A precious few of the brotherhood of NFL players step off the ultimate stage of sports/entertainment on their own terms.
For those afforded that option, the end their careers are typically pseudo-eulogies marked by tearful press conferences that assemble as many local and national cameras as possible, whether at the behest of the player or the organization. Either way, when that rare player walks away from the game by choice, it’s typically a media event – replete with applause and readily available Kleenex if necessary.
On Thursday, Jared Allen retired like he played – more like a fan on the periphery than a celebrity in the eye of the hurricane.
There were no tears. There was no sadness. There was a 20-second video of a man on a horse in a place with more snow in winter than Winter Park. All that was missing was a sunset on a cloudy day.
But, as Allen let the world know that he was leaving the NFL, it brought his career full circle as humbly and human as it began.
An unheralded fourth-round pick out of the football factory that is Idaho State, Allen was a player who increased the level of intensity of his teammates by his own passion for the game.
That wasn’t easy. There are plenty of players with the same level of passion. Unfortunately, many of them are widely regarded as locker room splitters – players whose intensity was loved by coaches but could be off-putting to teammates.
Jared was never that way.
His intensity was epic. His relationship with Eric Sugarman (if you don’t know who he is, you should) was epic. His playing style resulted in his relationship with Sugs, because Allen’s brand of play would have fit in any era of the game – from the Jurassic leather helmet days to the Super Bowl two weeks ago.
Walking away – or riding away – isn’t often a decision a player makes with an exclamation point. Allen symbolically signed his retirement papers Thursday with his brief, yet poignant, farewell address to those who cheered him on as a member of the NFL fraternity.
At its core, the NFL is a business, often an ugly business when it comes to players age 30 or above. Few ever leave on their own terms. More times than not, that decision is made for them.
Not Jared Allen.
He was able to accomplish in 2016 what he had been denied a chance to do in his career prior to that – to play on the grandest stage of them all in a Super Bowl.
He did so on a broken foot.
That’s who he is as a person. That’s who he was as a player. On the average Monday through Saturday, he was hurtin’. On Sunday, he was playin’. End of story. He played hurt. He played injured. The difference is what separates the good from the great.
Allen’s place in the annals of NFL history will be ultimately determined by sportswriters. Will he make his way to the Hall of Fame or spend a copious amount of time in the Hall of Very Good?
Comparative statistics will likely be the final judge. He had 136 in his 12 seasons, including 22 in one season with the Minnesota Vikings. Kevin Greene waited on the Hall of Fame voters until this year despite 160 career sacks. Either way, Allen celebrated a sack with an iconic calf-roping display and held up a helmet during the National Anthem for reasons purely and personally his own.
If Allen becomes the first Hall of Famer whose bust sports a rockin’ mullet, so be it. It’s time the hallowed hall opened its doors to a man who earned his bone with business up front and party in the back.
Had cumulative injuries not shortened his career by two or three years, his Hall of Fame induction would be preordained.
It didn’t happen.
What’s left for football fans and historians alike to ponder is what was Allen’s contribution to the game? Did he make a difference, as a player and a humanitarian?
As a vital member of the Seal Team 6 posse that bagged up Brett Favre and brought him back for one last ride, Allen will forever be tattooed on the history of the Minnesota Vikings.
“He’s a very unique individual, very fortunate to have him part of the Minnesota Vikings,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “He was a great player for us. He will always be a Minnesota Viking. I think he’s one of the best players that ever played here with the Vikings. Excited for his retirement, so we don’t have to play him. He was a great influence and a great player for us with his tenure here.”
But, what about the rest of the NFL universe?
Football is big on its folklore. Legends grow with time. Unlike other sports, they’re not beholden to their past, but they recognize it. Allen was a throwback that legends from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s could say they would saddle up alongside. He was a throwback player in a modern game.
The NFL will be lesser for not having Jared Allen in it. In Minnesota, where legends historically get bigger with time, Allen’s shadow is long already. It’s only going to grow longer with recollected memories.
From rolling into Minnesota with a cowboy hat, boots and promise to squeeze Pat Williams into skinny jeans to a player who was paid (and earned) every dollar he agreed to when he put ink to paper on the contract that brought him to the Vikings, Allen’s place in the history of Minnesota football is undeniable.
He was something football wasn’t accustomed to seeing. He cut against the grain. He was brutally honest in his assessment of himself and his team. He didn’t know what a “schism” was. He didn’t want to. What he did know was Los Gatos, Calif. was where he was from, Arizona is where he calls home and Minnesota will always be his home away from home.
Happy trails, cowboy. The legend only grows taller on down the line.