Balancing Football And Track, Devon Allen Takes Aim At The 110 Hurdles World Record
by Rich Sands
Devon Allen reacts after competing in the men's 110-meter hurdles semifinals at the 2022 World Athletics Championships on July 17, 2022 in Eugene, Ore.
Over the past year, Olympic hurdler Devon Allen has returned to his first love, football, making a comeback in a sport he’d left behind years ago. And even as he’s closing in on his dream of being an NFL wide receiver, he hasn’t forgotten about track and field, the sporting side hustle that has earned him NCAA championships, U.S. titles and two Olympic team spots. After an encouraging season on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad, Allen is getting ready to return to the track.
“Once the [football] season is over, I’m going to give myself a little bit of time off, get off my feet and then start training,” Allen says. “No plan yet other than to run fast. My goal this year is to break the world record, first and foremost.”
Such a lofty target may have been realized last year, had Allen not been drawn back onto the gridiron. In April, he signed a three-year contract with the Eagles, returning to a sport that he was forced to give up in college after a series of injuries. Though he ultimately didn’t make the final roster, Allen was signed to the practice squad, where he has gotten valuable experience working with a team that has made it to the Super Bowl, where they will face the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Feb. 12.
“Obviously not playing a sport for six years, no matter what level, is going to be difficult,” Allen says of his transition back to football. “And I was able to get my feet wet during training camp and the preseason games and then the 18 weeks of the season I feel like I’ve progressed well back into a pretty good football player, kinda back to where I was at least when I was in college.”
The experience was part of an emotionally turbulent year for the 28-year-old University of Oregon grad. He continued to run track in the spring and summer. The highlights included becoming the third fastest high hurdler in history, clocking 12.84 seconds at the NYC Grand Prix in June, and qualifying for his fifth straight national team.
Two weeks later, Allen finished third at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, his home track when he ran for the Ducks. The accomplishment was remarkable given that Allen was mourning the sudden loss of his father, Louis, who suffered a fatal heart attack the day before the race.
A grieving Allen was able to maintain his composure to finish behind Grant Holloway and Trey Cunningham to lock up the final spot on Team USA for the World Athletics Championships, held three weeks later on the same track. “It was difficult — it’s still difficult,” he says. “In that time period I did my best to compartmentalize and focus on what I was doing in the moment, and I think I did a pretty decent job at that in general.”
At worlds, he was aiming for a storybook finish to his track season before rejoining the Eagles for preseason training camp. Alas, he was disqualified for a false start — by the smallest possible margin — in the final. Allen’s reaction time in the blocks was measured at 0.099 after the starter’s gun was fired, a mere one thousandth of a second under the allowable limit. There was no visible sign of movement and it’s nearly impossible that Allen gained any advantage, but he was shown the red flag. (Moments, later, when the race was run, Holloway and Cunningham won the gold and silver medals, respectively.)
“I was disappointed, because I was ready to run, and I was going to run fast, probably breaking the world record in that race,” Allen says. “It was just unfortunate, there’s nothing really I can say other than that, because the rules are the rules. I understand it.”
Devon Allen competes during the men's 110-meter hurdles semifinals at the 2022 World Athletics Championships on July 17, 2022 in Eugene, Ore.
Though obviously upset, Allen calmly discussed the situation with the officials and promptly left the track when he realized the decision was final. “I can’t really dwell on it too much now that it’s happened, but in the future it’s good to know,” he says. “Maybe I was putting pressure more quickly, I don’t know. Now we’re getting real nit-picky on what’s a false start. … Other than that, I’m glad I was able to compete, and to compete in Eugene.”
Allen then returned to Philadelphia for training camp. Though he had one spectacular 55-yard touchdown reception in a preseason game against the Browns, his time away from the sport — he last played for Oregon in 2016 —meant he wasn’t quite ready for the final roster. But the team liked his potential and signed him to the practice squad. (At Oregon, Allen had 54 receptions for 919 yards and eight touchdowns over 29 games.)
He has made the most of the opportunity. “Obviously I have the speed on the field, so the really the biggest thing for me was changing direction and getting in and out of my breaks and stopping, running full speed and stopping so I could get open,” Allen says of his NFL crash course. “And then the second biggest thing is just understanding the game of football again, in being able to read defenses and concepts on offense, and understanding why we’re doing a play and what the play is designed for and helping to get open as a receiver.”
The Eagles’ outstanding season meant that Allen was exposed to the keys to success in the league. “I get a lot of great work, get a lot of reps against one of the best defenses in the NFL, so I can’t really complain too much about the opportunity to get better there,” he says. The team has had relatively few injuries, which meant the opportunity for Allen to jump into the roster never materialized.
Allen isn’t sure when he might run his first race of the year, but he’s continued to fit hurdle training in whenever possible. “Obviously, the training is different because I’m doing football and it’s no exactly how I’d be training in January of a normal year, but I’m in pretty good shape,” he says. “I’m stronger than I was four months ago because I’m focused on my strength building. Hopefully I’ll have a good ramp into the season.”
Already one of the most consistent hurdlers in the world, Allen made the final at both the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and represented the U.S. at the past three world championships. Last season may have been his finest. In addition to moving up the all-time list with his 12.84 clocking, he won a pair of Diamond League races and currently sits fifth in the World Athletics rankings in his event.
He's always closed fast over the final five hurdles, so he worked on retooling his start in 2022. He adjusted his approach to the first barrier, switching from eight steps to seven. “That’s what put me over the edge, in terms of being more consistent at the start of the race,” Allen says. “In past seasons, I was pretty much peaking for the right time, but it would take me a while to get into the rhythm. Last season I got into the rhythm a little bit earlier, so I was able to practice that more often.”
Now, he has his eyes on the world record of 12.80, set by Aries Merritt of the U.S. in 2012. “My technique is going to continue to improve,” Allen says. “If I can somehow put together a start similar to Grant Holloway’s, there’s no doubt I can run 12.60. I had a lot of good starts last year, but it’s about being consistent.”
Something else of Holloway’s that he’d like is a global title. The August dates for the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest might interfere with his NFL commitments, but he’s determined to fit it all in. “My goal is to win every race that I run in,” Allen says. “And then when that happens and you keep winning, you end up being world champ.”
Rich Sands is a New York City-based freelance editor and writer and has been a correspondent for Track & Field News since 1995, covering the sport at the high school, college and professional levels. He was previously an editor at TV Guide Magazine, overseeing the magazine's Olympic coverage.