June 23, 2008 -- 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."
Hardly shocking—these are, after all, young men who are just out of college—but the party gets only wilder when the season begins. The drinking crowd on an NFL team will hit the town almost any night of the week, but typically they go longest and hardest on Thursdays and Fridays. After games on Sundays, you'll also find players knocking back beers in the stadium parking lot before they head out to the bars and clubs. "You want to live the rock star life," says Dolphins linebacker Boomer Grigsby, who was Allen's closest teammate and drinking buddy for three years in KC.
Once a player embraces that fast-living lifestyle, it's hard to escape it. After arriving in January 2006, Chiefs coach Herm Edwards banned alcohol at team functions. But Grigsby still wound up downing shots of whiskey after every hole of Edwards' charity golf tournament that summer. Grigsby, it turned out, had been teamed with four local businessmen who were eager to drink with one of the team's biggest-known partyers.
Even if a player isn't interested in a good time, it's hard to avoid. While celebrating his birthday at a Scottsdale bar in April, Allen passed on a stranger's offer of free drinks. The man laughed and insisted on buying a round anyway. "In one night, you might have 15 people buy you a drink," Grigsby says. "Some don't even offer. They just drop it off at your table. You have to develop a lot of discipline."
And if you don't, the consequences can be severe. The case of Rams defensive end Leonard Little, who killed Susan Gutweiler in a drunken-driving accident on Oct. 19, 1998, still resonates in NFL locker rooms. Little plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served 90 days in a workhouse. "Leonard is a perfect example of how much pressure there is on players to go out," says Turley, who played with Little from 2003 to '04. "Some veterans took him drinking for his birthday when he was a rookie, then he drove home drunk and killed somebody. Leonard is a great guy, but he'll live with that for the rest of his life."
The NFL starts educating rookies on the dangers of alcohol at its annual summer symposium. The league also offers free transportation for players to use while out in any NFL city during the season. "Among our players, a smaller percentage drink compared with other people in their age group," says Adolpho Birch, who oversees the league's alcohol and substance abuse policy. "But we're like any industry. You have people who come to their first employer with some college habits, then they see what things are acceptable and they mature. The only thing unique about the NFL is the media attention."
But while it's true that many NFL players drink responsibly, few are willing to take responsibility for their teammates. In locker rooms, it's live and let live. Just ask ex-cornerback James Hasty. He was heading to Raiders practice one day in 2001 when he passed what looked like a bum sleeping on a bench outside the facility. Hasty didn't understand why security hadn't chased the guy away until later at practice. The bum, it turned out, was one of his teammates. "He'd been out all night partying," Hasty says. "But I wasn't going to tell him how to handle his business. That stuff is taboo."
As a rookie in 2004, Allen was strictly a bar guy. No trendy clubs or swanky lounges for the fourth-round pick out of Idaho State. He was so conscious of being an Everyman he told fellow drinkers he worked for Sprint, whose headquarters are in suburban Kansas City. "I wanted to be the same blue-collar guy I was in college," Allen says. His anonymity didn't last long. The Friday night before his sixth game, at home against Atlanta, Allen went out partying with his teammates. That Sunday, he had the first two-sack game of his career. Afterward, Allen says, the vets told him Friday night boozing "was my ritual from now on."
Over the next few months, Allen emerged as an unlikely star, finishing the season with nine sacks, one shy of Derrick Thomas' team rookie record. Recognition followed, as did a rep. "I was single, and wanted to meet chicks," Allen says. "Where do you go for that? The bars. I eventually became known for being the crazy party guy. And I started believing that image."
Allen didn't see any need to control himself, and neither did his teammates or coaches, especially after his team-high 11 sacks in his second season. Even when police arrested him on May 11, 2006, for speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol, no one seemed to care. The incident didn't make the papers, and the penalty (he had to attend a diversion program) wasn't that harsh. "It was like everything was swept under the rug," Allen says.
Nearly five months later, on Sept. 26, Allen was arrested for another DUI. This one drew attention. Allen spent 48 hours in jail. And as a repeat offender under Kansas state law, he had to enter a six-week alcohol-abuse program and give up his license for a year. The NFL handed him a four-game suspension too, which was halved by Goodell after appeal. "I'm so hardheaded I probably needed to get arrested to fix my problems," Allen says.
