Q&A: Looking back over a long and legendary career with Damon Allen

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

When Damon Allen retired in 2008, he left the game holding virtually every possible quarterback record.

Over the course of his storied 23-year career, Allen started 304 games, passed for 72,381 yards and 394 touchdowns (still good for second all-time in both categories). He also rushed for 11,914 yards and another 93 touchdowns (putting him third all-time in both categories).

Allen was the game’s ultimate dual threat and inspired a generation of quarterbacks to be like him. A four-time Grey Cup champion, Allen’s career took him from Edmonton, to Ottawa, to Hamilton, back to Edmonton, to Memphis, to B.C. and finally Toronto. To this day, Allen remains pro-football’s total yardage leader, with a combined 84,301 passing and rushing yards.

No. 9 did it all, saw it a lot and carved out a legacy that will never fade.

Is it true that when you first started playing football as a child, you played safety?

Yes, that was my first year with Valencia Park. The next I moved to quarterback. It’s kind of a funny story. We were at practice and I was covering a receiver and any time the ball was thrown my way it seemed to be overthrown. I joked it was because I was covering so well. When I ran over to pick up one of the thrown balls, I tossed it back and the coach kind of looked at me and said I was playing with the quarterbacks from then on. That was that.

In high school you were a two sport athlete, playing both baseball and football. Did baseball make you a better football player?

Absolutely. Playing different sports always helps build other skill sets that complete your body and help on the football field. With me being a pitcher and a quarterback, I was able to learn how to throw the ball at different angles, which helped immensely during my career.

Nowadays people marvel at Patrick Mahomes’ ability to throw off-balance and odd angles and that’s due to his baseball background. The same skill set that allows you to throw with accuracy and drop down and throw at different angles is used in both sports. Baseball also allowed me to develop the ability to throw left handed which paid off a few times on the football field.

During your time at California State you sent an NCAA record by only having three out of 300 passing attempts intercepted. What was the key to that streak?

For me it started long before university, back in high school. That’s where I learned the importance of making good decisions. It’s about understanding that as a quarterback, you touch the ball every play, and part of being a good leader is not putting the team in bad spots. When your defence is playing well, there’s no need to take unnecessary risks. There’s a time to be aggressive and maybe force a ball and times not to.

By the time I got to Cal State, I was already in protection mode. I focused on eliminating my turnovers. I prided myself on being a good leader and a big part of that as a quarterback is making good decisions and being accurate. When you look at great quarterbacks, that’s what they do: they’re tough in the pocket, accurate, and make good decisions. If you do those three things you’ll win a lot of games and we did.

Coming out of college you were drafted by the Detroit Tigers. What made you decide to forego a baseball career and instead head north to play football Canada?

I always loved both sports. A childhood dream of mine was to be drafted to play baseball and football. When I got to university I continued to play both because I wanted to make sure I had options and was able to choose my own path instead of having it dictated to me.

What it really boiled down to was participation. What I mean is that I wanted to actually be involved in the game, because that’s really when you get the most enjoyment out of the game. In university, in addition to playing football, I was a spot starter and a reliever on the baseball team. Being a middle reliever meant that sometimes I would go an entire three game series without pitching at all. As the starting quarterback I played every snap.

Looking at things from that mindset, I chose to play a sport where I’d not only be involved on a regular basis, but one in which I could make a difference for my team every day.

Your Eskimo career started with you backing up Matt Dunigan. What was he like as a teammate?

We had a really unique situation in Edmonton. At that time, the Eskimos had Matt Dunigan, myself and Tracey Ham. All three of us went on to be Hall of Famers.

When I was there, I wouldn’t say I was the number two but rather Matt and myself were 1A and 1B. What I learned from Matt was the level of competition needed to succeed at the pro level, his preparation and how to be a good teammate. In such a competitive environment, not only do you want to avoid having a bad practice or day but when you’re not playing, you need to learn how to flip the switch and support the starter completely, doing whatever you can to help him be at his best.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

One thing Edmonton did that I think was smart was that they handled us well. The Eskimos prepared me by giving me snaps and actually allowing me to play in games. A lot of teams today don’t let their backups onto the field and given how rare it is for a starter to actually play an entire season, end up in a bind. Edmonton made a conscious effort to have me involved, whether it was one series or a quarter, in case they needed me. They didn’t want the team to miss a beat.

