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Track star aims to win in not one, but two pro sports, beginning at World Champs in Eugene

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Tom Banse
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NW News Network
Two-time Olympian Devon Allen has ambitions to win on the track and on the football field this year.

It's uncommon for athletes to compete and excel in two professional sports, especially ones as punishing as football or sprint hurdles. But a Seattle-born speedster who ran track and played football at the University Oregon is now attempting that rare feat.

Devon Allen, 27, will take the spotlight this weekend during the 110-meter high hurdles at the World Track and Field Championships in Eugene.

It's something of a homecoming for Allen. The big event takes place at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, the same track where Allen starred during college and where he qualified for the last two U.S. Olympic teams in the 110-meter hurdles.

"It feels real comfortable," Allen said trackside after a qualifying race in late June. "That's where I used to train."

Allen also played wide receiver for the Oregon Ducks while in college and went to the Rose Bowl. During his junior year, he made a choice. He turned pro as a runner and was sponsored by Nike. But now more than half a decade later, Allen says he misses football. So this past spring, he went back to his alma mater to work out for NFL scouts with this year’s crop of draft prospects on Oregon’s Pro Day. The two-time Olympian ended up signing a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"This is something I've wanted to do my whole life,” Allen said. “I have the opportunity now so I'm going to take advantage of it and just go for it."

Allen will have to compete with a deep receiving corps for a spot on the Eagles' regular season roster. His three-year NFL contract for a reported $2.5 million (contingent on making the team) came with the understanding that Allen has no intention of giving up professional running.

"During the football season, I'll play football. Then once February comes, and we win the Super Bowl hopefully, I come back and start training for track," Allen said at a press conference before a meet in Paris last month.

His decision to play two pro sports spurred lots of questions about why Allen would again risk serious injury on the football field just as he approaches the pinnacle of professional track. Allen minimized his concern about that.

"I did OK when I was in college," Allen said about his recovery from surgeries to repair both knees after separate ACL tears. "My injuries were non-contact anyways. It wasn't like I got hurt from somebody hitting me. But I'm not really going to think about that too much."

There is historical precedent for what Allen is trying to do, balancing two pro sports in the same year. But longtime Seattle sports journalist Art Thiel said it is really difficult to pull off and rarely sustainable.

A pertinent example is the former world record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, Renaldo Nehemiah. Nehemiah played wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers for three seasons in the early '80s. Thiel recalled that the speedy hurdler would give defenders fits, but "Skeets," as he was nicknamed, underperformed on ball handling.

"It was an example — at least to a lot of the football community — that just because you're a great track athlete doesn't mean you're going to be a great football player," Thiel said in an interview. "They are entirely different disciplines."

Allen says he talked last month to Nehemiah, 63, about the elder champion's dual-sport career. Allen said one thing that stuck in his mind from that conversation was that Nehemiah had to forsake track while playing for the 49ers due to bygone rules to protect amateurism in Olympic sports. Nehemiah returned to the track in 1986 when he was cut by the 49ers. Allen doesn't have to make an either-or choice today.

Others have gone before with mixed success

Another athlete who felt moved to play a second pro sport was Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan. His Airness took an 18-month timeout from basketball to play minor league baseball for one season during which he posted a forgettable .202 batting average.

Then there’s former Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who joined the New York Yankees for baseball spring training in 2019. That lasted six days and Thiel considered it mostly an off-season publicity stunt.

Thiel's best case examples include Bo Jackson, who excelled at pro football and baseball in the late '80s-early '90s. And from the same era, there's Deion Sanders, who enjoyed overlapping success on the football field as a Hall of Fame cornerback and in major league baseball as an outfielder.

"He's the only player to ever appear in both the World Series and the Super Bowl," said Thiel of Sanders. "So, it is possible but it is exceedingly rare."

Further back in the annals of sport, Thiel also found delight in the career of former WSU Cougar Gene Conley. Conley juggled overlapping pro baseball and basketball stints to win a World Series ring with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 and three NBA titles with the Boston Celtics (1959-61).

Sports fans and the merely curious won't have to wait long to see how two-sport stardom plays out for Devon Allen. On July 16 and 17, Allen competes in three rounds of the 110-meter high hurdles at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene. Less than two weeks later, he is due at the Philadelphia Eagles training camp to get ready for the 2022 NFL season.

Going into this weekend's events, Allen has the world leading time in the 110-meter hurdles this year — a 12.84 second win at the New York Grand Prix in June. Allen's chief rivals in Eugene include the reigning Olympic champion Hansle Parchment of Jamaica and Allen's U.S. teammates Trey Cunningham, Daniel Roberts and Grant Holloway. Holloway is the 2019 world champion and has a personal best of 12.81. Another interesting fact about Holloway is that he too, like Allen, excelled in football and track simultaneously during his youth. But Holloway turned down a football scholarship from the University of Georgia and has kept his focus on sprinting ever since college.

Allen may be racing with a heavy heart this month because his father, Louis Allen Jr., unexpectedly passed away in late June at age 63 from an unspecified illness.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.