Friday October 21st, 2016

On Oct. 25, 2015, the Carolina Panthers were in the midst of a five-game winning streak and on the path to a Super Bowl 50 appearance. In the training room before the team’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, 15 Panthers players surrounded a television, their eyes drawn toward a fierce competition between some of the toughest athletes in the world. 

On that Sunday in North Carolina, the Panthers weren’t watching NFL foes, though. They packed the training room TV to witness teammate Jared Allen’s bull, Air Time, compete for the Pro Bull Riding World Championship. Yes, since 2012, Allen had carved out a sizable name for himself in the sport of bull riding after partnering with the Professional Bull Riders series, in large part because Jared Allen’s Pro Bull Team was the owner of the circuit’s most feared bucking bull, Air Time.

Allen did a lot of things in his 12-year NFL career. He played for four teams, led the league in sacks twice, made the Pro Bowl roster five times and along with his Panthers teammates, appeared in Super Bowl 50. But once he was going to hang up his cleats, what was left to accomplish for a man whose career was defined by determination, grit and competitiveness?

Simple: Tackle and succeed in the most dangerous sport in the world.

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Allen’s partnership, though, wasn’t just a casual hobby meant for a retired man to pass time. Breeding bucking bulls is an expensive and calculated business. Professionals devote their time researching how to perfectly cross traits, while investors line up with money to pay for the most heated, athletic and strong bulls. The story of how Allen became the owner of Air Time — a bull weighing in at a lofty 1,500 pounds and boasting an impeccable 100-percent buckoff percentage this PBR season — is one of unexpected success.

“Eighty percent of how good your bull ends up being has to do with the mother they’re out of,” said Matt Scharping, stock contractor for Allen’s team. “We spend tons of time, money and energy trying to get the female side of the breeding process correct, because a cow that doesn’t work eats as much as a cow that works. You look at a cow’s traits and think about what you can complement them with by envisioning the calf. It’s like a football player; you figure out the perfect mother and father for a football player with the traits each has. It gets pretty technical. We eliminate everything that gives a bull a bad trait.”

Sometimes, though, the greatest athletes emerge to unexpectedly overcome the odds set against their paths and dominate their sport. 

That certainly is Allen’s story, as the path from Idaho State University to the NFL isn’t that well traveled. Yet, that is where the highly-recruited Allen found himself playing after allegations that he stole yearbooks at his former high school emerged, causing bigger programs to revoke their scholarship offers.

Allen flourished in Pocatello. He led the Bengals to the program’s first back-to-back eight-win seasons and a national ranking in Division I-AA while finishing his intercollegiate career with 250 tackles, 38.5 sacks, and a host of Big Sky Conference Awards. In 2004, he became the 26th and most recent NFL player to be drafted from Idaho State. With a chip on his shoulder and naysayers to prove wrong, Allen set out on a 12-year professional football career.

It’s also Air Time’s story. In fact, the tour’s most dominant bull wasn’t even supposed to be born.

“Air Time was an accident,” Sharping explained. “A buddy of mine got a heifer calf from some partners of his. The heifer was supposed to be open, meaning not bred. All of the sudden, she gave birth to this little, spotted calf. They had to figure out what happened. It turned out that the heifer hit a heat cycle early and a bull jumped the fence and bred her.”

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Air Time’s birth may have been unexpected, but Allen finding the explosive bull was the recipe PBR needed to grow its sport’s popularity. Entering PBR as a team owner, Allen knew that he needed to assemble a talented roster of bulls and riders. He couldn’t merely put his name behind his team and gain respect in the sport. Rather, he needed to seriously invest in it. 

“When we got into it, we wanted to make sure that people didn’t think we were just coming in and throwing our money around,” Allen said. “We probably overpaid for some bulls right away to make our mark.”

Presented with an opportunity to buy Air Time, Allen and Scharping paid $150,000 for the bull. As the spotted calf eventually turned into one of the greatest bucking bulls the world has seen, Allen returned to the mindset he had in the early days of his career.

“Air Time is a freak,” Allen quipped. “Every time he bucks, he is so aggressive and violent in his movements. He is explosive. You think he is going to hurt himself every time he bucks. When I first started playing, I was a little off of my rocker, too. You have to have a little edge. If you’re going to be a great athlete, you have to have an edge and chip on your shoulder.”

For football players, those edges can be taught or refined through regimented practice. For bucking bulls, those traits come as a result of genetics and conditioning.

“We don’t practice him, but you see the work that goes into conditioning and feeding him in the shoots,” Allen said. “He had some shoot issues at first, but I liked that. I liked that he was a little unstable. He gets into the minds of the cowboys. There’s something that’s just not quite right about him. Like when a football player gets off of the field, when he is out of the arena, he chills out. As I’ve matured in my career, I’ve seen him mature.”

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His increasing maturity has positioned Air Time as one of the toughest bulls to draw in the PBR. In his four-year PBR career, Air time has only been ridden once, during his first out, when Brazilian rider, Renato Nunes, scored a 92.50 on him. In 28 total outs to date, Air Time has bucked off riders in an average of 2.96 seconds and racked up an average 45.19 bull score.

This season, Air Time boasts a 100-percent buckoff rate in seven outs. Allen hopes to utilize Air Time’s success, along with that of his team, to grow the popularity and visibility of PBR. Allen has pushed PBR to adopt new tech-based strategies, including the development of its first mobile app game, 8 To Glory

“The game we developed is going to legitimize what we’re trying to do by bringing the sport into the mainstream,” Allen explained. “The kid from the city may not go watch PBR in person, but everyone these days is on their phone and playing games. The game reaches across boundaries to bring the sport to people that we may otherwise not reach.”

At birth, expectations for Air Time may not have been high, but Allen always has thought highly of the bull, noting, “I wanted him to win Bull of the Year his first year.” Allen expected Air Time to win the title of World Champion Bucking Bull last October, but with his football teammates surrounding him, Allen’s hopes were dashed when SweetPro’s Long John took the title. 

Like the times before when he came up short, Allen did what he knew best: He continued competing. “You switch your mind back to football, and go out and take your anger out on the opposing team.” Than night, Allen and his Panthers were victors against the Philadelphia Eagles, thanks in part to two sacks by Allen.

A year has passed since that October night. Allen has appeared in a Super Bowl and retired from the NFL. He spends his days with his family, traveling to promote the PBR, and developing the mobile game in Arizona. This October, Allen won’t be surrounded by teammates in a training room while watching Air Time compete for the world championship. Instead, the football player who overcame his own odds will be in the arena to see if the bull that wasn’t supposed to be born can fully overcome his. 

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