In the 1987 Grey Cup, you replaced Dunigan after he was knocked out of the game in the second quarter. At the time, Edmonton was trailing by 14 points. How did you manage to pull off the comeback and earn MVP honours in the process?

In 1985 – my rookie year – I started the West Semi-final against the Blue Bombers, we lost but it was great experience. The next season (1986), I played nine games as Dunigan was in and out of the line up with injures. In 1987, I played in eight games and we went 7-1. One of those games was against the Argos and we hammered them.

So when I took the field against them in the Grey Cup I was confident. Not only was I familiar with them, I’d already beaten them that year at Commonwealth. Not to mention the whole thing felt like one long déjà vu experience.

I’d actually dreamed of playing in the game and in my dream was very successful. As I’d visually seen myself in the game, mentally prepared as if I was the starter, and had already beaten the Argos that season, I knew I could get the job done, regardless of the score. I felt like it was my time and my moment.

Upon leaving Edmonton, why did you chose to sign with the Ottawa Rough Riders?

As a player, you have to understand the business side of things. You have to know your value and refuse to take anything less. I wound up getting hurt my last year in Edmonton and at the time they were trying to pit me against Tracy Ham. I knew they wanted me to stay but they weren’t offering a contract I felt met my value. The Eskimos had also fired their offensive coordinator, Steve Goldman, who wound up getting hired as the Rough Riders coach. Not only did I know the system he planned on using in Ottawa but they also offered me what I believed to be fair value, so that made my decision easy.

Although you never won more than seven games in a season during your time in the nation’s capital, you set some impressive personal records. You earned your first all-star nomination and became one of only three quarterbacks to rush for 1,000 yards and throw for 4,000 in the same season. Looking back on your time with the Rough Riders, what sticks with you?

I always say that Ottawa is the city that toughened me up and mentally prepared me for the rest of my career. It was an adjustment going from a team that prided itself on never losing two games in a row (Edmonton), to one that wasn’t as talented, rebuilding and trying to change their culture for the better (Ottawa).

Coming into a team like that, I was looked at like a saviour and even though we put up a lot of offensive fireworks, we struggled to turn that into wins. We were a team that didn’t understand yet what it meant to win consistently but we were learning. There was a buzz off the field because we were signing free agents and giving fans hope.

I say I toughened up mentally because it was my first time as the undisputed starter and with that comes the pressure of preparation and fan expectation. That was the first time I experienced that pressure cooker and dealing with that while still trying to be the player I knew I was capable of was tough. Ultimately it made me a better player for the rest of my career.

During your time in Ottawa, the Southsiders (a hardcore Ottawa fan group) started an infamous chant that lives on to this day. Do you remember the Hobart chant, and did it bother you?

Of course I remember the Southsiders and that chant. That kind of chant puts a lot of pressure on you as a quarterback and creates a ton of negative energy. But I don’t hold it against the fans, because what you have to remember is that Ken Hobart himself stirred the pot. He created the energy the Southsiders fed off and made it feel like I had to complete every pass otherwise the fans would get on me.

Hobart did things that a backup simply shouldn’t do. He would warm up at the start of every game as if he was going to take the field and he’d keep at it all game long. It could be a game where I was on fire, throwing five touchdowns but he’d still be there on the sidelines, warming up all game long. That by itself creates a negative atmosphere. Showing up the starter like that is disrespectful and I would never have considered doing that to Dunigan when I was in Edmonton.

Hobart didn’t just insinuate that he’d take the field by warming up either. He also made comments in the media about guys playing for themselves and not being team players, which added fuel to the fire. He never said my name but it was obvious he was talking about me. The ironic thing is that by calling me out like that he wasn’t being a team player himself.

