Mark Helfrich, Oregon football throw support behind Devon Allen in pursuit of Olympic gold
In the machismo world of college football it’s not often you’ll get a head coach to admit to crying. Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, you name it, they’re all men who are probably too proud to ever shed a tear.
But in the case of Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, he has no problem admitting that he recently got a tiny bit misty-eyed. But Helfrich didn’t become emotional over anything that happened on the football field.
Instead it came when one of his own, Devon Allen, qualified for the Olympics in the 110-meter hurdles. And when Allen, who also doubles as an Oregon wide receiver in the fall, did run a 13.03 to win the U.S. trials and punch his ticket to the Rio Games, Helfrich couldn’t hold back.
"Oh, it’s awesome. It’s awesome," Helfrich said from Pac-12 Media Days on Thursday. "I was tearing up that night, and I get misty every time I sit down and think about it for a while because he’s just such a good dude, first of all. (He’s got) a great family, (he’s a) great representative of our University, and now our country. To be represented by that kid, that’s a lot of good things happening."
For Allen, the road to Rio has been anything but easy. On the gridiron, he was a player who had a breakout 2014 season, tallying 41 catches and a team-high seven touchdowns, helping Oregon clinch the Pac-12 title and a berth in the first college football playoff. But right as he seemed to be peaking as a football player, Allen’s whole career — on the gridiron and track — nearly went up in smoke. He suffered an ACL tear against Florida State in that year’s college football semifinal and was forced to miss the entire winter and spring in track. He was just a shell of himself when he returned to the football field last fall, when he was limited to nine catches.
In a lot of ways though, that’s also what made watching Allen qualify for Rio even sweeter. No one worked harder to get back on the football field while he also trained to compete at the highest level of track.
It’s nothing short of incredible, which is why he has the full support of his football teammates.
"I’m excited for him, especially after his injury it’s well-deserved," junior running back Royce Freeman said. "He worked hard to accomplish that, and I really couldn’t think of anybody more deserving than that guy after his injury."
What might be even more incredible is that even as he was training for Rio, Allen never stopped focusing on football. Yes, there was track practice, but even during the most difficult parts of the season, he still swung by football practice to help out however he could.
Allen’s dedication to the football team was not lost on Helfrich.
"We’re doing some team development things, some stuff with football, and he’s there every single day," Helfrich said. "It’s one of those things where you’re like, ‘I don’t know, don’t you need to watch highlight film of somebody (in track)?’ But he’s just a unique guy."
Allen’s success on the track also leads to a fascinating question going forward: What’s next?
Obviously the focus now turns to the Summer Olympics, where he will be one of the favorites in the 110 hurdles. After that, the plan is to return to football. Of course if he wins big, there could be endorsement opportunities, and the possibility of running on the overseas circuit for a decent salary.
It also means that, if all goes to plan, there’s at least a small chance that he never suits up for the Ducks.
And if that’s the case, that’s perfectly OK with his former coach.
"Oh, yeah, you have to plan for all those scenarios," Helfrich said. "If a guy leaves the program for all the right reasons, awesome. If that comes — I don’t know, whether it’s endorsements or all the other things that go along with that, is what is right and what is best, great. If it’s not, then we’ll have that continual discussion, have that discussion."
Right now however, there’s only one focus, according to Helfrich.
"Yeah, you know, our plan right now is go win a gold medal."
And those at Oregon will be following him every step of the way.
"Oh, he’s gonna win it," Freeman said.