JARED ALLEN arrives at a tony steak house in downtown Minneapolis with his girlfriend, Jordan Parrish, and the dinner turns into a two-hour exercise in self-restraint. Bottles of vintage Cabernet and Merlot line the walls, tempting Allen to toast the end of his NFL-imposed alcohol ban—issued after his DUI arrest in September 2006—with a glass of red; instead he orders a frothy pint of Clausthaler, a nonalcoholic German beer. A nearby display cart teeming with thick cuts of raw red meat whets his appetite for a Flintstone-sized steak; the 6'6", 270-pound Pro Bowl defensive end instead goes for the grilled sea bass and a heaping side of steamed broccoli. A comely woman in a form-fitting, flesh-baring dress weaves a circuitous path to the restroom, making sure Allen gets an eyeful; he's too busy doting on Jordan (whose chair he reflexively pulls closer to him as the woman swings by) to care.
Even when he's deep in conversation about his new team (the Vikings, who acquired him in an April trade with the Chiefs), his blockbuster contract (a six-year, $73.3 million deal that makes him the highest-paid defensive player in football) and his lofty expectations of winning a Super Bowl this year (was that really a Clausthaler?), Allen speaks in a hushed voice. "Let 'em focus on me," he says, warning teams that hope to stop him from improving on his league-leading 15 1/2 sacks in 2007. "I've been double- and triple-teamed my whole life. I welcome the challenge."
It may sound like bragging, but when Allen talks, it's in a tone tempered by sobriety. After frittering away his early adulthood chasing good times as doggedly as he did quarterbacks, Allen now gets a rush from defying his temptations instead of giving in to them. And he has come to rely on quiet nights like this one to keep him from reverting to the habits that got him into a world of trouble. "That road didn't lead me anywhere," he says. "I worked hard to regain my image." Indeed, after another off-season marked by embarrassing headlines, the NFL at least appears to have in the 26-year-old Allen an Exhibit A for what can happen when a player decides to clean up his act.
Allen's wild-child persona was a long time in developing. As a kid he lived on a ranch in El Cajon, Calif., where his father, Ron, raised reining horses and young Jared found eager role models in Marlboro Man--tough ranch hands. When one bragged of killing a wild boar with a knife, 10-year-old Jared made it his ambition to duplicate the feat. (He did so last summer in Texas.)
At Division I-AA Idaho State, Allen, an irrepressible prankster, got a rise out of tormenting his defensive line coach, Mark Rhea, famously slipping an adult movie into Rhea's VHS deck before a meeting with his position players. Off the field Allen's late-night carousing became the stuff of legend and of police reports. A keen bar fighter, he was arrested once for battery and twice for resisting arrest and was cited for DUI.
The trouble didn't stop after the Chiefs drafted Allen in the fourth round in 2004. On May 11, 2006, he was arrested in Overland Park, Kans., for drunken driving and speeding. He entered a diversion program, and in exchange for a dismissal of the DUI charge he pledged to abstain from drinking or violating the law. But five months later, after his college sweetheart ended their four-year relationship, Allen drowned his sorrows at a Kansas City--area bar and climbed behind the wheel of his Dodge Charger. Police saw his vehicle swerving from lane to lane and nailed him on another DUI.
During his police-chauffeured ride home from the station that night, it finally dawned on Allen that he was a screwup. In a panic he called his agent, Ken Harris, from the squad car, seeking assurances that the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation wouldn't drop him as its spokesman. (It didn't.) He called Ron and his mother, Sarah, to beg forgiveness. Then he phoned the parents of a close friend from high school, Chad Parker, who had died in a drunken driving accident in 2000.
Allen played the rest of the '06 season while awaiting his court date, finishing second on the Chiefs in sacks (7 1/2). After pleading no contest in February 2007 he spent two days in county jail and then was hit with a four-game NFL suspension (reduced to two on appeal). The incident scuttled Allen's bid for a long-term contract with the Chiefs. In May '07 they tendered him a one-year, $2.35 million offer as a restricted free agent. Allen underwent league-mandated counseling and sought further help from the Chiefs. "It was good self-discovery," he says. "Alcohol was obviously a problem because I was always getting in trouble with it. So I figured, let's cut it out."
Allen swore off booze and began making wholesale changes in his diet and exercise habits. He submitted to a punishing mixed martial arts training regimen and hit the weight room with renewed vigor. Soon he'd lost 25 pounds, gained a surplus of energy and was doing fun things like mountain biking in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Parrish, whom he met in Las Vegas, helped him shorten his nights out. "We went dancing with a couple friends," Allen says, "and I thought, I really have no business being out here. I don't like [this scene]. I don't drink. I'm not looking for girls. Around 11, I turned to Jordan and said, 'Let's go home.'"
By invitation of the NFL, Allen will share his cautionary tale at a symposium for rookies next week in Carlsbad, Calif. "Jared was very enthusiastic about speaking, even rescheduling a vacation so he could attend," says Dan Masonson, an NFL spokesman. "He'll talk about the challenges [of being an NFL player] and stress the resources that are available from teams and the league to support players." Allen will try to get through to what he knows will be an indifferent crowd. "You're supposed to be there to listen, but no one really is," he says. "Unfortunately most people have to learn the hard way, like me. The biggest thing I would say to young players is, 'Grow up.'"
