Last month, Devon Allen ran the third-fastest time in the history of the 110-meter hurdles.
Allen, 27, blazed past Grant Holloway, the Tokyo Olympic silver medalist, with a time of 12.84 seconds, a performance that has him eyeing his fourth U.S.A. Outdoor National Championship title this weekend and his first World Championship medal later this summer.
But Allen also has his sights set on another sport: football.
Nine days after he expects to compete at the World Championships, Allen will put on pads for the Philadelphia Eagles as a wide receiver.
In April, Allen, a former two-sport speedster at the University of Oregon, signed a three-year contract with the Eagles after impressing scouts by running the 40-yard-dash in an unofficial time of 4.35 at Oregon’s Pro Day. That time, which would have been the sixth-fastest time among receivers at the 2022 N.F.L. Scouting Combine, landed him a three-year contract.
But it still begs the question: Why would Allen risk a world-class track career to play a sport that twice left him in writhing in pain and in need of reconstructive knee surgery?
“I just like to play football,” he said with a laugh in a recent interview. “If I didn’t have any knee injuries in college, I probably would have been in the N.F.L. for five years by now. I probably would have just gone the draft route and found out what I could do in the off-season with track.”
Allen, who ran track and played football at the University of Oregon from 2013 to 2016, has suffered two anterior cruciate ligament tears. He underwent surgery for both and endured arduous rehabilitation.
The first tear came in Allen’s left knee when he was playing in the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship semifinal. A year later, just months after finishing fifth at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro — with professional track contract offers sitting on the table — Allen returned to football and tore the ligament in his right knee in the fourth game of the season. Two months later, in November 2016, he left Oregon, signing with Nike to become a professional track athlete.
“I was in tears apologizing to him; I was sick to my stomach,” said Matt Lubik, then Oregon’s wide receivers coach, who helped convince Allen to return to football in 2016. “He looked at me and said, coach, ‘I would have done the same thing again.’”
Athletes have juggled two professional sports before. Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson played professional baseball and football, and Renaldo Nehemiah, the first 110-meter hurdler to run under 13 seconds, played for the San Francisco 49ers for three seasons. But none of those athletes suffered grueling injuries on the football field before trying the juggling act.
There is also the lure of the N.F.L. salary. The minimum wage for an N.F.L. player is $660,000. In professional track, no governing body sets a minimum standard for pay. Runners, the luckiest among them, at least, sign contracts with athletic brands that pay them, and they win prize money from different races. Some professional track athletes have been reported to make as little as $5,000 a year.
“I’m doing pretty well for myself in track, so it’s not it’s not about the money,” Allen said. “That’s not a motivating factor at all. Since I was a little kid, I wanted to play in the N.F.L., and I got my opportunity.”
Allen signed a three-year $2.5 million contract with the Eagles. But just $40,000 is guaranteed if Allen fails to make the final 53-man roster, according to OverTheCap. And that’s far from a sure bet. He proved to be a gifted receiver at Oregon, leading the team in touchdown catches as a sophomore. Still, Allen will be joining one of the best wide receiver groups in the N.F.L., led by the former Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown and the first-round pick DeVonta Smith. There’s also the chance he could play on special teams; he thrived as a gunner on punt and kick returns at Oregon.
Lubik is confident that Allen will find a way to make the Eagles roster and shock the Philadelphia coaches, the same way he did Oregon coaches years ago.
“Every time you think he can’t do something, you challenge him. Not only does he do it, but he blows it away,” Lubik said, noting how Allen unexpectedly became Oregon’s go-to recover as a junior and has found success after two A.C.L. surgeries. “That’s why even with the challenge of the N.F.L., you can never count that guy out. I can see him being a big-time guy in the N.F.L.”
Allen’s track coach, Jamie Cook, says he has advised against football at specific points because of the inherent risk but knows that when Allen is determined to do something, there is not much that can be done to talk him out of it.
He thinks back to the first time Allen caught his eye when Cook was an assistant track coach at Oregon. Allen was a sophomore competing at the Nike High School National Championships in 2011 when he was disqualified for falling over a hurdle in the 110-meter hurdle finals. It was the kind of thing that would make many high school athletes crumble, but Allen returned to win the 100-meter dash national title.
“Devon is just really not ever afraid to fail,” said Cook, now the director of track and field at the United States Naval Academy. This season, for example, Allen made the difficult switch from an eight-step approach to the first hurdle to a seven-step approach. In his first race after the adjustment, he ran the third-fastest time ever.
He remains fearless as he looks ahead to fulfilling his dream of playing in the N.F.L., which is now within reach. Allen says he is comfortable with the risk of his football endeavor, and is confident in his abilities despite the injuries and time away from the field.
“I’m not going to the Eagles just to be on the team,” Allen said. “I want to play. I want to contribute and be the player I believe I can be.”
But first, he has a national championship and world championship to win – on the track.
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