Ex-Vikings star Allen still on quest to be Olympic curler — and win bet
Vikings trivia question: Which former All-Pro defensive end nearly took up badminton in a bid to make the Olympic team?
The answer is Jared Allen, who dismissed that idea because it involved too much running. But Allen didn't give up on the part about getting to the Olympics. After longtime friend Brandon Moles bet him that he couldn't make the U.S. team in any sport, Allen picked a different game — curling — and got to work.
Five years later, Allen is still at it. He will play in this week's U.S. championships as part of a team skipped by Minnesota native Jason Smith, chasing a berth at the world championships in April. A man who once made his living with brute force is now immersed in a sport that requires finesse and delicacy, on an unlikely quest to go from curling newbie to Olympic rock star in record time.
Allen's team is among eight in the men's draw at the nationals in Denver. He said he is in it to win it, with an eye toward the 2026 Olympics in Milan-Cortina, Italy.
"I thought curling was going to be a lot easier than it was,'' said Allen, 40, who will make his third appearance at the U.S. championships. "But I'm one of those guys who, once I start something, I'm going to see it through. Our goal at nationals is to beat as many teams as we possibly can and see where we land.''
2010 Olympian John Benton was Allen's first curling instructor. The St. Michael, Minn., native thinks Team Smith could make the four-team playoff round, with Allen contributing more than celebrity cachet.
"I knew the first time he called me he was going to stick with it,'' Benton said. "A lot of people underestimate what it takes to get to the Olympics in this sport. Jared isn't goofing off. He's putting in the time.
"Some people thought he would make a joke out of it. But he took to the sport pretty quickly. And he's one of those guys who, when he says he's going to do something, he really works hard at it.''
Allen's team is no joke, either. Smith, like Benton, was on the 2010 Olympic team skipped by John Shuster. His current foursome, which also includes Hunter Clawson and Dominik Maerki, is 89th in the World Curling Federation's men's rankings and qualified for nationals with its performances at high-level international competitions.
The team is based in Nashville, where Allen lives. While that might not sound like a curling hotbed, the group has year-round ice at Tee Line Nashville, a three-sheet facility built by former NFL quarterback Marc Bulger.
Bulger was among three fellow NFL retirees who accompanied Allen at the start of his quest. After Moles and Allen made their bet, Allen created the All Pro Curling Team with Bulger, who played for St. Louis, and former Tennessee Titans Michael Roos and Keith Bulluck. Benton ushered them into the world of elite curling, a debut that wasn't well-received by everyone.
"Was it good for the sport? That was highly debated,'' said Benton, who served as team coach. "I took a lot of flak when I took them to big tournaments, but that's what they wanted to do. Playing in a local bonspiel wasn't what they hired me for.''
Allen is the only one still competing at the top level. Benton said sweeping comes naturally to a guy he described as "kind of a beast,'' who was listed at 6-6 and 270 pounds during his NFL days. Early on, Benton recalled, Allen fell a lot — making the ice shake underneath everyone's feet — but he was dedicated to learning everything he could about a very complex game.
Some of his NFL skills transferred. Allen said he brought a sharper competitive edge to a sport that can be passive, as well as the ability to learn quickly. But the hulking, raw power that once intimidated opposing quarterbacks had to be used in more subtle ways.
"It's so different than what we're used to as football players,'' he said. "I think that's what's kept me so intrigued.
"Like the short game in golf, it's a game of finesse. You have to think two shots ahead. And you have to learn how to control your body, your emotions, your heart rate. That took some time to reset.''
The clock is now winding down on Allen's Olympic bid. Though his bet didn't specify a time frame, he said he won't continue his pursuit past the 2026 Games, citing the immense amount of travel and practice involved.
He's still intent on collecting the cash payment at stake in his wager with Moles. The next step is a daunting one. Sunday, in the opening draw at the national championships, Team Smith faces Shuster, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist and five-time Olympian.
Even if Allen doesn't make it to Italy, he'll always be glad he didn't choose badminton.
"There are curling leagues to play in here in Nashville,'' he said. "Going to a bonspiel, that will always be fun. I'll always be part of it.''
USA CURLING NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
Where: Denver Coliseum
The format: Eight men's teams and eight women's teams will compete in round-robin play Sunday through Thursday, with the top four moving on to the playoff round. Playoffs and semifinals are Friday, followed by championship finals Saturday for men (1 p.m.) and women (5 p.m.).
How to follow: All games will be livestreamed on USA Curling's YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/@USACurlingTV/streams). Live scoring, standings and schedule can be found at usacurling.org
What's next: The winners will represent the U.S. at the upcoming world championships for women (March 18-26 in Sandviken, Sweden) and men (April 1-9 in Ottawa, Canada).