ALLEN RETURNED from suspension on Sept. 23 against the Vikings—and dominated. Using his added quickness and strength to overcome double teams, he had two sacks, eight tackles and a forced fumble in a 13--10 win. By the end of the year he not only led the NFL in sacks but had also forced three fumbles and even caught a pair of touchdown passes on the way to his first Pro Bowl.
Even so, his relationship with K.C. management remained frayed: Last February team president Carl Peterson called Allen a "young man at risk" after slapping the franchise tag on him, guaranteeing only a one-year contract (albeit for $8.8 million). His Chiefs teammates were more supportive. "When I heard the rumor that we were going to trade him, I thought it was crazy," says veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. "Besides what he does on the field, he has become the whole package, the true sense of the word professional. He's big in the community, and he's got a big heart."
Allen's reluctance to sign the franchise-player deal proved shrewd. It kept the door open for the Vikings, who after finishing last in the NFL in pass defense had made landing a topflight pass rusher their No. 1 off-season priority. During Minnesota's two-month negotiation with Allen and the Chiefs, Vikings coach Brad Childress grilled Allen's friends, family members and former teammates in an extensive vetting. Satisfied, Minnesota traded its first-round pick (17th overall) and two third-round selections for the rights to Allen, then signed him to the contract that surpassed Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney's as the richest ever for a defensive player. Allen's deal includes some $31 million in guaranteed money and—most tellingly—no language beyond the norm regarding his behavior and team discipline, according to two league sources familiar with the pact.
It's a high-risk trade for a franchise only three years removed from a bawdy party-boat scandal involving 17 players, and should Allen violate the NFL substance-abuse policy a third time, he'd be suspended for at least one season. "We felt comfortable enough that he would not only benefit us on the football field," says Vikings vice president of personnel Rick Spielman, "but he'd also be an asset to the community."
Allen's infectious play and personality at minicamp, Childress says, "have given us a lot of hop in the locker room." The newcomer is confident that Minnesota can win the NFC North—"I don't see how we lose it," Allen says—and be a perennial force.
"I think we're contenders for the next few years," he says during dinner at the steak house, noting other recent upgrades to the roster that include receiver Bernard Berrian and safety Madieu Williams. "We've got a solid O-line, a helluva running back [Adrian Peterson], a great defense. All [quarterback Tarvaris Jackson] has to do is manage it, and we'll be cool." The emotion pours from Allen, and for the first time all night it appears he can't suppress his craving. He'll save it for the field, though—the one place where it's still O.K. to overindulge.
His Toughest Foe
Diagnosed with leukemia in February, Kenechi Udeze has been fighting the illness with a defensive end's tenacity
WHILE HIS Vikings teammates prepare for the 2008 season, Kenechi Udeze is in a fight for his life. In February the four-year veteran rush end was visiting his in-laws in Kuna, Idaho, with his wife, Terrica, and their infant daughter, Bailey, when he was overcome by persistent migraines and soreness in his neck. Udeze thought he had nothing worse than a sinus infection, but he nonetheless went to a local doctor. The diagnosis was much grimmer: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a potentially fatal cancer in which immature white blood cells are overproduced in the bone marrow. "I was thinking this doctor in Idaho didn't know what he was talking about," says Udeze, 24. "I had been healthy all my life."
Udeze was flown to Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edna, Minn., and over 24 days doctors worked furiously to decrease his surging white blood cell count. Despite the 50-50 odds he was given of surviving, Udeze was convinced he could beat the disease if he approached the intensive treatment and grueling recovery with the same zeal he had for football. "Once I heard [the diagnosis], I said, 'Let's get rid of it,'" says Udeze, who remained upbeat through a withering regimen of blood rinsings, chemotherapy, spinal taps and experimental drugs. On April 16 doctors declared Udeze in remission and cleared him for a bone marrow transplant; the donor will be his 32-year-old brother, Thomas Barnes.
The procedure is scheduled for early July. Udeze's oncologist, Daniel Weisdorf, says the vast majority of patients like Udeze with 100% marrow match should recover within a year, with no serious lingering medical problems. If all goes smoothly, Udeze, who had five sacks and 47 tackles last season, will start working toward his NFL comeback shortly after the procedure, with a goal of playing in 2009. He's eager to repay the many fans who have stuck by him. Udeze's message to them: "I'm coming back for my standing ovation."
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Don Banks, Michael Lombardi, Ross Tucker and Bucky Brooks discuss all the off-season moves as NFL training camps near.
Photograph by John Biever
RISK AND REWARD Minnesota is banking that Allen will continue to get his kicks from wholesome fun like mountain biking.
[See caption above]
FEATHERWEIGHT Leaner and faster thanks to a new diet and workout regimen, Allen was a QB terror for K.C. in 2007.
NEXT STEP Udeze's upbeat about his future and vows to return to the Vikes.