It doesn’t happen with skeleton or short track speed skating, and definitely not ski jumping, because we all have families that love us. But we’ve all thought about it while watching Olympic curling: How hard can it be? The calculated walking. The histrionic screams. Pushing the rock, or whatever it’s called. After five minutes of watching, you’re trying to find a way to get on this Olympic team.
Jared Allen put a little more thought into this scheme, and he’s definitely following through.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics—but before Team USA won their last five games to win gold—the former Vikings defensive lineman had dinner with hockey Hall of Famer Lou Nanne and told him he was looking to get into curling. Allen set himself a goal of making the Olympic team in 2022. Nanne told this story (10 minutes in) on a sports radio station in Minneapolis, and the right person was listening. After hearing about Allen’s plan, curling facility manager and 2010 Olympian John Benton reached out to offer his services.
Allen recruited some old NFL buddies to round out his team: quarterback Marc Bulger, linebacker Keith Bulluck, and offensive tackle Michael Roos. The four Pro Bowlers are now a professional curling team. Benton is listed as the alternate, but he says his role is primarily to coach.
Allen’s journey began in Nashville, with curling ice provided by the Predators at one of their ice facilities. Benton began working with the squad on delivery mechanics and about once a month, Team Allen (or the “All-Pro Curling Team,” as they’re dubbing it) flies up to Blaine, Minn., the location of USA Curling’s training site, the Four Seasons Curling Club, where Benton is the director of operations.
None of them have been curling for more than a year. Anyone who has curled knows that a team full of “first years” are relatively easy W’s in any rec league. Of course, a team with a combined 40 seasons of NFL experience is not the typical first-year team.
“Their slide was pretty good at three weeks,” Benton said. These novices from the gridiron also have a few advantages over their competition. “They’re not afraid of anything. They had curling shoes with full sliders and they all fell at one point or another but it didn’t faze them.”
Team Allen began the season by entering in recreational bonspiels, where the most you can win is door prizes. They intentionally kept a low profile. “They didn’t want to disrespect the sport and disrespect those that did this their entire life,” Benton said, noting that they didn’t want this to look like a PR stunt.
The secrecy vanished on Nov. 30 at the Curl Mesabi Classic. With Roos and Bulluck absent from the event due to scheduling conflicts, Benton skipped while Allen played third, and Benton’s one-time teammate Hunter Clawson rounded out the team. They didn’t win a game, but came close in a couple of them. They also had the unenviable task of playing John Shuster’s gold-medal team in their first match, and lost 11-3.
Team Allen has yet to develop a style of gameplay; Benton, noted they are still working on their finesse game. Perhaps most interestingly—and who knows if any bent brooms are in their future—he’s yet to figure out how to use their giant bodies to maximize sweeping efficiency. For example, Roos is 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds. Benton hasn’t really come across someone like that before. By comparison, Team Koe lead Ben Hebert—the go-to sweeper I always say you wish you had on your team—is 5-foot-11 and 210. There have been tall lads in the game—2014 Russian Olympian Petr Dron was 6-foot-6—but as the draft prospect evaluators like to say, there is plenty of upside here.
Despite zero WCT wins, and therefore no points on the Order of Merit, they remain unfazed and are playing this week in the U.S. National Championship Challenge Round at the Four Seasons Curling Club. The 16-team field is vying for four berths to round out the 10-team national championship next month in Kalamazoo. Allen’s first game of this triple-knockout tournament was Thursday; they were soundly beaten, 10-1. (You can watch streams of their games on their YouTube channel.)
Regardless of how they do in the Challenge Round, Team Allen will head to Arizona later this month to participate in the Ed Werenich Golden Wrench Classic, a popular tournament with several North American teams, including six ranked in the top 40. They’ll look to get in a couple more tournaments to finish the season, then begin planning a full schedule (8-10 events) for 2019–20. Benton acknowledged they may not be realistically contending in 2018, but since their primary goal is to make the U.S. Olympic team in four years, this is the best and really only way to experience Olympic-style games—that is, 10-end timed games.
Yes, lofty aspirations. While Team Allen has made a four-year commitment, they truly need to ascend into the U.S. top five by the end of the 2020–21 season and force the USCA’s hand. Because if anyone has the right knowledge to get four athletes together and break the system, it’s Benton.
In the last Olympic cycle, Benton curled with Todd Birr’s team along with Rich Ruohonen and Tom O’Connor. They were 2017 national runners-up. They were ranked fifth nationally. They were well-aged (Benton, Birr and Ruohonen were all in their late 40s, with O’Connor flying in young at 37). When the committee-selected Trials teams were unveiled, Team Birr was absent from the list. However, the team successfully lobbied the United States Curling Association and demonstrated they met the burden of proof to qualify, and ultimately won their appeal. (Birr and Benton explained this saga in a podcast episode.) In the field of five, Team Birr finished third.
This all brings us to the question of how good Team Allen can be. These are uncharted waters for the sport, but it’s a discussion we’ve all had at the curling bar one time or another. Most curlers I’ve talked to are highly skeptical of their goals, but I wouldn’t count out their ability to at least become competitive. Not only did they ascend to the top of a physically demanding sport, but they have a large amount of time and resources that most other teams wish they had. That’s not a substitute for curling experience and learning the critical nuances of strategy—ice conditions, when and how to sweep, reading an opponent’s releases, and rock charting—but it would not be surprising if in two years they were one of the 10 best curling teams in the country, just because of everything available to them.
For curlers, Team Allen’s success isn’t just going to be about Team Allen. In the curling world, clubs are booming, participation is at an all-time high, and I couldn’t be happier about it. However, there is a competition gap between recreational players and elite curlers. (Benton specifically mentioned the 24–36 age range.) Some of that has been the High Performance Program assembling what are essentially All-Star teams, but Benton sees an opportunity to fill the gap if Allen’s group can be successful.
And why limit it to football players? Right now Benton’s focused on coaching this team, but he says he’s always looking for an opportunity to seek out and introduce more people to the game. Case in point: A few days after I spoke with Benton, Minnesota United FC shared a video of forward Mason Toye learning to curl from him.
Even if Team Allen doesn’t reach their goal, it sounds as if they’re having fun chasing it. (We tried to get an interview with Allen through his flack, but didn’t receive a response.) “The unique cultural aspect of curling is something they are enjoying, because they didn’t get that in the NFL,” Benton said. It’s not a surprise given that when it comes to big four sports, fan interaction is highly segregated or carefully handled. Not so here.
There probably won’t be another two-sport athlete like Bo Jackson in our culture any time soon, given how much each sports asks of its players. But while Team Allen’s ascent up the world rankings will be a fun exercise, the real potential will be seeing if more pros in The Best Shapes Of Their Lives decide to try curling. They’ll at least have the benefit of knowing it’s harder than it looks.
Matt Sussman is a sort-of-competitive curler from Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @suss2hyphens.