Having a teammate like that was hard but as I said it toughened me up mentally. Maybe he never liked me because he never got over the fact that when I first got to Edmonton, they traded his rights to the Ticats to make space for me. Or maybe he legitimately felt he was better than me.

I hold no ill will towards him but all I know is that at the end of the day I played 23 years and the fans today remember him as a backup. That’s his legacy.

After being traded from the Ticats back to the Eskimos in 1993, you won another Grey Cup, again being named MVP. With that being the case, why did you leave football in 1994 to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates?

I needed closure. I never stopped loving football but while I was with the Ticats I was also playing baseball with the Hamilton Cardinals on my off days. The fact that I’d been drafted but never went on to play pro baseball was always eating away at the back of my mind. I couldn’t help but wonder where I’d be if I had gone on and played baseball. I wanted to experience spring training and see what that was all about.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

When the Ticats traded me to Edmonton I had to okay the deal, and I did because on the drive to Edmonton I swung by Pittsburgh for the baseball try out. I got signed that day and told the Eskimos that I was going to play baseball the following season which they were okay with. We won another Grey Cup which made it even sweeter but I’m glad I scratched the itch and finally got to see what it was like.

Tell me a bit about your experience on the expansion Memphis Mad Dogs.

That was a really good time. When the CFL opened up the avenues to play in the States, Matt Dunigan, Tracy Ham and myself went on a bunch of road trips. We knew we’d all end up in various cities and at the time were the elite quarterbacks of the league. Once we kind of placed ourselves (Dunigan in Shreveport, Ham in Baltimore and myself in Memphis), the other pieces fell in place.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

Memphis was a blast. They gave me the key to the city and were always so warm and welcoming. We definitely had our challenges, though. One big thing was scheduling. Given that Memphis State played in the area and Alabama was in their vision, depending when our games were scheduled we either had a lot of people in the stands or nobody at all.

Another thing was that without the proper field, it’s hard to take advantage of the uniqueness of the Canadian game. That’s why we scored way more points on the road than we ever did at home.

Overall, the experience gave me a greater appreciation of the talent that played in the CFL. Even as a team full of Americans (we were exempt from the ratio rule), we struggled to beat the Canadian teams.

The 2000 Grey Cup between B.C. and Montreal is an all-time classic. What was going through your mind as Montreal lined up for a potential game-tying two-point convert in the final minute?

What you have to understand is that game was close because we let it be. It should’ve been over by halftime and every time I watch the highlights I rue all the times we shot ourselves in the foot. I missed two easy touchdowns to Alfred Jackson; overthrowing him on a corner route and not seeing him streaking wide open down the middle of the field. Our kicker, Lui Passaglia, missed three field goals, taking nine points off the board.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

We came into that game rolling. Over the last nine games of the season we’d been averaging over 300 yards passing and 150 rushing. We were putting up big numbers and I think Montreal was scared of us from the get-go. But because of our first half mistakes, they got to hang around.

In the end we made it much closer than it should’ve been but even if we had gone to overtime, I’m convinced we would have won it anyways.

When you fractured your tibia in Week 9 of the 2004 season, did it ever cross your mind that at 41 years old, you’d return the same season, let alone lead the Argos to the Grey Cup?

If you listen to that game, the commentators speculated what many were thinking, that my career was over. When I went in for the MRI, I thought I’d torn my knee but it turned out to be a fracture. There was a conversation between two doctors. One said the recovery would take at least eleven weeks, meaning the season would be long over. The other believed that if they put a screw into the crack of my tibia to close and stabilize it, I’d be able to start rehab almost right away. I chose to listen to that doctor.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

For that reason, I never felt it was out of the realm of possibility for me to be back. Five weeks after surgery I was running. Two weeks later I played. We beat Montreal and made the Grey Cup in Ottawa, which held extra meaning for me. Coming back to that city, and the reception I got from the fans, was special. That’s why I thanked them in my speech after the game. You can’t write that script in Hollywood man.

