Football or hurdles? Oregon’s Devon Allen doesn't want to choose right now
- Oregon WR Devon Allen was a crucial part of the Ducks' run to the 2014 College Football Playoff. But as the season looms, Devon isn't on the football field. Instead, he's at the Rio Olympics, racing in the 110m hurdles.
EUGENE, Ore. — It went just as Devon Allen had planned. First, he took 10 leaps over the 10 hurdles, beating everyone to the finish line in 13.03 seconds, a lifetime best and the second fastest time in the world this year. Then Devon took one final leap, over the Hayward Field fence and into his father’s arms, catching Louis Allen off-guard.
And that’s saying something, because not much Devon does these days surprises Louis.
Was Louis elated that his son won the 110-meter men’s hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials? Of course. Impressed? You bet.
“I can’t look at the photo of us hugging without breaking down into tears,” Louis says. “He seemed like a little kid when he won. He just wanted it so bad.”
But was Louis shocked? Not even a little.
“Since he was old enough to participate in sports, if he believes he can do something, he does it.”
So when runners line up for the final of the 110m hurdles Tuesday evening at the Rio Olympics, Louis doesn’t just expect Devon to be lining up in that final, having safely made it through the heats and the semifinals—Louis is sure he’s going to win. And then Devon, a key piece to the University of Oregon’s run to the 2014 College Football Playoff, is expected to return to Eugene for his third college football season.
“You know how we do [the big screen] video before every game where they introduce all the players?” Devon says. “I was thinking it would be cool to wear my gold medal in the video.”
But what comes after that? There’s professional track, the NFL and maybe … professional baseball?
“I honestly believe if he had stuck with baseball he could be a pro right now,” Louis says. “He was great at stealing bases and running down fly balls. A good friend of mine is a positional coach with the Kansas City Royals and he’s told me, ‘If you give me 30 days with Devon, I could at least get him a minor league contract.’”
Don’t be surprised if Devon does it, Louis says. His son has been known to set some outlandish goals, and then follow through on them.
During a spring practice in Devon’s freshman year, the confident freshman wondered aloud, “Hey, what’s the world record in the 110 hurdles?”
Someone answered, and Devon nodded matter-of-factly. “I’m gonna beat that some day,” he said. “And I’m gonna go to the Olympics.”
It was a bold statement coming from someone who’d only been hurdling for a few years, taking up the event when he was 16. (Days before leaving for Rio, Devon offered this: “If I had focused on sprints, I think I’d be running 9.5 in the 100 right now.”)
“I mean, when he said that, we’re just getting to know each other,” says Oregon track and field coach Robert Johnson, who will be in Rio to watch his star pupil. “For him to make such a bold statement at such an early age, that said a lot about him and his mindset. And I think he gets a lot of that mindset from football—that ‘go get ‘em, go after it’ mentality.”
In his rookie year at Oregon, Devon won the 2014 NCAA and USATF titles, the first 110 hurdler to accomplish that double since 1979. His 13.16 at the NCAA championships set a school and meet record. Then he returned to the football field for a breakout season, catching 41 passes for 684 yards. He torched secondaries with his speed, scoring seven touchdowns, and became a dangerous returner, averaging more than 26 yards per return despite only eight carries.
Then, in the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl, Johnson’s worst fears came true.
As Devon raced back the opening kickoff, dodging would-be tacklers, he saw one last barrier before the end zone.
“There was only one more person in front of me,” Devon recalls wistfully. “Everyone else was over to the left. When I went to cut, when I tore it, there was only one guy left. That would have been cool to score on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl.”
Johnson’s reaction from Eugene, where he was watching on television: “Holy s---!”
Devon went down, clearly hurt, but no one knew the severity of his injury. He limped off the field on his own power, watching the rest of the half from the trainer’s table. During games, Louis turns off his phone, trying to avoid the distraction of congratulatory texts that typically stream in anytime Devon grabs a pass or a touchdown. At halftime he turned it on, horrified to see he had “something like 15 voicemails” informing him that Devon had likely blown out his knee.
Doctor’s confirmed the injury—a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus—and Devon’s 2015 track season was shot.
He opted for the most painful surgery, a procedure where doctors cut into his patella tendon, take a piece and sew it onto his ACL. Eventually, Devon explained, the body grafts the patella into a thicker, stronger ACL, ideal for someone making a lot of lateral cuts. He chose the surgery with his future in mind; were he going to return only to running, he probably would have taken an intact ACL from a cadaver.
Pain management proved harder than he anticipated. Devon came back for the 2015 season, but played sparingly, as Oregon used him primarily as a decoy or blocker. He recorded just nine receptions for 91 yards, and did not attempt a return. Duck football coaches famously do not discuss injuries, but it was clear to anyone familiar with the team that something wasn’t quite right. Devon says now that his weeks typically went like this: practice Wednesday and Thursday, walk-through Friday, play Saturday and struggle to walk Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
“Football season was kinda tough because I wanted to play, but I wasn’t in as good of shape, didn’t feel as good as an athlete, I was heavier,” he says. “As the season went on, my body just started to break down in all facets.”
Before Oregon’s Alamo Bowl game on Jan. 2, Devon had surgery to clean out scar tissue that had accumulated since his first surgery. He says now he never stressed about not coming back as the same athlete he was before the tear. Louis didn’t worry either.
