Sports

MOJO STILL WORKING

Despite media sniping and injury, Argo Damon Allen has come back, big time

MICHAEL SNIDER June 27 2005
Sports

MOJO STILL WORKING

Despite media sniping and injury, Argo Damon Allen has come back, big time

MICHAEL SNIDER June 27 2005

MOJO STILL WORKING

Sports

MICHAEL SNIDER

Despite media sniping and injury, Argo Damon Allen has come back, big time

THE HIT THAT ALMOST ended Damon Allen’s career was, by all accounts, a fluke. Late in the third-quarter against the first-place Montreal Alouettes, Allen dropped back into the pocket and fired a pass through the drizzle to wide receiver Tony Miles. The pocket caved just as he let go of the ball, and Montreal defensive lineman Teto Simpson fell into him. Allen went down holding his left knee—turned out he’d fractured his tibia—and the trainers helped him off the field.

As he stood in the tunnel under the lights of Molson Stadium that Thursday night in August of last year, watching the dying minutes of a losing effort, the Argo quarterback balanced on a pair of crutches, his knee wrapped thick with ice. The TSN cameras zoomed in on his starkly disillusioned face. At 41, Allen was no spring chicken, and commentators lamented the possible end to his season, maybe even his career. He had been playing spectacularly, throwing a single interception in 221 attempts with a remarkable 62-per-cent completion rate. He was already the all-time CFL leader in passing yards, a record he’d captured in 2000 when he passed Hall ofFamerRon Lancaster’s 50,535 mark.

But this wasn’t the way he wanted it to end. A year and a half earlier, the B. C. Lions had traded Allen away for a couple of draft picks, essentially telling him he was past his prime. Toronto was his chance to prove otherwise— to prove a lot of otherwises.

Throughout Allen’s career, he’s taken as many hits from sports journalists as he has from opposing teams. They’ve pointed to the fact that, like an author who’s written dozens of books but not a single bestseller, he’s never had a season that warranted the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award or even a league all-star nod. He’d be magnificent one week and brutal the next. He wasn’t a leader, they said. He was selfish at times, immature and even dumb. His re-

laxed, cheerful nature was sometimes seen as a fault. Despite his four offensive records, critics ranked him second-best to quarterbacks such as Lancaster, Doug Flutie and Matt Dunnigan.

Ignoring the pundits, Allen and his coach, long-time friend Michael (Pinball) Clemons, had other ideas. “This guy is Gumby,” says Clemons. “Even when I knew the injury was serious, I still knew he could come back.” Pinball was right, of course. Doctors drilled a screw into Allen’s broken leg, and he rehabbed for two months. And then he marched the Argos to a Grey Cup victory, beating the team that had cast him off two years earlier. It was his fourth championship, and suddenly the 20-year veteran’s underrated career was cast in a different light.

IT’S A picture-perfect May morning in Oakville, the affluent community west of Toronto where Allen lives with his wife, Desiree, their three daughters, and one grandson. The Argo pivot, who took up golf 10 years ago, is launching long drives at Glen Abbey’s practice range as he waits for the club’s head pro, Sean Casey, to give him a lesson. The first thing that strikes you when you meet the guy up close is how damn slight he is. At six feet and barely 185 lb., he must have a death wish to step on a field with 250-lb. linebackers who’d like nothing more than to grind him into the turf. Dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt like the kind Tiger Woods wears, a baseball cap and dark athletic pants, Allen’s a little reserved to begin with. But he smiles a lot, a trait that makes him almost immediately likable.

Allen loosens up a little midway through the quick, nine-hole round with Casey. Although he’ll be 42 next month and has the beginnings of grey spots above each ear, he’s a kid at heart, playful and relaxed. Casey instructs him on something called “swing theory,” and Allen’s a good listener, applying what he learns with ease. “Damon knows golf is going to offer a challenge for the rest of his life,” says Casey. “Some people settle for being okay. He wants to get better.” Then he looks at Allen, smiles, and says: “You don’t see that all the time in someone that old.” Allen takes the ribbing well, breaks into a grin, and suddenly it seems the man just shed 10 years. He makes a long putt and giggles, does a little shimmy and loses another five.