As a coach, Mike Clemons was known for his strong motivational speeches. His pre-game speech prior to the 2004 Grey Cup is no exception. As a player inside the room, just how special was it?

Pins always had us going. What we listened to on game days was nothing compared to what he would tell us at the hotel the day before the game. Those were always the biggest days. He did it before every single game. Whether it was a story about Vikings or whatever, he always had something to get us fired up.

The Saturday before the 2004 Grey Cup he opened the floor to the captains at our final team meeting. He allowed us to speak to the group and I really made a point of making a strong speech. I wanted to stir our emotions as a team.

As for the speech you’re referring to, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room before the game.

For me personally, what was even more impactful was that Pins had a nickname for every player on the team. Mine was Legend. During the week of practice leading up to the game every time he came around he’d say things like “Don’t let the legend die”. He really wanted to emphasize that I had another game to win to reach legendary status.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

He had a name for every guy and it motivated each one of us. That’s why we were so prepared to play that game. B.C. was favoured but we felt we could hang with them. Despite them beating us in both regular season games it was close and I had missed both games. Maybe if Casey Printers had played things would’ve turned out differently but I don’t think so because our defence was so good, along with our special teams. Still crazy to me that the MOP didn’t take the field but I guess they felt they had a better chance with a veteran against our defence.

The season following your fourth Grey Cup win, you were named MOP at age 42. What did that mean to you, especially considering no other professional sports league has ever had an MVP or MOP at that age?

It meant a lot. I’d been nominated before, when I was younger and in my prime but to win at 42 really spoke to my level of place and consistency. I felt like I won it when I was supposed to.

I had a lot of other good years and thought I could’ve won it earlier, but I wasn’t one of those guys who got to pad stats in blowout losses. Once we’d get up by a certain amount, I was often pulled. I had years where I threw for 5,000 yards and didn’t play Week 18.

To win when I did sent a message that age is just a number and that if you keep your skills sharp, you can still dominant the game at 42. I’ll always be grateful that I was coached by Kent Austin, who trusted me and my ability to throw.

Where did the idea for “Damon Allen’s Quarterback Challenge” come from?

I’ve always been a big fan of the QB challenges in the States and my idea was to showcase the talent in the CFL. I made a point of hosting it in Canada too. We had talented guys and I wanted to display them and have fans develop a greater appreciation of them.

I wasn’t trying to re-invent the wheel or anything, just duplicate something I like and put my own spin on it. I’m still trying to bring it back today actually.

What was the most impressive feat a quarterback accomplished in it?

It was awesome watching Michael Bishop and Kerry Jospeh bombing the ball 80-plus yards. We were in Hamilton which meant it was windy but that truly speaks to their arm strength.  That was something to see. I think that day I came in third place and I still threw something like 72 yards.

It was also neat to watch guys like Ricky Ray and Dave Dickenson who couldn’t throw that far but had incredible accuracy.

The main point of the QB Challenge was to come together as a quarterbacks and develop camaraderie. I’d love to do it today but have as many quarterbacks as possible participate, not just starters. It would give guys who don’t always get to showcase their skills a chance to shine.

When you retired in 2008, were you completely at peace with leaving the game or did you think you still had more to give?

I could’ve played another year or two but I would’ve had to go to another team to do it. I nearly went to Saskatchewan when Kent Austin got the head coaching job. He wanted me there and they actually went on to win the Grey Cup. But that meant moving and at that time I’d made the decision that I wanted to stay in Toronto. I was fairly settled at that point in my life and didn’t want to move or separate from my family.

When I re-signed with the Argos I was willing to compete for the job. In fact, I didn’t want it handed to me because I knew my skill set and wanted to win it fair and square, earning my teammates respect in the process.

I wound up starting the season opener because I was the best quarterback in pre-season and during training camp on a daily basis. I went 13-of-16 and threw a touchdown but the next week found myself demoted from No. 1 to practicing with the third stringers. That, I wasn’t prepared for.

