Devon Allen is a hurdler. And thus, by definition, he is wired to leap impediments—physical or otherwise.
Two major knee repairs and a fifth-place finish in the 110-meter hurdles at the Rio Olympics later, Allen has learned more about his mind and body than most 22-year-olds.
“That’s why I like hurdles, every race is different,” says Allen. “You practice for every scenario, but you never really know how it’s going to go. You always have to be able to adjust.”
Allen’s rise to national prominence began in 2014 as a two-sport athlete at the University of Oregon. By spring, he was an NCAA champion in the 110-meter hurdles. In the fall, he was one of the most dynamic and dangerous wide receivers in the Pac-12. And at age 20, he was getting ready to play in the Rose Bowl, with a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship on the line.
But he was injured returning opening kickoff, tearing his right ACL and watching from a wheelchair as the Ducks dismantled Florida State. Oregon would go on to lose in the national title game to Ohio State, but Allen never got the chance to play.
“I felt invincible,” says Allen. “But we all know no one is invincible. I found that out soon after the opening kickoff.”
He never found his groove in 2015, missing the entire spring track season. It was the first time in his career he’d suffered a major injury and he never could have predicted how his body—or his mind— would react.
“I didn’t feel fast,” he says. “I just didn’t have confidence in my speed or my cuts.”
And a sprinter without confidence is like a drummer without sticks. So he made the decision to end his 2015 football season prematurely and focus on the upcoming 2016 Olympics.
“That’s when my mindset changed,” Allen says. “I was starting from square one, but I also knew I was running out of time. I had to make that decision if I was going to make a run at the Olympics.”
He trained exclusively like a track athlete, rediscovered his speed and won the U.S. championship, earning a spot in the Rio Olympics. And while he’s disappointed in his fifth-place finish in the 110m hurdles, he called the experience addicting.
In his first football game following the Rio, Allen took a 77-yard touchdown against Virginia and turned it into an Olympic moment by leaping a pair of invisible hurdles as part of his touchdown celebration. The Autzen Stadium faithful loved it. And Allen appeared poised for the huge season that eluded him in 2015.
But a week later against Nebraska, he tore his left ACL when his leg buckled under him in a non-contact injury.
That’s when the decision came to put football on indefinite hiatus.
“I liked being a two-sport guy,” he says. “But physically this is going to take a lot less of a toll on my body so I can do it for a long time. And then mentally I can focus a little more and really train the way I want to train for track. I never really had a full season. I always start training in January or February.”
Allen’s comeback isn’t totally complete. However, he looked especially strong last month at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., running a 13.11. It was the second fastest of his career, behind the 13.03 he ran at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I feel close enough to being there,” he says, “but it’s hard to ever say 100 percent. I thought I was 100 percent before I tore my first ACL.”
Allen is set to graduate on Monday with a degree in sports business and a minor in economics. And with football in his rearview mirror, the focus now is squarely on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Football is still in the back of his mind. And perhaps it always will be.
“Maybe after I have a gold medal and a world record,” Allen says. “Maybe then I’ll seriously think about football again.”
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