Allen was born in San Diego, Calif., to a carpenter and a nurse, the third of five boys and a girl. His older brother by three years is Marcus Allen, one of the greatest running backs to play in the NFL. Damon started playing football in 1969.

After an outstanding career at California State Fullerton, where he set seven school records in his senior year, Allen caught the eye of a few NFL scouts.

But not as a quarterback.

In 1984, African-American QBs were few and far between in professional football. He’d attend a camp, run the 40-yard dash in 4V2 seconds, launch bullets downfield, hitting receiver after receiver, and then they’d ask if he could play defensive back. “If you were a good athlete they figured you could play another position,” he says, admitting he still harbours some resentment for how blacks were regarded two decades ago. “They’d not question your physical talents at playing quarterback, they’d question your brain. It’s upsetting when they tell you the position is reserved for a guy who’s smart.”

So in 1985 Allen headed north to the CFL, a pro league that had broken the colour barrier years earlier with the likes of quarterbacks Warren Moon, J.C. Watts and Turner Gill. He signed with the Edmonton Eskimos and says he came to terms with not playing in the NFL the first day he stepped on the field. “I realized I was living the dream, playing professional football. The fact it was in Canada didn’t diminish it at all because this game is not easy to play.”

Not easy in more ways than one. Allen has led a nomadic existence in the CFL,

playing on six different teams, hence his lack of a fan following. After three years in Edmonton, where he won his first Grey Cup, he signed a ftee-agent deal with the Ottawa Rough Riders after a contract dispute with the Eskimo front office. But in 1989, the Riders were a mess. Hailed as a messiah and greeted with huge fanfare, Allen was excited about finally being Number 1 on the depth chart. But when the Riders didn’t

get any better, fans and the press pointed the finger at the man behind the centre.

Over the next five years Allen played in Hamilton, Memphis and back again in Edmonton, where he bootlegged the Eskimos to another cup before signing with the B.C. Lions in 1996. He looks back on the CFL team for which he played longest with triumph— and some regret. The Lions made it to the Western Final in 1999 against the Calgary Stampeders, only to lose by two points. With a minute left in the game, Allen was on the verge of driving his offence within field-goal range when he fumbled. “The next day in the paper, I’ll never forget it, it said, ‘Damon loses.’ ” But he used the defeat as inspiration.

And what a rebound. The following year, after 16 consistent seasons, suddenly he was in the spotlight as people realized he was a few thousand yards away from besting Lancaster’s all-time CFL passing record. On Oct. 28, against Hamilton, the team Lancaster coached, Allen surpassed the mark. That year he also completed nearly 62 per cent of the balls he threw to lead the CFL with a career-high 4,840 yards, and then went on to win his third Grey Cup. But in sports, what you did then counts for only so much.

Two years later B.C. sent Allen to Toronto.

Something happens to athletes when they recognize they’re short-timers. They savour every moment and fight harder than ever for that extra inch. Entering his 21st season, Allen wants to make it back to the championship more than ever. Not as proof of his greatness. Not as vindication for the turbulent early years. He wants it for his team, he says, for the people playing next to him.

And he contemplates how he’ll be remembered. He’d like to be thought of as one of the best—“Yeah,” he says, “that’s important to me.” But Allen doesn’t take that for granted. “There’s a part of him that knows he’s a phenomenal player who’s had a phenomenal career,” says Clemons. “But there’s another part that’s disappointed he hasn’t gotten all the respect he deserves.” Maybe one more record will put the matter to rest for good. With 64,240 passing yards to his credit, Allen is 6,300 yards short of Warren Moon’s pro-football passing record of70,553, a benchmark the CFL/NFL great set over a 23-year career. He sits in second place, ahead of the greatest quarterbacks in the game in any league. If he plays out his final two years with the Argos injury-free, and can match his average yearly passing total of 3,200, he’s got a shot at Moon’s record. And if he breaks it, Allen will become the greatest passer pro football has ever known. Will that answer any questions of respect? He smiles. “I’ve said it before. No one will appreciate what I’ve done until I’m gone.” He’s wrong, though. Damon Allen is getting his due now. And all it took was 20 years.