I quickly learned that even though Toronto re-signed me and wanted me back, what they wanted even more was for the Michael Bishop era to start. The plan was to bring along the next generation and have Damon Allen not on the field, but mentoring on the side of it. It was an agenda I was unaware of when I re-signed but had to adapt to. That’s the politics of football though and something you can never truly prepare for. I realized the only thing I could do at that point was to be a really good teammate.

Throughout your career you started 304 games. How were you able to stay relatively healthy for so long?

A lot has to do with knowing how to play. People often talk about my physical skills but I think I don’t get enough credit for my understanding of the game. I knew how to avoid hits and when I was putting myself in a bad situation during a scramble. Let’s face it, I’ve probably been blitzed more than any player in CFL history simply given how long I played. In theory that should’ve meant more hits but I knew when to get rid of the ball, when to slide, when to give myself up. I wasn’t the biggest guy but whether it was in the pocket or out of it I knew how to protect myself.

While many fans can cite your impressive passing and rushing stats, some may not be aware of your 25 career tackles. Did they all come off interceptions?

Hahahahaha, most likely. I wouldn’t be tackling anybody unless I had to. Some of them might have been off fumbles too. Regardless, turnovers are bad and someone has to bring the defender down.

Over your 23-year career in the CFL, you reached countless milestones and achievements. Which one means the most to you?

I would say my longevity and durability as they let me break (and set) so many records. It’s basically unheard of to play as long as I did. I marvel at Warren Moon playing six years in the CFL and another 17 in the NFL. There’s other guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady who are getting up there in years but neither has anywhere close to the rushing totals I did. I’m very proud of the totality of my career. It wasn’t easy and I don’t think it’ll be matched any time soon.

Why No. 9?

Initially because of my brother, Marcus was No. 9 in high school so I liked it then. But my number was always 12 in Pop Warner and high school. Jim McMahon used No. 9 when he was at BYU and I liked him. Between him and my brother I figured if I ever went to a single number I’d go with it. If I’d have seen Warren Moon earlier I think I would’ve gone with No. 1, but when I entered university I decided a single digit was cooler for a quarterback and because of my brother and McMahon I went with No. 9.

As a mobile QB who wasn’t afraid to tuck the ball and run, what was one of the biggest hits you ever took?

The only guy who I’ll give credit to for tagging me consistently was James West. He had this incredible knack for leaving his feet the moment after I’d planted my feet to throw. He always timed it just right. If he would have stayed on his feet I could’ve made him miss but he always knew exactly how much time and space there was and when I had to get rid of the ball.

Another hit that stands out on a singular occasion was one by Stefan Reid, a linebacker from Montreal. He really nailed me on a high snap. I ran back to catch it on the hop and by the time I hand it in my hands he was already on me, running full tilt.

One guy I never wanted to get hit by was Alondra Johnson. Not only did he move fast, but he hit like a bus. I did everything I could to avoid giving him any chance to get close because I knew if he caught me it would be one of those devastating hits that mess you up – shoulder pads and everything.

Overall though, I wouldn’t say many can claim with a straight face that they really put a lick on me.

During your time in the CFL, you led three different franchises to four Grey Cup wins, playing well enough to be named MVP three times. How were you able to take your game to another level on the biggest stage?

It starts mentally, from the age of seven I was already dreaming of winning champions. As I grew older and continued playing football, I won at every level level. I won in Pop Warner, high school, university and then the pros. Because of those experiences, whenever I got onto the biggest stage I was at my most relaxed and comfortable. I knew I belonged there. I’d dreamt of winning, used to winning and felt confident in my abilities to get the job done.

On that stage it was as if my senses were heightened. I always saw the field well and trusted that I was prepared for the moment.

Given that you’ve played in every stadium in every city multiple times, who has the best hecklers and where is it hardest to get a road win?

The best hecklers are in Saskatchewan. Even though they liked me as a player, they heckled me a lot since no matter who I was playing for, we went in there and won a lot. Still, it was always a tough game in that old Mosaic stadium.

