Devon Allen sprinting off a start line

Double Vision

Devon Allen chases a historic twofer—medaling at the world championships and playing pro football

By Charles Butler

Good thing Devon Allen possesses world-class speed—the month of May was a never-ending sprint.

On a recent afternoon, and after three weeks on the road, he’s back in his Annapolis, Maryland, home. He’s traveled to southern California, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Puerto Rico, the spot from where he returned just hours earlier. What’s he been up to? Let’s see.

The two-time Olympian got his 2022 track season off to a fast start, with performances that included a record-breaking victory in the 110-meter hurdles at the famed Penn Relays. He’s closed on—and cleared out of—his house in Phoenix, his hometown. He’s hosted a couple podcasts and been the guest on several others. He’s overseen the UpGo nutritional supplement business he started. He’s red-eyed to Ponce, Puerto Rico, to go head-to-to head with Hansle Parchment, the 2020 Olympic champion. (Parchment narrowly won.) And one more thing: he’s started his pursuit of playing professional football, a long-held (if slightly delayed) dream since he was a kid.

 
“I’m busy,” Allen says, unable to stifle yawns during a phone interview. “I was busy before and I’m more busy now, which is not always the worst thing ’cause I’m doing stuff I enjoy and am passionate about.”

And stuff few people could even consider trying.

If all goes according to plan, Allen, BS ’17 (business administration), will pull off a rare double play this summer: win a medal in a major international track-and-field meet and win a spot on an NFL roster.

The first opportunity comes July 15–24 when he is expected to line up at Hayward Field—his home track as a Duck—for the 110-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22. Allen will enter among the favorites. Last summer, at his second Olympics in Tokyo, he finished fourth, just .04 seconds from medaling. Then, this past June 12, at a meet in New York City, Allen ran a stunning 12.84, the third-fastest time ever.

Days after the world championships, he reports to the Philadelphia Eagles training camp. He’ll be an odd duck: a 27-year-old rookie wide receiver six years removed from making his last catch for the University of Oregon. He’s not fazed. He’ll bring speed—in front of scouts at Pro Day in Eugene in April, he ran a 4.35 for the 40-yard dash—and life experience few rookies take to camp.

“The coaches don’t need to worry about me being a professional and not taking it seriously,” Allen says. “I am not a twenty-two-year-old coming out of college saying, ‘Wow, I’m in the NFL making a little money.’”

Devon Allen lifting weights

If Allen earns a full-time roster spot, he’ll join a short list of track-and-field athletes—a list that includes the legendary Jim Thorpe and sprinter Bob Hayes—who leapt from Olympics competition to football Sundays. “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen by accident,” says Keanon Lowe, BA ’14 (general social science), a teammate of Allen’s when they were receivers for Oregon in the mid-2010s. Lowe recalls the younger Allen coming to him for tips on running routes, blocking assignments—anything that would get him playing time. Lowe says of Allen’s road to the NFL, “It has been a fun, special journey to watch.”

A journey that has tested Allen’s resilience as much as his talent.

Allen showed his two-sport prowess early in his time at Oregon. As a freshman in 2014, he won titles at the NCAA and USA National championships, both held at Hayward Field. A few months later, at Autzen Stadium, he made his first collegiate touchdown a dazzler: he took a 20-yard pass from Marcus Mariota near midfield, then sprinted and spun his way to a 70-yard score.

“That moment was unbelievable,” Lowe says. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Autzen as loud as I did in that single moment.” Allen chuckles at the memory. “I’m sure my first touchdown in the NFL,” he says, “will be similar.”

Devon Allen

But injuries shortened his football playing time. After a second ACL injury during the 2016 season, he decided to concentrate on the track, motivated by a fifth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “That left a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth because I felt that I could have won,” Allen says. “I decided at that point, ‘Let me focus on this track thing, and after the 2020 Olympics I’ll go back to what I originally planned when I got to college: to play in the NFL.’”

At the 2020 Games in Tokyo, delayed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he showed off speed—he bettered his previous Olympic result by moving up to fourth place—and some stylish dance moves: after winning his semifinal heat, Allen, never shy in front of a crowd, delivered some “Pop, Lock & Drop It” moves in Olympic Stadium. On an NBC highlight show, actor Kevin Hart joked, “He was dancing like no one was watching.”

From July 15 to 24, Hayward Field fans will watch as a favorite Duck returns to do something he’s yet to pull off: win a medal in a major international competition. For the first time, he’ll race at Hayward Field with a sub-13-second personal best, having nailed a 12.99 mark a few weeks after the Tokyo Games. Since then, he’s adjusted his start, implementing a seven-step approach to the first hurdle rather than an eight-step. The reason? Be faster sooner out of the blocks. His 12.84 last month indicated the adjustments are working.

His coach, Jamie Cook, admits such tweaks might seem risky and says Allen “could be very, very happy” sticking with what’s gotten him to world-class level. But Cook, a former Oregon coach now at the US Naval Academy, says the two decided to “try something drastic and see if it is going to work. [Allen] is not afraid to fail. The best in the world are not afraid to fail.”

Succeed or fail at the world championships, Allen won’t have time to linger. Another test awaits on the other side of the country, one he’s been waiting a long time to take. Already, he knows some of the questions he’ll face, like the one Philadelphia coaches posed in April. “Hey, why do you want to play football?” they asked the football prospect with the unusual résumé. He had a ready answer. “It’s been a dream.”

Charles “Charlie” Butler is an instructor in the School of Journalism and Communication.
Photos: WCH Oregon22