Newly-Rich Allen Battles Age-Old Alcohol Problem

Jared Allen can't turn away.

The highest-paid defensive player in NFL history is sitting on the plush sectional sofa in his spacious off-season home in Scottsdale, Ariz., eyes fixed on his 50-inch flat screen. Allen has seen Deliverance enough times to know that Ned Beatty is about to be sodomized by a lanky hillbilly. Yet he still frowns in disgust, as if he were watching the movie for the first time. "Why doesn't he fight back?" Allen says. "I'd at least try to punch the guy a couple of times."

For the 6'6", 270-pound Allen—the Vikings' new QB-hounding defensive end—the instinct to fight back is as natural as breathing. His own life is proof of that. Two years ago he might have been sprawled across this same couch nursing a nasty hangover after yet another all-nighter. Today, all the 26-year-old Allen cares about is where he'll eat lunch after his morning workout and why Beatty is squealing like a pig.

Allen's transformation from hard-partying upstart to sober Pro Bowler has been grueling. He's dealt with, variously: two DUI arrests in Kansas; a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's alcohol and substance-abuse policy (which commissioner Roger Goodell reduced to two games); a yearlong cold war with his former boss, Chiefs GM Carl Peterson; and the scrutiny from skeptics who doubted the inveterate barfly could give up drinking for as long as he has, a stretch going on 20 months.

Even now, Allen understands the assaults he might face as he starts his career in Minnesota. His six-year, $73 million contract inflates expectations. He has to adjust to new teammates and a new city. Then there's the really hard part: working in an environment in which the pressure to drink—for overwhelmed rookies and grounded vets—is relentless. "Alcohol is everywhere," Allen says of life in the NFL. "It's on the team plane, at off-season golf tournaments. And it's something that I like to do." It's also a culture he feels powerless to change.

"Before I got in trouble," Allen says, "playing in the NFL was like one long spring break."

His story is nothing new. The image of the party-animal jock guzzling cold ones after a big game has been around as long as football itself. (See North Dallas Forty, Semi-Tough, Any Given Sunday…) There are people who still snicker about Joe Namath's drinking habits or the fact that former Packers receiver Max McGee caught two touchdown passes in Super Bowl I with a hangover. Says former Chiefs tackle Kyle Turley, Allen's teammate the past two seasons: "As long as you're not getting arrested, you can be an alcoholic in this league and somebody will give you a job."

This summer hundreds of rookies will report to their first training camp. Long before they master their playbooks, they'll learn how the NFL's drinking scene works. They can go out with the vets, pound a few, meet some girls and feel like they're bonding with their new teammates. Or they can stay home and risk alienating themselves from their hoped-for brethren. Says Packers linebacker Nick Barnett: "I've seen young guys who went out drinking just because they wanted to fit in."

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