Bad to the bone

Nobody I’ve ever met has used the word “badass” more artfully than Jared Allen. I once wrote an entire story about Allen built entirely around the variety of ways that he can use “badass” in a sentence.

There’s BADass, emphasis on the first syllable. This can cover anything from tough old football players like Jim Marshall or Jack Youngblood (“He played a whole game with a broken leg! That’s BADass!”) to a waiter in a Mexican restaurant who throws some extra food on his plate (“You are such a BADass!”). Jared Allen’s grandfather Ray, now, that man was a BADass. He was a Marine for 26 years. They called him Scarface. They called him Master Blaster.

“I used to hang out with him,” Jared once told me, “and I would think, ‘Thank you for not killing me with one hand.’”

Yes, Ray Allen was the ultimate BADass.

Then, of course, there’s BadASS, which the emphasis on the second syllable. That is the more jocular pronunciation. It can refer to things that you would not expect to be badass but, in Jared Allen’s mind, are, such as mullets and cowboy hats and lasers and his daughters and dressing up for Halloween. Then, it can also be ironic. Left tackles who need double team help to block him, yeah, they’re SO badASS, aren’t they?

“You’ve seen that movie ‘The Blind Side,’ right?” he asked me, the one about Michael Oher and his incredible story and the importance of left tackles. “They pay these left tackles all this money? And they can’t block me one-on-one?” Yeah, left tackles are badASS.

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And then there’s badass, with an equal emphasis on each syllable, the common usage, and the best description of Jared Allen’s remarkable NFL career. Allen was a young man with self-destructive impulses that sparked and fired like an Oldsmobile 350 Diesel engine. He was a star high school football player. You couldn’t miss talent like Jared Allen’s. He was big, strong, fast, and he loved to hit people. He came from talent – his father Ron played in the USFL for a while.

“I’m going to be an NFL star,” an 8-year-old Jared told his father.

“Well,” Ron said, “you better bring it, or you’re going to get your ass kicked.”

Yes, Ron Allen was a BADass too. That was Jared Allen’s mission. First he needed to be a big man on campus. The big colleges wanted him. Michigan State called. Colorado called. Washington called. Heck, even Stanford called to ask if he might be willing to take the SAT again.

“To tell you the truth,” Allen said, “no.”

What did he care? He didn’t want to take the SAT the first time. Allen had all these choices. And then (self-destructive gene fires) Jared got thrown out of school for being tangentially involved in a nasty little prank involving the school yearbooks. Allen always claimed to be wrongly accused, and I tend to believe him because Allen readily cops to the many screwups of his life.

But, innocent or not, Allen still got thrown out of school (“You know you’re f—— up my life,” he would remember shouting at the principal). And all those big colleges went away. Only Idaho State stayed with him.

So he went to Idaho State and lived four rollicking years of fights and arrests and parties and football mayhem. Allen told me he hated it at Idaho State at the time. He was a California kid, and he felt like everyone was out to get him. He was big-time; Idaho was small-time. He got in so many fights – in and out of bars – that when I asked him to estimate the number, he shrugged and said: “I don’t know. You have a calculator?” At one point, he wanted to transfer to UCLA. But he stayed, he won the Buck Buchanan Award as the best defensive player in Division I-AA. He had 38.5 college sacks.

(In later years, as he thought back, he grew to love Idaho State).

When Allen came out of college, he was 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, and he ran a 4.7 40-yard dash. He had dominated lower-level college football. And he had a reputation as a rebel who didn’t respect authority – or anything else. Throw it all together, it’s not surprising that he was not drafted until late in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs. He was drafted as (get ready for it) a long snapper.

“We’ll find out if he can long snap at this level,” Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson said.

Long snappers, you might note, are not BADass. So Allen decided instead to lead the Chiefs in sacks his rookie year. He did it again his second year. He forced six fumbles his third year. He led the NFL in sacks his fourth year (even though he was suspended for the first two games). Same as it ever was. Allen lived on the edge.

Some of it that edge-living was fun stuff. He ran with bulls in Pamplona. He tried skydiving. He ate blowfish in Japan. The blowfish thing was funny; you probably already know that fugu blowfish is poisonous.

“What if there’s a 50-50 shot that it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted in my life?” Allen asked me and everyone else before he tried it. “What if it’s so good that it’s worth risking death for?”

That thought more or less describes the young Jared Allen.

Of course, there was also darkness. Allen got two DUIs in a five-month period, which told of a young man who was spiraling out of control (it was his third overall DUI; he got one at Idaho State, too). He served two days in jail. His grandfather Ray called to say, “You’ve hurt the family name … What are you going to about it?”

“Man,” Jared said, “you’re young, single, you have money, what do you do? You go out. You look for women. You go to bars. That’s just what you do. And I didn’t know when to say no.”

The Kansas City Chiefs walked away from him in the same way that those colleges did years before. The Chiefs did something unprecedented in team history; they traded away their best young player in the prime of his career. They dealt Allen to Minnesota a few days after he turned 26 years old.

And it turned out to be the best possible thing for Allen. He found that he just fit Minnesota. People appreciated how hard he played. He appreciated how badass Minnesotans are in winter. People laughed at his jokes. He enjoyed how much people loved their team. Sure, he liked Kansas City too, but playing football in Minnesota felt right.

Everything felt right. Allen got married. They started a family. He slowed down off the field. He did a popular weekly radio show. He started going to Bible studies instead of bars. And he played his best football, making the Pro Bowl four times in six years. in 2011, he finished with 22 sacks, just one off the record held by Michael Strahan.

The last couple of years, Allen bounced around – to Chicago and then to Carolina – where he became the last thing he ever expected to become: A veteran leader. He was called that time after time before the Super Bowl this year, and I’m sure it cracked him up. It was some journey.

In all, Jared Allen has 136 sacks, which is ninth all-time, between Hall of Famers John Randle and Lawrence Taylor. He has the NFL record with four safeties. He has forced 32 fumbles, which is not an official statistic. He was first-team All-Pro four times.

When Allen was trying to overcome his worst inclinations, he told me that he hoped to be someday inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That was the biggest football goal he could imagine. I don’t know if that will happen; the pro football voters are not easy to predict. But I do know he had himself a great career. And I know this: On Thursday, he retired in classic Jared Allen style. He tweeted out “Riding off into the Sunset.” And then he posted a video – he sat on a horse, and he wore his beloved cowboy hat, and all around him was snow and sky.

“I just want to say thank you for an amazing 12-year career,” he said. “Um, this was the part where I was going to ride off into the sunset. But seeing how there’s no sunset, I’m just going to ride off.” Then he waved, and turned the horse and rode off. It was, one last time, badass.

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