The NFL game has changed a lot over the last couple of decades. There is more speed and finesse that has come to the game, but, at its heart, it is still played by tough guys. You can't be soft and be an NFL player – at least not for long.
If there is a modern-era player that would have fit in perfectly with the old-school mentality of playing every game and being there for your team in good times and bad, that would be Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. After his head coach Dick Vermeil saw what Allen could do in training camp and the preseason of his rookie year in 2004, Allen has missed only one game due to injury in 10 years.
On Sunday, Allen will start his 99th straight game, a streak that would be even longer had he not been imposed a two-game suspension in 2007 after being arrested twice on DWI charges. While Allen is proud of his ironman streak, he wasn't aware the lengths that it had reached. He wasn't planning on celebrating a week from Monday when the Vikings play the Giants and he makes his 100th consecutive start. Why? Because he was unaware the streak had gotten that long.
"I didn't realize that," Allen said. "That's pretty sweet. To me, it's one of those things where I believe, if I can go, I go. I think I owe it to my teammates. They count on me to be on the field. It's just a mentality I've always had."
Being healthy in the NFL is a relative term. Veterans always tell you that the only time they feel 100 percent healthy is the first day of training camp. It's a grind after that. But, in true throwback style, Allen quoted a legendary tough guy from the 1970s in explaining his ability to rise above the pain and play week after week after week.
"I think everybody (plays) hurt," Allen said. "Everybody is injured along the way. I remember the saying by (Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Jack) Youngblood: ‘If I can run on it, tape it up, give me some aspirin and we'll deal with it later' when he had a broken leg."
Allen has been a consummate teammate and, when it comes to being injured, the only time he takes a day off is a Wednesday or Thursday in practice leading up to a game. Over the last year, he spent more time with Vikings head trainer Eric Sugarman than the rest of his Vikings career combined. But, when it came to game day, there was No. 69 on the sidelines.
"That's always been my mentality," Allen said. "Guys that played before me, those guys played beaten and battered. It's kind of a badge of honor to go out there whether you're hurt or whether you're healthy and give it all you've got for your teammates."
Asked which injury was the most difficult to deal with, he said it was the torn labrum he suffered last season. It was agonizing at times, yet he played through the injury. He also played through a torn MCL in 2008, which created its own problems.
So, how is he healthy in 2013?
"Healthy enough," Allen said with a smile. "My shoulder feels great, so that's good. The aches and pains of football are always there. You go through your process. You try to get as healthy as you can for the upcoming week. You keep pushing forward. Everybody is dealing with something. We hit each other for a living, so it doesn't feel good all the time."
Trying to work back from or work through injuries is what truly tests the mettle and the commitment of football players and Allen has been the poster boy for playing through pain. In his view, it is more a mental rehab than getting an injured body part ready for battle the following week.
"It's probably more mental than physical," he said. "There are days where you are like on Monday mornings, ‘Why do I do this?' You got to push through it. You know by Friday you'll feel better and you push through."
Allen's Hall of Fame résumé is likely going to be defined by the number of sacks he has when he finishes his career. But right alongside that is his ironman capability.
In a sport where careers can end in the blink of an eye due to injuries, Allen has defied the odds and played through pain for a decade. He is approaching the stage in his career where he can start looking in the rearview mirror and take stock of his numerous accomplishments. His impressive sack totals have helped define him as a player, but being out on the field when the game is played is what he takes the most pride in.
"To win and to be considered good at something – or try to be great at something – you have to be on the field," Allen said. "I'm not in the game just to say I played in the NFL. I want to make an impact on the game, that week's game, and help my team win, but on the game itself. When I look back on my career I hope the guys that played before me and the guys that play after me will say I did it the right way."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings' Allen nears a tough-guy milestone
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