By Jan. 30, Devon had returning to the track, running in the Razorback Invitational at Arkansas. There, he was beat by Iowa’s Aaron Mallett in the 60-meter hurdles, an indoor event. Louis watched the race and found the positives. “The Iowa kid beat him by a hair,” Louis says, “but the smile on Devon’s face told me he was back.”
Devon has never bought into the outside chatter of “You’re going to have to pick a sport eventually,” and neither has his family. Oregon track recruited Devon before the football team got interested, but when football did give him an offer, coach Mark Helfrich promised he’d be able to do both, so long as he kept his academics in order. Other colleges said the same but when Louis would follow-up with, “So, who do you have right now that’s doing both?” coaches often answered sheepishly with, “Well, no one.”
The Ducks, meanwhile, have a long history of football players who also excelled in track, most notably former track All-American Jordan Kent. A local product who won 11 state championships in track and basketball at Churchill High in Eugene, Kent played football, basketball and track at Oregon. He took advantage of his NCAA five-year clock, deciding to try out for football late in his collegiate career. By spring 2007, with his track eligibility up, Kent opted to focus full-time on football. It worked well, as the Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. He spent three years in the league before being cut by the St. Louis Rams in 2010.
“It’s easy, when you see people who are focusing on one sport have a lot of success, to wonder ‘What if?’” Kent says. “But that thinking can be pretty unhealthy, and take away from the moment and the uniqueness of what you’re doing.
“It’s funny to me that people think Devon can only do one, track or football, long-term. There’s no guarantee that if he stopped playing football, he’d be a better hurdler, or if he stopped hurdling, he’d be a better football player. All we know for sure is that right now, doing both is working out well for him.”
Kent also points out Devon is at an advantage over many dual sport athletes because he doesn’t have to dramatically change his body from season to season. Louis says that at most, Devon’s weight fluctuates between eight to 10 pounds from football to track. Currently, he’s listed on Team USA’s roster at 6' 0", 187 pounds.
As of now, Devon is planning to return to the football field, but not until after the Rio closing ceremony. At Pac-12 media day, Helfrich joked that he would not make Devon run extra sprints for tardiness. Upon hearing this, Devon’s eyes lit up as he mentioned he’s in the best shape of his life, and Helfrich could bring on any running challenge.
Helfrich plans to hold a watch party for each of Devon’s races—“I was going to call it a team meeting,” he says, “but ‘watch party’ sounds cooler”—and will welcome him back whenever he returns.
Devon isn’t sure he’ll ever have to pick one sport or the other permanently. He points to Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin as proof that multi-tasking works in the professional world, too. A former standout receiver at Texas, Goodwin won two NCAA long jump titles (2010, ’12) and competed in the London Olympics. He didn’t medal and when he returned to school, focused solely on football. He played in 2012 and skipped track in ’13, telling NFL teams he was fully committed to football. Buffalo drafted him in the third round of the 2013 draft, the No. 78 overall pick. At the 2016 trials last month in Eugene, Goodwin again competed in long jump (he did not qualify for Rio) and took time to give Devon some advice.
“Do what you want,” he told Devon. “You have complete control when you’re a professional athlete … but I’d recommend maybe focusing on football your rookie season to build some tenure and leeway. Then you can say, ‘Hey, Coach, I’ve got this track meet I want to go to, and I’ll miss two or three days of OTAs.”
Certainly, Devon has a future in both sports. He’s still relatively new to the hurdles; Louis says he marvels at video of Devon’s high school hurdle races, when his son had such a slow start “he was almost always one of the last people to the first hurdle.” Now much improved out of the blocks, Devon is still perfecting all of the small details that can help him continue to shave time off his personal record. He’s young, charismatic and good-looking, a triple threat in the marketing world. As a bonus, he goes to school and trains just two hours from Nike World Headquarters. Many speculate that Nike will make Devon a lucrative offer to turn pro.
Long before the Olympics came into view, Devon, like many young football players, dreamed of playing in the NFL. Despite underwhelming stats from the 2015 season, he’s likely to be drafted, at the very least, as a returner. Devon says he’s gotten intel that he’d be a third-round pick right now, but he thinks a good season could dramatically improve his draft stock.
Currently, he’s in talks with Oregon and NCAA compliance about if he could turn pro in track while maintaining his collegiate eligibility in football. The parameters are strict: Devon could take prize money right away, but he would likely not be able to accept appearance fees. He would not be able to sign an endorsement deal. He could hire an agent, but it would have to be for track and track alone.
Louis, who is currently unemployed, has told Devon he needs to make the best decision for him. He doesn’t want Devon feeling pressure to provide for his family. “We’re not sure on a timeline just yet,” Louis says. “I’ve told him, ‘Just win the gold medal, and then we’ll figure it out.’”
But Devon might also still be exploring his options in college track and field. Since the fall, he’s been telling people he’d like to try the decathlon. He could do something completely new, too. His family has an Olympic tradition elsewhere: Louis’s cousin, Darin Allen, was a U.S. boxing champion, and was the silver medalist at the 1988 Olympic trials.
So does Devon have a future in yet another sport?
“There’s no way he’ll take up boxing,” Louis says. “He’s too pretty.”