick Thomas did in his heyday."
- Jon Gruden