In 2018, retired NFL defensive end Jared Allen took up curling in the hopes that he would one day be an Olympian in the sport.
“Yeah, right” was a perfectly reasonable reaction. Allen had dedicated most of his adult life to football – only 11 men have more NFL career sacks and he is a three-time finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Most competitive curlers have been sliding around on ice since preschool, honing the skills and acumen necessary to win at their local clubs, let alone the Olympic trials. Allen, meanwhile, had never played the sport seriously and spent most of his time smashing into other very large men before retiring from football in 2016.
This month, Allen and his teammates opened the US Championships by defeating the 2018 gold medalists.
The rest of the week didn’t go their way, and John Shuster’s team of Olympians bounced back to win yet another national title. But the chances of the four-time All-Pro lineman representing the US in Italy in 2026, while still a long shot, are not impossible. Allen’s team played a dozen events this season and racked up wins over several championship-caliber teams, including the top-ranked US team led by Korey Dropkin.
“You’ve got to face these guys,” Allen says. “You know you can beat them, so you’ve got to draw from that.”
So could Allen break through at the US Championships and go on to play for a world title? Or even at the Olympic trials?
“If he’s with the right teammates, which is huge, he could possibly compete for a national championship at some point,” says Tyler George, who played with Shuster in the Olympics.
At first, Allen didn’t quite have those teammates. He started with a group of fellow NFL retirees – former quarterback Marc Bulger, former linebacker Keith Bulluck and former offensive lineman Michael Roos. They tended to lose by wide margins.
But Allen stuck with it and started to play with more experienced curlers. This season, Allen has played with two former Olympians – skip Jason Smith and vice-skip Dominik Märki – and two-time US mixed champion Hunter Clawson.
And they’ve started to win. In November, they beat the top-ranked US team, led by Dropkin. They entered the US Championships ranked fifth in the country and started with three wins in four games.
“We’ve had some good runs,” Allen says. “Our biggest challenge for the next year will be consistency. We know we can play with anybody. Now we need to win when it matters most.”
If you watch Allen in action, you’ll see a curler who may not slide quite as effortlessly as his teammates or counterparts. While many experienced players start their deliveries crouched like a baseball catcher, the 6ft 6in Allen is more upright. When he and Clawson are sweeping, it’s easy to tell them apart because the young but experienced Clawson is sliding around as if skating on one foot, while Allen is securely walking on two feet. But his accuracy is solid, and he generally gets his rocks (also called stones) near where Smith wants them to go.
It’s not as if there’s one textbook way to deliver a rock, and Allen’s delivery is working for him.
“I’ve been tall my whole life,” Allen says. “I’m used to it.”
He’s no longer a skip, the person in charge of team strategy and usually the person who throws the high-pressure, high-difficulty final rocks in each end (the rough analogue of an inning in baseball). When the last person throws, they may be facing a phalanx of rocks they must either avoid or hit, sometimes setting three or four of them in motion with precision and power. The skip faces several different scenarios each game, with an endless variety of angles among all the rocks in play.
Allen now plays lead, throwing the first two rocks for his team, which means he isn’t staring down the ice at a lot of stones already in play that must be dodged or hit. The variety of shots needed is smaller, and the lead can focus on mastering a couple of situations. That requires countless hours of practice but not necessarily decades of experience.
“There are a lot of players who’ve played lead who aren’t the most technically talented, but they’re good teammates, they’re good sweepers, and they win,” George says. “He can help a team without being the most multifaceted player.”
One advantage of Allen’s position: He sweeps every one of his team’s stones except the ones he delivers. Good sweepers come in all shapes and sizes, but being big and strong is still an advantage.
“It doesn’t hurt,” George says. “If he uses it correctly, then it helps.”
Physical fitness also helps in general. Most players ease their way out of sweeping positions as they get older, but a hugely strong athlete like Allen can keep going for years to come, increasing the odds that any given year will be his time to defeat the top US teams to go to the world championships or Olympics.
Staying in the game would also help Allen catch up with his peers on the all-important mental side of the game. The movement of rocks over ice isn’t as predictable as the world’s top players make it look, and understanding its intricacies is a constant challenge.
“I think he now understands that a large part of being a top player in this game is about seeing things over and over and learning the nuances of teamwork, ice reading, and strategy,” says John Benton, another Olympic veteran who worked with Allen and his fellow former NFL players when they started curling. “I think he sees that getting to the top is not just a matter of physical talent.”
“When he started playing with competitive curlers, he learned by osmosis – how to work together, how to have a feel for the game,” George said.
The competitive curlers are glad to have him. He could have chosen another sport like mixed martial arts, in which he trained for several years, but his family wouldn’t have been thrilled to see him go from football to fighting, given the dangers of both sports. The lessons of pushing through barriers in MMA training remained, but curling is the epitome of a non-contact sport.
It’s not just his teammates who appreciate him. Curling, like a lot of Olympic sports, struggles for public attention during off-years unless it’s beset by scandal and a major rift – which has been the case within USA Curling over the last few months. Having a colorful character who gave shoutouts to a preschool or the fictional “Culinary Academy” in NFL player introductions won’t heal many scars or reunite the divided, but at least it gives the sport another story to present.
“I know I’m going to get more publicity than most,” Allen says. “The best thing now is that they can see it’s not just a publicity stunt. You’ve seen the improvement in my game. You can see the hard work, the respect I have for the game, my competitive nature.”
Allen’s career so far could hardly have played out any better for the sport’s image. Curling can be played at a recreational level by anyone, but the upper levels raise the bar so high that a professional athlete has to be as determined as Allen in order to succeed.
And it doesn’t hurt that he seems to be having a great time.
“I hope Jared understands that he’s already in a place where he can be an ambassador for the game,” George says. “He has a platform that nobody else has.”
But not just a novelty, George adds.
“He’s a curler. He’s not a football player that curls.”
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