Many players say they drink together because football is the ultimate fellowship sport. But they also say your issues are your business—and you take care of them alone. So when Allen returned to the team after his second DUI, there were no heart- to-hearts. He apologized to Edwards and Peterson, and a few teammates offered to drive him to treatment. But, says Grigsby, "players aren't talking about their problems. It doesn't work that way."
Three days a week, Allen went to a facility outside Kansas City after practice. There, he sat in a metal folding chair next to 10 other patients and listened. "There were days I was absolutely blown away," he says. By the time his six weeks were done, in November, Allen realized that most of his issues revolved around his belief that he had to live as recklessly as he played the game. "The difference between being good and great is so thin that you have to be willing to walk the line of failure," Allen says. "That was my edge on the field. I thought I had to walk that line away from it."
Allen vanished from the nightlife the day he entered treatment. When he finally did go out again, to attend a party with Tony Gonzalez that December, he clutched a bottle of water all night. He didn't want anyone thinking he had relapsed.
By summer 2007, Allen had dropped 20 pounds, from 280 to 260, and reported to Chiefs camp in the best shape of his life. Even after serving his two-game suspension to start the season, he led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl trip. Allen was hopeful the Chiefs would sign him to a long-term deal, but contract talks broke down during the season. While neither Carl Peterson nor Herm Edwards would comment for this story, Allen is convinced his past was the reason why. "I told the team I would deal with my problem, and I did," he says, "but they used it against me."
Allen's new team knows all about rehabbing reputations. The Vikings still haven't lived down their Love Boat sex scandal from 2005. After that fiasco, owner Zygi Wilf wrote a 77-page manual on team conduct. Now, Wilf's post-Love Boat coach, Brad Childress, visits the bars his players do and stays in close contact with the police. "I want to make sure our players act right," Childress says. He isn't deluded. Childress will be the first to tell you there's a limit to what he can control. But he's convinced he doesn't have to worry about Allen.
In April, before Minnesota gave the Chiefs a first-rounder and two third-round picks in the 2008 draft for Allen, Childress grilled his potential player. "Anybody can be who they want to be in a 48-hour interview," Childress says. "But I could feel the changes he made coming through."
Truth be told, part of what keeps Allen sober is a burning desire to prove skeptics wrong. "I wanted to show people I could man up," he says. "I've been rewarded for that, and I don't want to jeopardize that now." But he also says counseling has rewired his outlook. "People ask if I became a better player because I stopped drinking. Well, I always felt like a pretty good player, but not drinking was part of my growth as a man."
Allen reported to Vikings camp on June 6. It was no big deal, really. He made his introductions, did a little on-field stretching, created a small stir by telling reporters that he expected the team to go to the Super Bowl. No teammates asked about his DUIs, and he didn't explain. "Everybody here has a story or has gone through something in life," he says. "I have nothing to prove."
Amazingly, Allen can instantly tell if a younger player is headed for trouble just by crossing his path. But he's not about to play team counselor. In his mind, his job is to stay out of trouble, keep bringing down QBs, make the Pro Bowl again—end of story. Because as much as he's been through, the lure of the drinking scene is more powerful than any warnings he could offer. And though he's changed, the mentality inside locker rooms probably never will. "I don't discourage drinking," he says. "You can go out and have fun. You just can't get caught up in that life."
But Allen is at least showing how to maintain the edge without booze. When he traveled through New Zealand in February with his girlfriend, he jumped off cliffs and raced down rivers in a raft. At the Pro Bowl, he dropped into the Pacific Ocean in a 6' x4' cage to marvel at sharks up close and personal. And at a wedding reception in Vegas last year, guests watched Grigsby and Allen engage in an over-the-top dance competition. They tossed the groom around in a long tablecloth and swayed and swiveled on tabletops. Most people in the room probably thought Allen was drunk, but he was just being the same fun-loving guy he's always been.
"In a world where everybody parties," Allen says, "I'm just the sober guy now."