Winnipeg and Hamilton were other tough places to play. Both were known for their stout defences and were a challenge.

But none of this is to say I was afraid to go into any of those cities, because I wasn’t.

Of all the receivers you played with, who had the softest hands?

Hmmm, you’re putting me on the spot here, eh? I played with a lot of talented receivers but I can tell you a few guys that had really sweet hands. Brian Kelly and Jim Sandusky never dropped nothing. They weren’t the most talented guys in the world but whether it was practice or a game, if you put it close to them, they’d catch it.

Your brother Marcus Allen had a Hall of Fame career in the NFL at the same time you were playing the CFL. How often were you able to get to his games and did he ever get to yours?

We were three years apart, so once our pro careers started, it was quite difficult to watch each other play. That said, in university I went to my brother’s games often. Normally I’d play on Saturday and go to the Raider home games on Sunday. For him, it was tough to get to my games, given the way the NFL season overlaps with the CFL one. It’s funny actually, his first grey Grey Cup was the one in Ottawa.

Even though we couldn’t always be there physically for each other, we always kept tabs on how the other was doing. He followed my career closely, just as I kept up on his. The 16 years he played, I feel like I went through them and it’s the same for him with me.

Going through it mentally, we shared things. As a quarterback, I understood well the demands of the running back position. My brother was as skilled a player you could have at running back in the history of the game. He never had to come out. Nowadays a guy can be great at running the ball but comes out on third down because he can’t catch or block. Marcus had the ability to do it all.

If he’d have played baseball he would’ve been a five-tool player. That’s one who could hit for a high batting average, for power, run the bases well, throw well and field well. Marcus was a five-tool running back. He could throw, block, catch and, of course, score touchdowns. I’m very proud of my brother. After being around the game so long I know a good running back when I see one, and the one in my family was a great one.

Although your brother finished with more rushing yards (12,243 to your 11,920), you have 72,381 passing yards on him. With that said, who was the better player?

Hahaha, everyone knows the quarterback makes all the difference. Whatever the league, it’s the quarterback that runs the show, so me of course.

Recently you sat down with Donnovan Bennett to talk about your experiences as a black QB in the CFL. You specifically mentioned overcoming the stereotype of being seen as an “athletic quarterback”. How much did that drive you?

It wasn’t something that drove me but I was definitely aware of it. I’m someone that was always keen to prove myself, regardless of where I was playing.

As a history lover, I took pride in educating myself and watching and learning from those who came before. I’ll forever be grateful to guys like Jackie Parker, Chuck Ealey and Bernie Custis, who paved the way. Because of them, I never had to deal with changing in a different dressing room, being locked out of a ballpark or being afraid of expressing myself.

Understanding the history of those who came before me allowed me to prepare and motivate myself and help me realize what kind of legacy I wanted to leave on the game.

I played the way I played because I wasn’t just playing for myself, but for the next generation that followed and to honour the one that came before me.

I’ve heard you are a huge tennis fan. What about the sport appeals to you?

I’m just a huge sports fan in general. I’m always fascinated by the fundamentals of sport and the skill sets needed to dominate. Specifically, I love watching how athletes move. In tennis I focus on players’ ability to move and hit the ball powerfully. Like in most sports, it’s all about being strong from the waist down.

If you think about it lower body strength sets you up for success in every sport. Whether it’s shooting a puck, smashing a tennis ball, hitting a home run, exploding out of the gate in track or playing football. The importance of setting your feet and being in the right position makes all the difference and makes the game easier.

Lastly, what are you up to nowadays?

I’m keeping busy. I’m involved with charity work, giving back to the game of football at the amateur and high school level, I still watch the games, I do motivational speaking, host golf tournaments and once in awhile do stuff with the Argos on game days. People can follow along and get in touch with me via my website d9allen.com. Basically I’m enjoying life but still always looking for new opportunities to grow, evolve and challenge myself.

Thank you for your time Damon!

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).